Off the Air and on the Radar

by Catherine Cheney:

Roadways were gridlocked with blaring horns and blinking flashers. Riot police stared behind bulletproof shields while protesters screamed through gas masks and washcloths doused with vinegar. It was May 27 in Caracas, Venezuela and this was just the beginning of the violence and outrage triggered by a fade to black.


These events marked the culmination of what began last December, when President Hugo Chávez , dressed in military uniform and a red beret, announced that his government would not renew the broadcast license of the “coup-mongering” television station Radio Caracas Televisión. Founded in 1953, RCTV was Venezuela’s oldest and most-watched private broadcasting station. Its loss of license by May 27 silenced the country’s last national broadcast channel opposed to the government.

Expiration or Attack?

In May 1987, a federal decree granted Venezuela’s television stations broadcasting licenses that were set to expire in 2007. The decree stipulated that these concessions would automatically be renewed unless a court ruled otherwise. But this May, twenty years after the decree was issued, RCTV did not have its concession renewed. It was the only station that lost its license.

Venezuela’s legal offensive against the news media in recent years has criminalized what many countries would regard as rights protected by the freedom of speech. The 2005 Bill on the Partial Reform of the Penal Code augmented criminal penalties for slander and defamation. It expanded provisions criminalizing language that could be considered insulting to public officials or state institutions. This year’s Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television subjects journalists to broad restrictions on free expression and increases state control over the airwaves.

While most human rights and free speech activists opposed Chávez’s decision to end RCTV broadcasts, some argued that the more pressing problem was the lack of judicial due process. Despite the domestic turmoil and international outcry surrounding the RCTV decision, there was no turning back once Chávez made up his mind. The president has the power to rule by decree, and the seats of the Supreme Court and National Assembly are filled with Chávistas who support him. Besides, the government was not taking action; it was simply not doing anything. As the Communications Minister argued, a legal rationale is not required because RCTV’s concession was allowed to expire, not revoked.

The Regime’s Reasoning

The Venezuelan government has no shortage of problems with RCTV, a station known for its racy content and disapproval of Chávez. Radio Rochela, a comedy variety program, featured an actor who often lampoons him. On the daily talk show La Entrevista, journalist Miguel Angel Rodriguez frequently accused the president of incompetence and corruption. RCTV’s popular telenovelas, or soap operas, were ripe with sex and scandal. For years, government officials have condemned this sort of RCTV programming; Chávez once accused the channel of “poisoning the souls of children with irresponsible sex.” In fact, the relationship between the station and the government has been so contentious for so long that many Venezuelans were surprised Chávez waited until the concession expired to intervene.

In March, charges were formalized when the Ministry of Communications and Information published the so-called “White Book” on RCTV. It explained Chávez’s decision and outlined the channel’s violations of broadcasting laws. The document also contended that RCTV supported the brief coup against Chávez in 2002. RCTV allegedly colluded with coup leaders by promoting and extensively covering the opposition’s march on the presidential palace. When the coup failed less than 48 hours after the takeover, RCTV opted not to cover the president’s return to office, but instead aired cartoons as well as the film Pretty Woman.

Three other television stations, Globovisión, Venevisión, and Televen, aired similar coverage of the coup. The latter two have avoided the fate of RCTV by curbing their criticisms of the Chávez administration. Globovisión has remained critical of the president, but with a signal limited to Caracas, its smaller reach poses less of a threat than the nationwide impact of RCTV.

Control Via Cadenas

The 2002 coup attempt was a red flag for Chávez. It demonstrated the power of private media as well as the importance of state programming for the president’s own political survival. Prior to the coup, the media outlets of the Venezuelan government were limited to one television channel and one radio network. Today, the government controls an international news channel, seven radio stations, and four national television stations. All run pro-government programming.

Chávez himself makes frequent appearances on the national airwaves. Every Sunday morning, he takes his place before the cameras for the 11 a.m. broadcast of Aló Presidente! The program agenda is never announced and lasts as long as Chávez desires—sometimes up to seven hours. Chávez also hosts a daily radio program of the same name. The president further checks the media by broadcasting frequent cadenas in which Chávez interrupts regular programming on radio and television stations to address the country. All networks, no matter their political stance, must transmit the president’s message.

While loyal Chávistas attentively watch Aló Presidente! and listen to or watch cadenas, the opposition often takes to the streets. Days before RCTV’s final broadcast, Chávez’s voice interrupted radio programming on every frequency to announce his decision. The widespread disapproval of the Venezuelan people soon made itself clear on the streets and sidewalks of major cities. Drivers honked their horns and yelled out the letters: “RCTV!” On apartment balconies, people banged pots and pans in the air while shouting, “Viva la libertád de expresión!” or, “Long live the freedom of expression!” and, “Eres un dictador!” or, “You’re a dictator!” Others ran between cars pounding on windows and waving their fists in the air.

Part of the administration’s case against RCTV is that Venezuela needs community programming on a signal with national reach. TVes, or Televisora Venezolana Sociál, now broadcasts on the channel previously occupied by RCTV. But many Venezuelans argue that the programming is shamelessly pro-government, further strengthening Chávez’s control of the media and public perception.


On May 27, at the headquarters of Radio Caracas Televisión, the walls of the building were adorned with colorful graffiti: messages of support for the station and insults directed at President Chávez . Outside, in the sweltering heat, thousands cheered, chanted, and wept.

The crowd roared as telenovela stars arrived; celebrities signed autographs and shook hands, some expressing their gratitude to the people with hugs and high fives. Journalists, producers, and other employees entering the building wore shirts with slogans supporting the station. One variety read: “Un Amigo Para Siempre”— “A Friend Forever.”

Inside, employees gathered on a massive sound stage. Some stood on bleachers, some sat in chairs, and others crowded on the floor for their last live broadcast. The broadcast ran all day like a telethon, interspersed with clips of programs and special event coverage dating back to the early 1950s.

Chávistas made their way down a nearby street outside. They fired bottle rockets into the air and sprayed paint building walls with pro-government messages. Many screamed, “Basura!” or, “Trash!” referring to RCTV programming. Others altered the graffiti made by RCTV supporters, adding the letters “as” to form, “RCTVas,” which means, “RCTV, go.”

That evening, Globovisión aired a live report on a demonstration in front of the National Telecommunications Commission building; the National Guard was dispersing the opposition crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets. Demonstrators screamed at police officers clad in helmets and bulletproof vests with rifles held tightly to their shoulders.

One protester said that it was a peaceful protest suddenly dispersed “in a violent manner.” She added in gasps, “They reprimanded us and they dispersed us.” Other demonstrators surrounded her, nodding their heads as she continued, “and here we are. Continuing the fight, and we’re going to keep trying until they don’t permit it.”

Back inside the RCTV studio, the countdown began. The sound stage was flooded with employees and members of the domestic and international press. A producer tried to maintain calm in the studio and manage her own emotions, but she couldn’t hold back her tears. Mascara ran down her face as she calls her final cues.

At 11:48 p.m., a final video montage aired with the ballad, “Cuando un Amigo Se Va,” or “When a Friend Leaves.” “We’ll see you very soon,” the host insisted. The crowd chanted, “Libertád! Libertád!”

At 11:55, the producer cued a prerecorded video of employees singing the national anthem. The cameras stopped rolling, but everyone stayed in place. Some joined in the national anthem through muffled sobs while others stood and sang it proudly. Many gazed at the monitors, hoping that Chávez would change his mind. He did not.

The transition occurred at midnight—like clockwork, and as promised. The final image of the RCTV broadcast was a vast crowd of demonstrators marching in support of the station. Then, the signal went out, the screen went black. A few seconds later, computergenerated bars of color twirled to form the logo of the new, stateowned channel: TVes.

The Tables Have Turned

By silencing Venezuela’s strongest oppositional voice, Chávez has cut off a major means of communication between the opposition and the lower class. The poor formed the lion’s share of RCTV’s audience base and, ironically enough, make up the vast majority of Chávez’s support. While poor audiences were mainly drawn to RCTV for its telenovelas, they inevitably observed critical news coverage, allowing the opposition to spread their opinions about Chávez’s government. Now, Venezuelans beyond the city limits of Caracas have lost every non-cable television channel critical of the government.

RCTV’s exit from television did not mark an end to demonstrations, but without this news source many Venezuelans without cable were unaware of the protests that swept the nation. Globovisión, with a broadcast signal limited to Caracas, aired footage of student protesters blocking freeways and dodging rubber bullets. Meanwhile, the other non-cable networks, including TVes, covered little, if any, of the public opposition to the RCTV decision; instead, they broadcasted entertainment programs and films.

The signal has switched and the tables have turned. Hours after the close of RCTV, the Communications Minister held a press conference announcing that Globovisión had called for the death of President Chávez. A Globovisión reporter sat near the front of the room wearing an expression of incredulity. Just two days after RCTV left the airwaves, Chávez declared in a national cadena: “Enemies of the homeland, particularly those behind the scenes, I will give you a name: Globovisión. Greetings, gentlemen of Globovisión, you should watch where you are going.”