In Mark Weisbrot’s article, “Eyes Wide Shut: The International Media Looks at Venezuela” at the Huffington Post yesterday, Mr. Weisbrot just glosses over the importance of some of the actions of Hugo Chavez in the recent RCTV controversy. According to Mark, it’s no big deal, really.

Most consumers of the international media will be surprised to find that the controversy over Venezuela’s oldest TV station, RCTV, is still raging. We were repeatedly informed that President Hugo Chávez “shut down” the station on May 27th. But in fact the station was never “shut down” – since there is no censorship in Venezuela. Rather, the Venezuelan government decided not to renew the broadcast license that granted RCTV a monopoly over a section of the publicly-owned frequencies.

This is a big distinction, although the U.S. and international press blurred it considerably. Jose Miguel Insulza, the head of the Organization of American States, noted last month that the “Venezuelan government is empowered to do what it did (non-renewal of the license)” and cited Brazilian President Lula Da Silva’s statement that not renewing RCTV’s broadcast license was as democratic an act as granting it. Insulza added that “democracy is very much in force in Venezuela.”

See, it’s legal for Chavez to do it, so nothing to see here, move along. All you thousands of Venezuelans who protested the closure, er, non-renewing action, you just don’t know what’s really going on in your own country.

The fact that it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. The fact that the Venezuelan government has survived lo these many decades with RCTV often being a thorn in the side shows just how out of the ordinary this action was. And to blame whatever perceived misunderstanding there might be on the international press blurs the fact that Venezuelans themselves were outraged at this. Some polls put the number of those against this as high as 70%. Who’s eyes are “wide shut”, exactly?

Agreed, RCTV has behaved rather poorly in the past, as Mark notes.

RCTV’s owner, Marcel Granier, is an opposition leader who seeks to de-legitimize the Venezuelan government. He has had some success in this effort, most importantly in April 2002 when his station faked film footage to make it look like pro-Chávez gunmen were shooting down demonstrators on the streets of Caracas. This and other manipulations by the Venezuelan media helped provoke a military coup against the elected government. This is one of several reasons that the government of Venezuela declined to renew RCTV’s broadcast license.

Wrong, even from a “free speech” point of view. That still doesn’t mean that what Chavez did is right. Chavez took action against a media outlet for political reasons, and that brings the stakes up even higher regarding the politicizing of the media. A more appropriate action would be to bring Granier up on charges, not attempt to turn off the station.

And Mr. Weisbrot is completely failing to place the RCTV controversy in the context of further restrictions on free speech made by Chavez. Foreigners are not allowed to speak ill of him and his policies while in-country. Weisbrot says:

Granier is betting that the international media and other U.S.-dominated institutions will also frame his current battle as a “free speech” issue, rather than a legal dispute over whether his station is a national channel and hence subject to the same regulations as other Venezuelan cable stations. This is a good bet.

But regardless of the other reasons the Venezuelan government would use to attempt a shutdown, there is a free speech issue at stake. Perhaps not with the RCTV situation taken individually, because there’s a lot more going on than just free speech, but it is an element of that and many other actions that the Congressinally-uninhibited Chavez has been taking recently. All of it must be looked at, but Mr. Weisbrot doesn’t look that far.

So Venezuelans know that there is no “free speech” problem in their country. While there are problems with the rule of law, including street crime – as throughout most of the region – Venezuelans have not suffered a loss of civil liberties under the Chávez government, as we have for example in the United States since 2001. That is one reason why Hugo Chávez was re-elected in December by the largest margin of the 12 most recent Latin American presidential elections, despite facing an opposition-dominated media. Democracy is indeed “very much in force in Venezuela.”

Does any of this sound like the Liberal descriptions of the Soviet Union back in the 60s? “They have it better than we do.” “There’s is a more fair government.” Back then, eyes were wide shut, too.

Doug Payton blogs at Considerettes.

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