By Catherine Cheney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009 11:45 AM
On the night Venezuela's most popular television station lost its spot on the airwaves two years ago, people gridlocked the roadways, flashers blinking and horns blaring. Riot police shouted through bulletproof shields while protesters wearing gas masks and vinegar-doused washcloths dodged tear gas and water hoses.
Just two days after Radio Caracas Televisión was stripped of its license, President Hugo Chávez threatened Globovisión, the last independent station, saying "You should watch where you are going." This was in response to then-Communications Minister Willian Lara accusing Globovisión of encouraging an assassination attempt on the president, a claim the station director called "ridiculous."
Globovisión avoided RCTV's fate when broadcast licenses were set to expire in 2007, but the 24-hour news network remains under threat of closure, along with 240 radio stations. And Thursday, the vice president of Globovisión addressed a Washington audience at Cato Institute, the public policy research foundation, about the future of press freedom in Venezuela.
Carlos Alberto Zuloaga attended the event in the place of his father, Globovisión President Guillermo Zuloaga, who was prohibited to leave the country, as he explained in a video address to the audience. "What you just saw in my father's message is the best evidence of the actual state of freedom of speech in Venezuela," said Carlos Zuloaga, suggesting that the court that prevented his father from traveling had political motivations.
On the same day Zuloaga spoke at Cato, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz introduced a bill before the Venezuelan General Assembly to punish "crimes of opinion." Díaz said the government must confront "new forms of criminality created by the abusive exercise of freedom of information and opinion."
Zuloaga said this legislation would send media professionals, or even guests on news programs, to prison for six months to four years for the dissemination of information or opinions that the "government considers false or manipulative." This legislation is one of many attempts by the Venezuelan government to encourage self-censorship and positive coverage; Zuloaga said he would rather see the end of Globovisión than curb criticism of the government.
"We're defending democracy. You can't turn your back on principles," he said. "I'd rather wake up in the morning and be able to look at myself in the mirror and not feel any regret or embarrassment."
Founded in 1953, RCTV was Venezuela's oldest and most-watched private broadcasting station. Its 2007 departure from the airwaves silenced the country's last national broadcast channel critical of the government, with Globovisión having a signal reach limited to two cities.
In March 2007, the Venezuelan Ministry of Communication and Information outlined RCTV's violations of broadcasting laws, contending that the channel supported the coup by extensively covering the opposition's march on the presidential palace. When the coup failed, RCTV opted not to cover the president's return to office, but instead aired cartoons and the movie "Pretty Woman."
Three other stations -- Globovisión, Venevisión and Televen -- aired similar coverage. The latter two avoided the fate of RCTV by curbing their criticisms. Globovisión remained critical of the president, but its signal reached only 40 percent of the population while RCTV had nationwide impact.
Zuloaga said he believes Chávez has already decided to close Globovisión but is waiting for the right time. "What we're seeing now with Globovisión is Chávez wants to diminish the political costs," he said.
Chávez, long frustrated with a station the government has charged with lying and never having positive news about the government, has asked the attorney general to determine whether Globovisión is criminally liable for its actions. Chávez has the power to rule by decree, and Chávistas fill the seats of the Supreme Court and National Assembly, so media outlets have little protection from their president.