By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 25, 2010; A10
Venezuela President Hugo Chávez's government ordered cable providers on Sunday to stop showing the popular television station RCTV, which had violated regulations requiring broadcasters to televise the socialist leader's long speeches in their entirety.
The measure sent shudders among press freedom advocates and generated concerns in the Obama administration, which is frequently the target of Chávez's barbs. RCTV has been a target of the government in the past. In 2007, the government declined to renew RCTV's license to broadcast on the public airwaves, forcing the station onto cable.
"This is done without a judge's order, without any administrative hearing," Marcel Granier, director of RCTV, said by phone from Caracas. "In no democracy does this happen. Those in the government simply do not tolerate any medium that tells people how things really are."
Shortly past midnight, cable providers took the 57-year-old station off the air after the station did not broadcast a Chávez speech at a pro-government rally held on Saturday. The state's Bolivarian News Agency said seven stations were suspended for not complying with regulations.
"There are some that take pleasure in challenging the government," Chávez said on his Sunday television show, "Hello President." "If they do not follow the law, they have to go. But it's their decision, not ours."
The Obama administration and press freedom groups saw the government's decision as a way to muzzle one of the few television outlets in Venezuela that criticizes the 11-year-old government.
Chávez's popularity has slipped as the oil-rich country grapples with energy shortages, rising inflation and rampant crime, worrying officials as they prepare for parliamentary elections later this year.
"We're definitely concerned about these steps the government is taking against independent media in Venezuela," Robin Holzhauer, spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Venezuela, said by phone from Caracas.
At the Organization of American States, the commissioner for Venezuelan affairs, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, and Catalina Botero, special rapporteur for freedom of expression, requested that the "guarantees of freedom of expression and due process be reestablished" in Venezuela.
In a strong statement, Pinheiro and Botero said taking RCTV and the other channels off the air has "enormous repercussions when it comes to freedom of expression." They said that the channels did not have an opportunity to defend themselves and "were punished summarily, without due process and without justification under Venezuelan law."
New government regulations call for cable channels, like those that broadcast on public airwaves, to broadcast Chávez's speeches, which sometimes last seven hours, as well as other government programming. They must also adhere to an older law that regulates sexual content in programming.
The government's wrath against RCTV has roots in a 2002 coup against Chávez that government officials say the station supported.
RCTV, as well as another station seen mostly on cable, Globovision, called for protests in the days leading up to the coup, gave free commercial air time to anti-government groups and aired fawning coverage of anti-Chávez leaders. Those stations and others celebrated Chávez's ouster and then blacked out coverage of a counter-coup that put Chávez back in power.
Still, the government did not file charges against RCTV's directors and the station never received a detailed official explanation for why it was initially taken off the public airwaves in 2007.
Miguel Angel Rodriguez, who hosts a morning program on politics that infuriates the Chávez government, said that the latest measures have been enacted against the station because officials did not think that RCTV would survive on cable. He said that RCTV's reports on Venezuela's soaring homicide rate and its economic mismanagement have attracted viewers who cannot receive that kind of information from five state television channels and hundreds of government-supported community radio outlets.
"Venezuelans repudiated that the government took RCTV off the air," he said. "But once more the government is stopping them from getting the information that they want."
Though the station has survived on cable, Granier said it has not been easy.
RCTV had 3,000 employees before it was taken off the public airwaves; today it has half as many. He said that in 2006, revenues reached $300 million. This past year, they dropped to $100 million. Still, the station continues to produce its news programs and soap operas, Granier says, many of which are seen in other Latin American countries.