I don’t usually use my blog for “advocacy” links. But I’ve decided to post a “Free RCTV” logo on the main page. There are numerous other causes I could be supporting, but I’ve chosen this one. In part, because I worry about the future of democracy in Latin America. Venezuela’s “partidocracia” (party-ocracy) of the 1970s-1990s was problematic, to be sure; like many, I was hopeful when Chávez was elected in 1998. The 1980s “lost decade” were very difficult on Venezuela’s poor, and it was clear that the existing parties were no longer capable of solving the political, economic, and social crisis. Many were pleased to see Chávez abandon golpismo (coup-making) in favor of electoralism; we hoped he had become a democrat. Since then, he has slowly concentrated powers in his hands—and I mean his personal hands, not his party or movement.
A few days ago, Chávez shut down RCTV. His supporters make two contradictory arguments: 1) RCTV participated in the 2002 coup & should therefore lose its license; 2) the decision was purely procedural, not “political.” The two can’t mutually coincide. Either the decision was political, or it wasn’t. Chávez himself claims the decision was in retaliation for the station’s complicity in “sedition” during the 2002 coup. If so, one wonders why no charges have been filed against RCTV on those grounds (after all, Chávez controls most of the legal system). Most recently, Chávez explicitly announced that Globovisión (the last remaining non-government station) was next on the chopping block; he has also attacked CNN. In other words, this suggests the start of a new phase in the regime. While the regime has practiced intimidation of journalists for several years (including, at times, Chávez posting photographs of journalists for his supporters to “be alert” when then see them), this goes further. Before, the regime could be described as a case of “illiberal democracy” or even “delegative democracy.” I no longer think that’s the case; I think this is the start of the regime moving squarely into the “electoral authoritarianism” category.
Note that the “Free RCTV” campaign is joined or supported by numerous organizations, including: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Carter Center, Reporters Without Borders, World Press Freedom Committee, Committee to Protect Journalists, Asociación Iberoamericana de Derecho de la Información y de la Comunicación (AIDIC), International Press Institute, Inter American Press Association, North American Broadcaster’s Association, Freedom House, Commonwealth Press Union, World Association of Newspapers, International Federation of the Periodical Press, International Association of Broadcasting. This list doesn’t include the governmental organizations, such as the Organization of American States, the European Union, and others that have also condemned the closing of RCTV.
PS. I would add that at issue is not whether RCTV represents “freedom” (either as an abstract principle or as a defender of others’ freedoms). Instead, the issue is whether silencing an opponent constitutes an attack on pluralism. I’ve always appreciated that groups like the ACLU actively defend even the most unsavory of characters. The principle is simple: The test of our commitment to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and other civil liberties is in whether we are willing to defend them for people we abhor.
PPS. One of the best reviews of the RCTV controversy (including substantial historical context) is this 10 Zen Monkeys article: “Venezuela: Dispatch from a Surrealist Autocracy.”