Monday, May 28, 2007

Free Speech in Venezuela

Pieces of paper make worthless shields. We have the worlds best parchment defense in our constitution but our everyday lives have been shaped by individuals willing to take action to insure those words have legitimacy. Happy Memorial Day.

Last evening Hugo Chavez pulls the plug on a television station undeniably controlled by opponents of his regime. There is no surprise since Chavez announced his intention to pull the broadcast license a long time ago. Reports indicate thousands protest the closing of the 53 year old broadcasting operation and that the Venezuelan President has enough troops on the streets to make sure everyone understands his decision is final.

Fait accompli the debate turns to whether the action is that of a dictator suppressing civil freedom of speech or a legal and proper response to sedition. Daniel at Venezuela News and Views translates an editorial from left leaning French daily Le Monde suggesting the European socialists are wary of such flagrant use of power.

Le Monde: None the charges carried by the president against RCTV, in connection with his role in the missed coup of 2002 or the oil strike of 2003, was the subject of a debate in front of a court. The Supreme Court was solicited by RCTV whereas Mr. Chavez had already announced his decision, irrevocable. This political decision reduced pluralism and increases the concentration of audio-visual tools within the hands of the government. Whatever the administrative or legal arguments called upon by the president, it is a hard blow carried against the freedom of expression in Venezuela.

The independence of powers does not exist any more in Venezuela. The opposition fears that, after the media, the president will proceed in a similar way towards the trade unions, the nongovernmental organizations or the political parties. With Mr. Chavez, the Venezuelan democracy is threatened.

Needless to say the true believers in 21st Century Socialism see a liberation for the views of the poor from the monopoly of the wealthy, and victory achieved within the rule of law.

Don't Cry for Venezuela's RCTV: No, May 27 is not a sad day for freedom of expression in Venezuela, so don’t weep for Mr. Granier when RCTV’s license is not renewed. He can still broadcast through cable or satellite and he can still sell his programming to other stations. Instead, rejoice with all the independent producers and thousands of Venezuelan who will have access to the space one wealthy man controlled for years. May 28 will be a day of celebration in Venezuela. It should be a day for celebrating freedom throughout the world.

Is Free Speech Really at Stake? On process, they have a legitimate point. The government seems to have made the decision without any administrative or judicial hearings. Unfortunately, this is what the law, first enacted in 1987, long before Chávez entered the political scene, allows. It charges the executive branch with decisions about license renewal, but does not seem to require any administrative hearing. The law should be changed, but at the current moment when broadcast licenses are up for renewal, it is the prevailing law and thus lays out the framework in which decisions are made.

Of course laws are meaningless if not fused to a system that honors rights for the individual and due process to protect non-governmental parties to a dispute. In this instance no one is even pretending that preventing RCTV from broadcasting is anything but the unchallengeable command of a dominant strong man who doesn’t like being challenged.