Sunday, June 10, 2007

Weekly Commentary - Haranguing Hugo Chávez

From liberal to conservative, the corridors of educated opinion in the U.S. are quaking - quaking - with indignation over the Venezuelan government's non-renewal of a television license for the broadcaster RCTV. If I had a dollar for every one of these righteous condemnations of Caracas, I could buy a printing press and actually exercise in a meaningful way the First Amendment rights that many of these commentators and politicians have re-discovered at this most opportune of times.

Somewhat less cynical critiques from groups such as Human Rights Watch are justified in viewing Hugo Chávez's move as a case of his government's "misusing the state’s regulatory authority." Yet deeper issues linger.

As documented elsewhere, RCTV and other right-wing media in Venezuela backed the short-lived 2002 coup against the democratically-elected Chávez government, which was soon after overturned by popular mobilization. During these fleeting moments of jubilation for Washington, the new RCTV-backed government flaunted its democratic credentials by having "dissolved all constitutional institutions" in Venezuela, including "the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the attorney general's office and the national electoral commission."

One may be tempted to consider the conundrum, how would the U.S. and other shedders of crocodile tears react if a domestic news station backed a coup against the Bush government, and then cheered as its imposed successors "dissolved all constitutional institutions" within the country?

There would no question of letting the offending broadcaster continue to operate for five years, at which point the U.S. would not renew its license - for the simple reason that the station's "owners and managers would have been lined up before firing squads right away." As Patrick McElwee comments in an insightful piece, "it is frankly amazing that this company has been allowed to broadcast for 5 years after the coup, and that the Chávez government waited until its license expired to end its use of the public airwaves."

The crux of the issue, as McElwee astutely observes, is that:
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.
The government can legitimately take measures to ensure that the airwaves - which belong to the public, after all - represent a diversity of opinion, and are not, as is the case in Venezuela, generally unresponsive to the wishes of the population, and in the stranglehold of the political right. Yet it is, to be sure, a "flawed process" (though not one originally devised by Chávez') that allows the non-renewal of RCTV's license, and, as Noam Chomsky notes, "For those who uphold far higher standards than those of the West, it's entirely legitimate to criticize the closing of RCTV."

Principled defenders of free speech - evidently a small category - will also take note of recent moves in Pakistan, a U.S. partner in the "War on Terror."

Tellingly, few bones were picked with the (now-suspended) restrictions on the media imposed by the Washington-allied leader of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf. Himself of sterling democratic credentials - he, unlike Chávez, has never been approved by voters in anything approaching meaningful elections - Musharraf's government had gained "new powers to suspend broadcasters' licenses, seal their premises and confiscate equipment." In fact, the Pakistani government "has also blocked transmission of three private television stations."

One searches in vain for widespread condemnation by Washington and Western media of this dictator's self-given right to "make it easier for government forces to shut down broadcasters."

There is, after all, a "War on Terror" to win, pitting civilization's unquenchable thirst for freedom against evil incarnate itself.

Given Washington's own apparently deliberate (and repeated) bombing of the pan-Arab network Al-Jazeera's offices, U.S. leaders could achieve a painless and substantial victory in this "War" by turning themselves over for imprisonment by the FBI. By comparison, Chávez's overhyped transgressions against the media pale into insignificance.

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