RCTV & Government Woes; It’s Déjà-Vu All Over Again

By Dom Serafini

By now the whole world knows about the plight of Venezuela’s national TV network, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), which has been fiercely battling the country’s strongman, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías.

VideoAge reporters first visited the RCTV studios in Caracas, Venezuela in 1983. The resulting front cover story was titled: “Peter Bottome’s Team Shaping Venezuela’s TV Against Political and Economical Odds.” Then came the introduction: “Political irreverence and business boldness seem to motivate Peter Bottome’s team of three young Venezuelan broadcasters, each with a goal of his own. Vice president, Herman P. Belisario, 47, wants to put his company on the map. Marcel H. Granier, 42, also a vice president, seeks the country’s political and economical maturity, while executive vice president Bottome, 45, is coordinating his partners’ objectives in domestic and international expansion.”

VideoAge’s May 1983 issue featured a front cover
story on RCTV

Not too much seems to have changed in the intervening 24 years –– only now the nut to crack is not then-president Luis Herrera, but former army lieutenant colonel and leftist president Hugo Chávez.

Shortly after winning his third presidential election last December, Chávez announced that he would not renew RCTV’s license when it expires on May 28, 2007, because RCTV’s Marcel Granier is an outspoken critic of Chávez. Today, Granier is the president of Empresa 1BC, the group that controls RCTV through Corporación Radiófonica Venezolana, with ownership divided between the Phelps family (represented by Bottome) and Granier.

However, RCTV officials maintain that since the license was granted in 1987, it expires in 2021, and cite articles 159 and 210 of the broadcasting regulator –– the National Commission for Telecommunications (CONATEL) –– laws, which state that the license term could vary from 25 to 60 years. In the 1983 article, VideoAge reported that politicians tend to leave TV regulations ambiguous in order to “maintain a better grip on the medium.”

Bottome — who became William Phelps’ stepson when his divorced mother, Kate Deery, married him — heads Sindicato Phelps, named after founding patriarch William and his brother Albert Phelps. Granier also entered the Phelps’ family, having married Albert’s daughter.

Family ties also extend to Gustavo Cisneros of Venevision, who is married to Albert Phelps’ granddaughter. Not that other TV networks don’t claim pedigree ownership. Indeed, Televen’s Omar Camero is a former adviser to president Jaime Lusinchi (1985-1988) and Globovision’s José Federico Ravel is a former vice minister of information (1974-79).

In Venezuela, there are 66 TV stations that rebroadcast, with the help of repeaters, the three national government networks, some regional channels and four private national networks: RCTV, Venevision, Televen and Globovision, a 24-hour news service.

Since consolidating power, Chávez has expanded the government’s media holdings and now runs the three national TV channels: VTV (originally owned by Time-Life, and nationalized in 1974), international satellite news channel Telesur and ViVe, a cultural TV network. Recently, the Government bought CMT, a small Caracas channel, to broadcast Telesur to the nation’s four million TVHH. According to president Chávez, the government will use RCTV’s frequencies (channel 2 in Caracas and repeaters) for a “public service” channel.
The action by the Government against RCTV is seen as a warning to the country’s other major private TV networks –– Gustavo Cisneros’ Venevision, Omar Camero Zamora’s Televen, and José Federico Ravel’s Globovision. At the same time, to encourage self-censorship, the Government is threatening to pass repressive media legislation.

For more historical parallels, let’s go back to VideoAge’s 1983 story: “Relations between Bottome’s team and the Venezuelan government are openly hostile… ‘We are getting very little advertising revenues from the government, plus they don’t pay their bills,’ complained Granier, the team’s financier and probably the country’s most popular political analyst.”

At press time, the Chávez government had made no effort to try its case in the courts. However, last March, an administrative court imposed on RCTV a 1,494 million bolivares (U.S.$689,500) fine for alleged tax evasion. The broadcasting regulator, CONATEL, has remained silent on the issue. Its director, Alvin Lezama, was fired not long after Chávez announced the RCTV decision, and the agency merged into a new telecommunications ministry under Jesse Chacón.

Then, if this déjà vu wasn’t spooky enough, the 1983 VideoAge article continued: “The relationship hit rock bottom when RCTV sued the Minister of Communications on two counts of abuse of power… government harassment is manifested through ‘fiscal pressures’ and capricious amendments to the broadcast law [including] reducing the allowed transmitting power.”

Naturally, President Chávez’s retaliatory measures against RCTV have been denounced by many domestic and international organizations, and not only on the basis of articles 57 and 58 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which guarantee freedom of the press. However, it was only after strong pressure from Washington that the Organization of American States (OAS) sided with RCTV. It criticized the decision of the Venezuelan government through OAS’ secretary general, José Miguel Insulza: “The adoption of an administrative measure to shut down an information channel gives the impression of a kind of censorship against freedom of expression,” the official declaration read.

“The RCTV case is clearly a case of censorship and the most grave step back in the region since Fujimori,” said José Miguel Vivanco, America’s director for Human Rights Watch, referring to the widespread manipulation of the media by former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s. “Chávez is not renewing the concession to punish a medium for its opposition to the government,” he said.

The chairman of the Miami, Florida-based Inter-American Press Association’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Gonzalo Marroquín, condemned Chávez’s actions against RCTV, calling it a “violation of press freedom and free speech by President Chávez” and declared that “there is no longer any doubt, given his statements and actions, that this license non-renewal is simply a reprisal against a critical voice.” Marroquín, editor of the Guatemala City, Guatemala newspaper Prensa Libre, added, “We condemn the fact that he seeks to punish the TV network because of its editorial stance. Likewise, we are concerned that the government will turn around and award this license to some other news outlet or person that will do its bidding.”

Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders has also denounced the attempt to censor RCTV, while in Venezuela, a sector of the ecclesiastical hierarchy linked to the opposition also criticized the government’s decision. Chávez responded: “The State respects the Church; the Church should respect the State. I do not want to return to the days of confrontation with the Venezuelan bishops, but that’s not up to me; it’s up to the Venezuelan bishops.”

On the part of the country’s other commercial broadcasters, their original show of support for RCTV (an attempt to avoid creating a precedent that could affect any of them), slowly changed to “business is business.” Commented a representative of one of the Venezuelan companies involved: “At the end of the day, we’re not politicians but business people, and [we] decided to be in business.”
In the beginning, RCTV could also count on the international TV industry’s wide support, but by NATPE it had started to wane, with at least two of the U.S. studios backpedaling. This was despite a show of force at RCTV’s party, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of its international operations. The party became one of NATPE’s highlights in terms of attendance, glamour and elegance.

As some have feared, RCTV is not the only communications company president Chávez is trying to control. Last January, the President announced plans to re-nationalize the nation’s “strategic sectors” starting with a partly U.S.-owned company: Telco giant Compania Nacional Telefonos de Venezuela (CANTV), which is 28.5 percent owned by Verizon Communications.  CANTV is Venezuela’s largest privately-owned company, but it’s not a telephone monopoly. Its landlines reach only 11 percent of the population. However, its cell phone unit, Movilnet, controls 35 percent of the larger, more profitable mobile market. Plus, it has de-facto Internet monopoly power in the country by controlling 83 percent of the market.

Venezuela’s Telecommunications Minister Jesse Chacon indicated that CANTV will be the only telecommunications company returned to state control. Nevertheless, this action will disrupt the plans of Mexican billionaire, and richest Latin American, Carlos Slim. Among other holdings, Slim controls the Mexican telecommunications company Telmex, and Verizon planned to sell him its 28.5 percent ownership of CANTV, but that’s now off the table with Chavez’s plans to “enrich the Venezuelan people, not a billionaire.”
Naturally, even if RCTV loses its terrestrial frequencies, the network could still transmit nationwide via cable and satellite and continue to be a major production force both domestically and internationally.

RCTV produces Venezuela’s popular telenovelas, which have been exported to more than 80 countries. It runs an academy that trained 5,600 actors, journalists and technicians last year, and its news operation has 250 staff members and offices in 10 cities across the country.

However, moving to platforms other than over-the-air broadcast will generate problems with foreign program suppliers, which often have exclusive agreements with other cable and satellite operators for those windows.