On December 29 Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, recently re-elected with a whopping 61 percent of the vote, announced his intention not to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), whose concession will expire in May. “They better go packing,” he said, adding lest he be misunderstood, “Start turning your equipment off.”

The announcement was not out of the blue, since a few days earlier Venezuela’s Minister of Communication and Information, William Lara, had said that licenses of privately owned media would be subject to revision, and the fate of RCTV would be decided by popular survey. Chávez now put it more colorfully. His Venezuela, he said, would not tolerate media “at the service of coup-plotting, against the people, against the nation, against the national independence and against the dignity of the Republic.” And when José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the OAS, denounced the move as censorship, Chávez called him a pendejo (“asshole”–translated by US media as “idiot”) who had no business intervening in Venezuela’s internal affairs.

In the weeks that followed, Chávez persuaded the legislature to give him the power to rule by decree for eighteen months, made known his plan to consolidate the parties of the left into one and announced his intention to nationalize various industries. Along the way he described Jesus Christ as “the greatest socialist in history,” ended a speech to the National Assembly by shouting “Socialism or death!” and, after US officials expressed concern about recent developments, advised, “Go to hell, gringos! Go home!”

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When Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, proposed last summer that I join a mission to Caracas, I had my qualms. First, I didn’t speak Spanish (an interpreter can fix that, said Joel); second, I knew Chávez was overwhelmingly popular with the poor and I wasn’t interested in participating in an anti-Chávez hit job, even in the worthy cause of human rights. I quickly learned that under Chávez the National Assembly had passed the potentially repressive Law of Social Responsibility, which for example bars stations from broadcasting messages that “promote, defend or invite breaches of public order” or are “contrary to the security of the nation.” I also knew that in 2005 the National Assembly had increased criminal penalties for defamation and slander. But I shared Naomi Klein’s view (published here March 3, 2003) that it was “absurd to treat Chávez as the principal threat to a free press in Venezuela. That honor clearly goes to the media owners themselves.” (In the days leading up to the brief 2002 coup against Chávez, RCTV, as well as the three other major private stations, blanketed the airwaves with anti-Chávez speeches, interrupted only by oil company “public service” commercials, run free of charge, calling on viewers to take to the streets. When the coup began to collapse, RCTV blacked out the news, ran cartoons and instructed its staff to keep Chavistas off the air.)

Joel persuaded me that the mission, to be put together by CPJ’s Carlos Lauria, in whose bona fides I had confidence, had no hidden agenda. Moreover, Joel argued, perhaps my Nation connection, emeritus though I may be, would facilitate an audience with the man. (As it turned out, that was not to be; Chávez chose to attend Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s inauguration during our visit. I guess a head of state is entitled to his own priorities.)

We arrived in Caracas January 7, the day before Chávez announced his intention to reverse the privatizations carried out by previous governments in the telecommunications and utilities industries–which won him editorial denunciations in the New York Times and the Washington Post. (If past practices are any precedent, nationalization under Chávez will be preceded by elaborate negotiations, and the owners will end up with a fair price–sort of the Venezuelan equivalent of a hostile takeover.) And we did get to see Lara and José Vicente Rangel, one of Chávez’s closest confidants, still loyal despite being replaced as Vice President just before we arrived. We also saw the heads of most of the leading media companies, as well as various human rights and media monitoring types.

What did we conclude? Speaking for my non-Spanish-speaking self, I concluded I was right to have had qualms. No matter how much preparation I’d done or how much access we had, I found it impossible to assess the status of freedom of expression in six days, especially in the polarized environment we found. Example: On the one hand, the man from RCTV assured us the legal case is open and shut: Under the law they had a two-year window within which to apply for renewal of their concession; they filed a timely application, the government never got back to them, and therefore their concession was automatically renewed. On the government side, Lara cited RCTV’s regular showing of what he called “pornographic” soap operas during children’s viewing hours as one among many violations of the law of social responsibility.

Elides Rojas, editor in chief of El Universal, which has been called the Wall Street Journal of Venezuela, argues that the RCTV episode is phase four of a carefully planned “take-over”: In phase one, Chávez attacked the credibility of opposition media and their owners; in phase two he attacked the media as agents of foreign powers; in phase three he attacked journalists by name; and in phase four he wants to take ownership–“RCTV is a clear case.” Opposition journalists repeatedly mentioned lack of access, withholding of public advertising, content restrictions and countless defamation suits.

But talk to Eleazar Díaz Rangel, editor of Ultimas Noticias, generally regarded as a progovernment paper (although, he told me, a majority of its staff supported Chávez’s opponent in the last election), and he’ll tell you the nonrenewal of RCTV’s concession is exactly what it appears to be: nonrenewal of a concession and nothing more. Or talk to Rangel, former Vice President, and he’ll assure you, “We have more freedom of expression than ever before. Not a single journalist has been put in jail. Not a single journalist has been exiled or deported. No media have been expropriated or confiscated. RCTV politicized this. They use political arguments, because they don’t really have legal ones.” Or, as Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the satirical tabloid Tal Cual, a curmudgeonly anti-Chávez (but anti-coup) independent, put it, “The tycoons thought

they owned the country, but Chávez outwitted them.”

Our delegation decided that since everybody we talked to was focusing on RCTV that’s where we, too, would put our focus. At the same time, we knew we didn’t have enough facts to pass on the case. Were they involved in the coup against Chávez? Probably. However, was that grounds for revocation of a license or grounds for prosecuting them as coupsters when it happened? Did they break the law of social responsibility? Probably. And so, probably, did others, whose concessions were not revoked–at least not yet.

But we also decided that we did have enough facts to sound the alarm on the lack of transparency surrounding the decision not to renew RCTV’s concession. Rangel told us that although Chávez had announced the decision in his own inimitable way, in fact it was the result of a long process. Where is the file that describes that process, and why has it not been made public? In our presence, Rangel called the man in charge of such matters and asked him to make it available to us, but somehow–if it exists–it never made its way into our hands. And so we drafted a press release and held a press conference where we revealed our preliminary finding and reported our consensus: that in the absence of a transparent, public process with clear criteria, the decision not to renew RCTV’s license (or any other license) would have a chilling effect on free expression. Our “findings” appeared in all the local papers–pro and con the regime–and were carried live on TV.

But for me, the most intriguing part of our mission was less what we found when we got there than the questions I left with. Was the decision not to renew RCTV’s license merely the latest power grab of Caudillo Chávez, who will turn out, like Castro, to be tone-deaf to the requirements of free expression, or is it a sign that he is serious about his plan to empower the poor and will use his missions, decrees and revised laws to guarantee bottom-up, democratic access to and ownership of the various modes of communication? Should the socialist ideal of imbuing the people with democratic values be trumped by the civil liberties premise of no prior restraint? How does one reconcile “socialism in the twenty-first century” (surely a more noble aspiration than carrying forward the media concentration of the twentieth century) with the requirements of democracy?

If the Venezuelan telecommunications authority and Chávez accept the spirit of our delegation’s recommendation, and the next time a concession comes up for renewal they announce open bidding with the goal of achieving true media diversity–stations owned by cooperatives, stations owned by communities, stations owned by public-private partnerships, stations like Telesur (already owned partly by Argentina and Uruguay along with Venezuela)–what will the bidding process look like? What will be the social criteria? And if they could really pull it off, wouldn’t it be a better system than the one the United States itself has, which, for all our talk of free expression and granting licenses in “the public interest,” seems almost always to result in the FCC granting automatic renewal of television licenses?

Opponents of the Chávez regime mock his talk of “socialism in the twenty-first century” as empty rhetoric. Perhaps at this stage it would be better to call it magical realism–still a fiction, but one to be nourished as an ideal to pursue rather than a policy to be mocked.