February 21, 2013 5:56 pm

Venezuelan TV station claims exclusion

Globovisión, the last Venezuelan television station to remain critical of President Hugo Chávez, says it is being “arbitrarily excluded” from a new digital television system, which will force it off public airwaves.

With Mr Chávez’s battle against cancer triggering speculation that he may be forced to quit power, critics see the move against Globovisión as a sign that a new government without the firebrand socialist leader would be no less radical.

Vice-president Nicolás Maduro, whom Mr Chávez designated as his successor before undergoing cancer surgery in December, described the launch of the free digital television system on Wednesday as part of the government’s attempts to install “communicational and cultural socialism”. He added that it will help to control content that “has promoted pornography, drugs, prostitution and the promotion of the use of weapons”.

Other private television stations that toned down their criticism of the government since their biased coverage during a 2002 coup were included in the new system. Globovisión’s exclusion was tantamount to a “death sentence”, said its co-founder Alberto Ravell.

Globovisión has long been at loggerheads with the government. It complained this week of “systematic harassment” because of its “independent editorial line”. The government, however, accuses it of being a mouthpiece for the opposition and engaging in “media terrorism”.

Conatel, the state telecommunications regulator, last year slapped a $2.2m fine on Globovisión for its coverage of a deadly prison riot, accusing it of promoting a climate of “illegality”, and has opened eight investigations against the channel. In January it ordered Globovisión to stop showing videos questioning the legality of postponing Mr Chávez’s inauguration while he was recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba.

Press freedom advocates have consistently accused Mr Chávez’s government of attempting to stifle criticism by pulling broadcasters off the air, jailing critical reporters and censoring coverage of sensitive issues. It has used an “array of legislation, threats and regulatory measures to gradually break down the independent press”, according to a report issued last year by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ.

Although there is no target date yet for the elimination of the older analogue system, Globovisión says that when this happens it will effectively be forced to cease transmission on the free public airwaves – its current broadcasting licence expires in 2015. It would then be confined to cable television, although that will also require a licence from Conatel.

In 2007, the government refused to renew the licence of RCTV, another opposition television station that was also the most watched by Venezuelans, after it allegedly backed the botched 2002 coup. Other major channels such as Venevisión and Televen, which the government also accused of supporting the coup, are being included in the new digital system after toning down their critical coverage.

Since surviving the 2002 coup, Mr Chávez has built up a state media apparatus that includes six television channels, more than 100 radio stations and a plethora of print publications and websites that according to the CPJ have “become an instrument of government propaganda that is often used to launch smear campaigns against critics”.

Nevertheless, state television channels enjoy little more than 5 per cent of audience share, while more than 40 per cent of Venezuelan households subscribe to cable television.

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