TV channel axed in latest Chávez drama

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As the voice of the Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa drifts around his tiny studio, Fernando Salas ­prepares to end his daily shift at Radio Horizonte 106.7FM.

Mr Salas, a former building inspector, is one of three presenters at the station, which offers a mix predominantly of talk shows and leftwing music from the likes of Ms Sosa to the few thousand residents of Santa Juana, a poor area in the Venezuelan city of Merida.

The station is one of about 200 community broadcasters given licences by the government of President Hugo Chávez since 2002 in line with its aim to “democratise” the mass media and establish what one former minister called recently the “state’s communicational and informational hegemony”.

That policy will face its toughest test this weekend when the government presses ahead with plans to end the 20-year terrestrial television concession enjoyed by Radio Caracas Televisión, the country’s oldest and most popular private channel.

The station’s blatantly partisan reporting – like that of other rightwing media – contributed to Venezuela’s political polarisation and Mr Chávez has repeatedly alleged that it supported the coup that led to his brief departure from office five years ago. Mr Chávez announced at the end of last year that its licence – which expires on Sunday night – would not be renewed.

The government’s tough approach wins plaudits in Santa Juana, according to Mr Salas. “We discussed the issue on one of our evening forums and most of our ­listeners agree it should not continue on the air because of what has happened,” he says.

The policy is more controversial elsewhere in the country. Radio Caracas’ soap operas such as The Ex and My Cousin Ciela are popular, regularly attracting more than 50 per cent of Venezuelan viewers.

Two opinion polls have shown that more than 70 per cent of Venezuelans, including many of Mr Chávez’s own supporters, are opposed to the decision not to renew the licence. Arturo Sarm­iento, a Caracas businessman who runs Telecaribe, an independent regional television station, and supports the government’s policy, admits the measure will “have a huge political cost”.

A public-service channel, Venezuelan Social Television (Teves), is to replace RCTV. But it could struggle, partly for technical reasons.

Initially, at least, it will broadcast in only two Venezuelan cities, partly because the authorities are not taking over the 53 transmitters operated by RCTV.

Elsewhere in the world, with few exceptions public-service stations have not won a sterling reputation for slick popular programming. Lil Rodriguez, the channel’s new president, hardly encouraged optimism when she announced last week that “we don’t intend to make Teves really boring”.

Teves is planning to develop its own soap opera based on the lives of Simón Bolívar, Venezuela’s nat­ional hero, and Manuela Sáenz, one of his lovers, but until that is ready viewers will have to make do with a range of cooking, travel, music, opinion and other documentary shows, as well as an opinion programme.

There are more serious worries that the RCTV decision could discourage independent reporting. Mr Sarmiento and other supporters of Mr Chávez insist the government has no intention to impose censorship and says RCTV will be free to broadcast its programmes via cable.

Nevertheless, Venezuela has come under fire from a number of international human-rights organisations. The US-based Human Rights Watch argued last week that the non-renewal of the RCTV licence was a “serious setback for freedom of expression”.

Critics point to a raft of laws – such as ones making “disrespect” of government institutions and authorities a criminal offence – that have already encouraged a degree of self-censorship in the media. Previously hostile television channels have taken opinion programmes off the air, for example.

None of this cuts much ice in Santa Juana, where Mr Salas is preparing for three consecutive evenings of discussions on the pros and cons of joining the Venezuelan United Socialist Party, the new political organisation being promoted by Mr Chávez.

“The microphones are always open for anyone to come and speak but few people tend to disagree with the changes we are living through,” he says.

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