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Chávez is no enemy of free speech

Hugo Chávez let Radio Caracas Televisión continue to air for five years after the station supported a coup attempt.

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's refusal to renew the license of Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) might seem to justify fears that Mr. Chávez is crushing free speech and eliminating any voices critical of him. Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; the Committee to Protect Journalists; and members of the European Parliament, the US Senate, and even Chile's Congress have denounced the closure of RCTV, Venezuela's oldest private television network. Chávez's detractors got more ammunition last week when the president included another opposition network, Globovisión, among the "enemies of the homeland."

But the case of RCTV – like most things involving Chávez – has been caught up in a web of misinformation. While one side of the story is getting headlines around the world, the other is barely heard. The demise of RCTV is indeed a sad event in some ways for Venezuelans. Founded in 1953, it was an institution in the country, having produced the long-running political satire program "Radio Rochela" and the blisteringly realistic nighttime soap opera "Por Estas Calles." It was RCTV that broadcast the first live-from-satellite images in Venezuela when it showed Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in 1969.

But after Chávez was elected president in 1998, RCTV shifted to another endeavor: ousting a democratically elected leader from office. Controlled by members of the country's fabulously wealthy oligarchy, including RCTV chief Marcel Granier, it saw Chávez and his "Bolivarian Revolution" on behalf of Venezuela's majority poor as a threat.

RCTV's most infamous effort to topple Chávez came during the April 11, 2002, coup attempt against him. For two days before the putsch, RCTV preempted regular programming and ran wall-to-wall coverage of a general strike aimed at ousting Chávez. A stream of commentators spewed vitriolic attacks against him – while permitting no response from the government.

Then RCTV ran ads encouraging people to attend a march on April 11 aimed at toppling Chávez and broadcast blanket coverage of the event. When the march ended in violence, RCTV and Globovisión ran manipulated video blaming Chávez supporters for scores of deaths and injuries.

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