In 1992 the British government ended the licence of Thames Television, which since 1968 had broadcast to London. The government had changed the franchise rules in the 1990 Broadcasting Act, which minimised the requirement of a high quality of service, in favour of allowing bids to be decided by money alone.
There was widespread discussion at the time that the Thatcher government had been politically motivated in changing the rules specifically to enable them to end Thames's licence because of the award winning 1988 documentary, “Death on the Rock” where Thames TV exposed the British government’s murder of three Irish republican volunteers in Gibraltar in 1988.
The Thatcher government recognised that there is no such thing as free speech, and acted in their own class interests. Nevertheless, there was no international outcry about “censorship”, or claims that Thatcher was a dictator.
Thames TV’s licence had come to an end, and the government, who was responsible for issuing licences, had exercised its legal right to award the licence for the next period to a different broadcaster, Carlton.
The Venezuelan government has now decided not to renew the TV licence of the channel RCTV. It has not banned the channel; it did not even cancel their licence prematurely. They have simply exercised their right as a sovereign nation, as the British government did in 1992, not to renew a public broadcasting licence, through an entirely transparent process. Nor is this unusual, since 1969 the American Federal Communications Commission has closed three stations: WLBT-TV in Mississippi, CBS affiliate WLNS-TV in Michigan, and Trinity Broadcasting in Miami.
Nevertheless, despite acting legally, and within the international norms of a public broadcasting licensing body, the Venezuelan government are being accused of dictatorial conduct and censorship, an accusation being echoed by some of the more superficial voices on the “left”.
The question of free speech is being raised. However freedom of speech is not an abstract concept, but one rooted in social and political conditions.
Trade unions offer no right for management to speak at trade union meetings. It is even normal practice in British trade unions for management grades to be organised in different unions or at least different branches, because we seek to keep management out of meetings so that those they supervise are not intimidated by management’s point of view. These are both restrictions on an abstract freedom of speech, but are obviously unexceptional.
The RCTV channel not only encouraged and promoted a military coup in 2002 that briefly overthrew the government, but during the so-called oil strike of 2002-2003 (actually an employers' lock-out of employees who wanted to work) the station repeatedly called upon its viewers to come out into the street and help topple the government. As part of its continuing political campaign against the government, the station has also used false allegations, sometimes with gruesome and violent imagery, to convince its viewers that the government was responsible for such crimes as murders where there was no evidence of government involvement.
But RCTV has also been guilty of various financial irregularities under the Venezuelan criminal law, such as the withholding 0f six billion Bolivars of national insurance contributions.
Venezuela is a country in the middle of revolutionary change. Power is being disputed between on the one hand the radical popular movement, rooted in the workplaces and communities, and on the other hand the boss class, the corporations, and the imperialists. The Chavez government is a progressive one, that is helping to roll back the idea that there is no alternative to neo-liberalism, and is seeking to encourage and build the popular movement.
In these circumstances, the debate about freedom of speech is not an abstract one, it is a question of whether the state defends the interests of the popular movement and the working class, or whether it allows the boss class to undermine the revolution through their ownership of a tatty tabloid TV station. The question is in which class interest is the state acting, and in Venezuela the government has acted in the interests of the working class by revoking RCTV’s licence. Well done Chavez!
The following 25 minute documentary clarifies the issues very well (Spanish with English subtitles)