The latest developments in Venezuela raise some questions about freedom of speech.
In December, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez announced that he would not be renewing RCTV’s broadcasting licence. RCTV is a privately-owned television station (the only one with national reach in Venezuela) that has consistently been hostile to Chavez and was involved in supporting an attempted coup in 2002. It has consistently opposed his government and his politics and has broadcast anti-Chavez, pro-capitalist messages for a long time. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is owned and run by those who oppose Chavez’ socialist aims (and, no doubt, his famous hosility for the United States) and would rather see a capitalist society in Venezuela. Now, the current licence is on the brink of expiry and has not been renewed. This means that RCTV will no longer have national reach, although its owners can continue to broadcast by cable and still control other media such as local newspapers. The RCTV channel will now host yet another government-run station.
A. A terrible blow for free speech in Venezuela, silencing a lone opposition voice?
B. A perfectly reasonable response to control the unbalanced venom of these ruthlessly anti-government pro-capitalists?
Mr Chavez argues the latter. Free speech activists and journalists everywhere argue the former. My view is that it is neither or, rather, it is both or, rather, it depends…
Until now, there have been two voices: Mr Chavez, and RCTV.
RCTV may be bad, but without it, there is only Mr Chavez – and his case is not helped by the fact that at least one government station already broadcasts wall-to-wall sycophancy (although it is worth noting that other state-funded stations in Venezuela are not under the presidential thumb and do important, good quality work). Can we rely on him not to get carried away with this unopposed propaganda machine?
Personally, I am in favour of all television being under neutrality obligations similar to those that operate in the UK, where it is not permissible to editorialise TV news to reflect the political beliefs and aims of the station or its owners. Television is such a powerful media channel – practically everyone watches it practically every day – that in my view it is dangerous to allow television news or other programmes to become partisan.
In this case I would condemn Mr Chavez, not for shutting down RCTV but for failing to universalise his expressed preference for non-partisan TV. If he shuts down openly partisan channels like RCTV (and I have no problem with that in principle, frankly) then he must also prevent his own channels from being openly partisan. He should enact and implement a television broadcasting code that stops ANYONE from broadcasting the news in a biased or partisan fashion. He should do this in the service of balance, honesty, integrity and truth.
Wouldn’t this cut away at freedom of speech?
Hell, no. It would cut down the freedom of a small number of rich TV-station-owning men to broadcast their self-serving politics into the hearts and minds of an entire nation. It doesn’t stop them saying what they want to say – it only obliges them to use other channels for their propaganda, for the better protection of balance, honesty, integrity and truth.
Cutting away at the massive media power of this handful of rich TV-station-owning men in my view has the capacity to advance freedom of speech, a capacity much greater than the more obvious danger of undermining it.
Stopping some people from speaking in certain media channels does look dangerously like censorship. But by curtailing the dominance of one big idea, by allowing other ideas time and space for expression and circulation and discussion, we would give everyone better access to a better range of perspectives. By curtailing the freedom of a handful of rich TV-station-owning men to present a single, filtered version of reality, we would give everybody better access to unfiltered reality, to facts and information, and to differing views honestly presented.
What’s not to like?