RCTV The Sequel: Scarier than the original

Quico says: So, as most people know, having gotten kicked off the public air waves, oppo broadcaster RCTV made a Freddie Kruegeresque return to haunt the government’s dreams through cable and satellite.

You could’ve been forgiven for thinking that this was the government’s goal all along: to slam this dissident voice in a gilded ghetto, limiting its reach to the 42% of relatively upscale Venezuelan homes that get pay-TV, and kicking it out of the other 58% of homes, where Chávez supporters tend to live.

Oh, but no. Even this politically declawed RCTV was more than the government was willing to tolerate.

Just today Conatel, the national telecoms regulator, ruled that, just like public broadcasters, pay-TV operators must carry cadenas: live propaganda broadcasts, usually of Chávez ranting, that all channels are forced to carry simultaneously, with little or no advance notice, for as long as the big guy feels like hearing the sound of his own voice.

(Which is deeply ironic: pay-TV’s growth in the middle class has been fueled by the sense that it was the last televisual refuge from the ranting comandante…but now, Our Master’s Voice will follow us even there.)

The point, of course, is that Cable and Satellite systems were never set up with cadenas in mind, so there’s no obvious technical fix to the problem of putting the same thing on every channel at short notice. Nevermind that: Conatel now says that if RCTV doesn’t join the cadenas, it’ll have to be shut down all over again.

Now, think this one through. In a way, this is worse than the original decision to take RCTV off the air.

Back in May, when we all saw Chávez vs. RCTV: The Original, the government made a big deal of the distinction between shutting down a TV channel and getting it off the public airwaves. Communications Minister Willian Lara threatened journalists who incorrectly reported news of a “shut down” – no such thing, he said, a mere “non-renewal of a license to broadcast over the public airwaves.”

Because, of course, the public airwaves are just that, public, and according to the constitution, state-controlled. That’s why even Katy and I had to admit that, in some narrow legalistic sense, the state surely has the right to decide who does and doesn’t get a broadcast license: the radioelectric spectrum is not infinite, and it’s the state who decides who can and can’t use it. (That, in shutting down RCTV, the state exercised that right arbitrarily and with total contempt for due process of law is another matter.)

It’s precisely because the radio spectrum is public that the state has the right to “take it back” from its licensees whenever it wants to broadcast cadenas. It’s the public character of the airwaves that was the government’s rationale for the authoritarianish Law of Public Responsibility in Radio and Television: “so long as you publish over our airwaves,” the argument went, “you gotta follow our rules.”

Distasteful? Yes. Tone-deaf to basic freedoms? No doubt. And yet, not totally absurd, because the airwaves really are public.

The point, of course, is that there’s nothing public about the strip of rubber-coated copper that runs between Intercable Headquarters and your bedroom wall. It’s purely private. You pay for it. Nobody forces you to put it there. Nobody who doesn’t want to have it is forced to get it just because they own a TV. Nothing in the constitution gives the state to interfere with it.

Surely, the government has no more right to impose cadenas on pay-TV than it has the right to put cadenas on phone calls. (Though, come to think of it, at this stage in the game, I really shouldn’t put ideas into their heads…)

The point is that, with its behavior in The Sequel, the government shows that we were right all through The Original: it was authoritarianism, simple intolerance of dissent, that was driving them. And it still is.