To start, a free press:
Freedom of the press in Venezuela(from the Economist)
The Price of Free Airwaves(NY Times)
The first tells of Hugo Chavez' decision to shut town a television station that was openly critical of his regime. Instead of shutting it down the old-fashioned way, with troops and arrests, he simply refused it permission to renew its broadcasting license.
Mr Chávez announced that RCTV's broadcasting licence would not be renewed when it expired on May 27th. The government's reasons are that the channel acted as an opposition mouthpiece, and that it backed a short-lived coup against Mr Chávez in April 2002.The reason this is so terrible is that
Democracy is about much more than just elections—as the left itself has often argued. It is also about political freedoms, the rule of law and checks on executive power. Precious little of this still exists in Venezuela. With television and the press now pretty much under the government's thumb, how will anyone be able to call the next election free and fair?Then this editorial in today's NY Times, which says
In the bad old days in Latin America, military dictators simply sent troops to close down obstreperous broadcasters and newspapers. Mr Chávez is more subtle. He has preserved the forms of democracy while gradually, but inexorably, eviscerating it.
America lets radio and TV broadcasters use public airwaves worth more than half a trillion dollars for free. In return, we require that broadcasters serve the public interest: devoting at least some airtime for worthy programs that inform voters, support local arts and culture and educate our children — in other words, that aspire to something beyond just minimizing costs and maximizing revenue.Same technique exactly. The writer makes great points about how important it is that broadcasters serve in the public interest, and has some great ideas on how they could help our democracy, but his method - making license renewal tougher and more frequent (he suggests the license expire every 3 years instead of the current 8 years) - is a recipe for governmental, and thus partisan political, control of our nation's airwaves. Who could doubt in this time of the "Patriot Act" that the current administration would hesitate to use this power against broadcasters? My guess is that it DOES use this power, but wants more. Eight-year renewal periods means a president only gets one crack at a license denial - surely that can't be good, right? Hmmmm...
Using the public airwaves is a privilege — a lucrative one — not a right, and I fear the F.C.C. has not done enough to stand up for the public interest.... Every eight years, broadcasters must prove that they have served the public interest in order to get license renewal....
The problem is that.... [d]enials on public interest grounds are extraordinarily rare.
The writer claims good intentions and lists admirable goals, such as
• ensuring stations show programs on local civic affairs (apart from the nightly news), or set aside airtime for local community groups;
• ensuring they broadcast political conventions, and local as well as national candidate debates;
• In an era when owners may live thousands of miles from their stations, ensuring stations meet with local community leaders and the public to receive feedback;
• and making sure the station’s so-called children’s programming actually, in the view of experts, is educational.
The author says that "all of this information ought to be available on the Web so people can see how their airwaves are being used."
His proposals - making FCC renewal tougher and more frequent - will simply result in what Mr. Chavez has done. That is, government-imposed censorship and control of broadcasters. As for the people seeing how their airwaves are being used, it seems more important to see how our government is being used - and that requires as free and independent a press, including television broadcasters, as we can make it.
Something else I noticed in the Economist article:
Under Venezuelan law [denying a renewal license] is a matter for the regulator and the courts, not the president. Coincidentally, Mr Chávez has just merged the supposedly independent regulator with the Communications Ministry.Unfortunately for us, the "independent" FCC has been in the hands of the executive branch for some time, and is now filled with loyal Republican appointees who hate the Children's program "Arthur." God help out-and-proud Spongebob Squarepants if they get their hands on him.
Again from the Economist:
in pulling the plug on RCTV Hugo Chávez's leftist government has taken another big step away from democracy.Haven't we taken enough steps away ourselves in the past six years? I say shortening the renewal time from 8 years to 3 is a really, really bad idea. The price of free airwaves may be high, but the price of government-controlled airwaves is simply unacceptable. Give me liberty or give me death.