Tuesday, May 29, 2007

As Free As the Air . . . waves

Broadcast television channels will soon vacate these airwaves when they go digital by 2009. If used right, these public airways will revolutionize the ways we connect to laptops, cell phones, PDAs, music players and other mobile Internet devices. They can deliver an open Internet into your house without the need for a telephone wire or cable modem.

Phone and cable lobbyists are pressuring the FCC to sell companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast our airwaves so they can horde spectrum and stifle competitive and cheaper alternatives to their established networks.

This would be a disaster. After years of phone and cable company control over Internet access, the United States has fallen to 16th in the world in high-speed Internet rankings, with few choices and some of the highest prices for the slowest speeds in the world. We will continue this decline as long as we let AT&T, Verizon and Comcast dictate the terms of Internet access for the majority of Americans.

These phone and cable giants refuse to open their networks to competitive applications and services. They lobby Washington to stifle new innovations like Internet phone service and to destroy Net Neutrality, the one principle that protects equal opportunity and free choice on the Web.

We need to end their stranglehold and demand a better Internet for everyone:

With open networks, the rest of the world has rapidly adopted high-speed, Internet platforms for education, economic innovation, creativity and civic participation. Countries like South Korea, Japan, France and Canada have leapfrogged the United States and now offer faster Internet connections at far lower prices.

It's time we caught up.

Act now and help clear the path for a technology that will deliver faster, more open and affordable Internet for everyone.

Timothy Karr
Campaign Director
Free Press

1. Most people haven't heard about this issue yet. It's really important that we spread the word and get people involved. After you send your comment to the FCC, tell at least five friends to take action.

2. For more information about what's at stake with our public airwaves, read these recent articles in Wired Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes Magazine and MyDD.

3. To learn more about the public interest and the public airwaves, visit the "Save Our Spectrum" site, www.freepress.net/spectrum/

Earlier, speaking of Free Press, Venezuela news for the week ending on Friday, May 25th, 2007


The Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled last Friday to uphold a decision made by the National Telecommunications Commission not to renew the broadcasting license of opposition-affiliated channel RCTV. Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales ruled that licensing issues are strictly the jurisdiction of the telecommunications commission (Contael), the institutional body overseeing the use of national media as a public good in accordance with guidelines set out in the 1999 constitution. The Director of Venezuelan National Radio, Helena Salcedo, similarly defended the decision in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post on Monday, saying "The expiration of RCTV's license will not affect the Venezuelan government's commitment to freedom of expression and information. Freedom of expression is alive and well in Venezuela, and the overwhelming majority of the media remain in private hands."

Friday's decision came despite the protests of RCTV owner and media mogul Marcel Granier, who along with allies in the political opposition, have staged several large public protest in defense of the station. The Agence France Press reported Tuesday that three RCTV supporters were arrested in possession of three submachine guns, a handgun and shotguns during protests last Thursday. The men were detained on charges of conspiracy. Also in attendance was Manuel Rosales, the opposition presidential candidate defeated by President Chavez last December. Marches criticizing the non-renewal of RCTV -- known for its hit soap operas and active involvement in the 2002 attempted coup against Chavez -- have persisted alongside those that celebrate the end of the station's tenure, the Inter Press Service reported Monday.

An article in Counterpunch yesterday examined the RCTV issue and related accusations regarding censorship, finding that "the warnings of a move from democracy to dictatorship in Venezuela have been loud but lacking in evidence." However, this has been a key strategy of RCTV's owner Marcel Granier, who succeeded in making his channel a point of political debate abroad. Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., writes in an op-ed today in the Miami Herald that countries should join together in rejecting the non-renewal of RCTV. On the other hand, British Member of Parliament Colin Burgon takes a different viewpoint in the Guardian, encouraging the EU government to align with President Chavez and against neoconservative forces that have used the RCTV issue as part of a campaign against his administration. Burgon states: "the broadcaster failed to meet basic public-interest standards. The criterion for this assessment is similar to that used by the US Federal Communications Commission. RCTV will be free to broadcast via cable and satellite, which are available across the country."

U.S. Senators Richard Lugar and Christopher Dodd drafted a resolution rejecting the non-renewal. El Universal reports that the resolution would encourage the OAS to oppose the non-renewal. In response, Bernardo Álvarez, Venezuelan Ambassador to the White House, told lawmakers here that the Venezuelan government's refusal to renew RCTV's broadcasting license "was not based on the media's editorial stance," but rather, was an "independent decision" that the government's telecommunications commission is legally allowed to make as part of its duty to regulate the national airwaves, just as the FCC does in the U.S. Álvarez called the resolution submitted by Lugar and Dodd part of "a campaign of misinformation RCTV has been deploying."

RCTV's signal will expire at midnight this Sunday. It's share of the open-access airwaves will be allotted to the public broadcaster Televisora Venezolana Social (Teves). The board of the new channel was sworn in early this week, and according to the Inter-Press Service, is headed by the well-known journalist Lili Rodriguez. Questions about the level and quality of entertainment found on Teves are being debated by the public, and the Guardian reported today that some lament the loss of RCTV's famed soap operas.


Workers in Venezuela will be reimbursed in the amount of $652 million for discrepancies in pension payments dating back to the 1970s. According to a statement made by President Chavez Thursday, plans are also in the works for education: university workers will see a pay raise of up to 34% by the end of this year and student admissions exams will be reconsidered. Bloomberg reports: "Chavez, who is seeking to implement a socialist model in Venezuela different from Cuba's or China's, [announced that] education under the so-called ''Third Motor'' of his Bolivarian revolution should be carried out beyond classrooms, in factories, workshops, offices and fields."


Food shortages were the subject of a Wall Street Journal article Monday, which begins with a quote praising the free-market principle of allowing consumer prices to be determined by global supply and demand. A controlled exchange rate of 2,150 Bolivars to the US dollar is cited as the main source of the shortages in question. However, all governments make strategic decisions about whether to over- or under-value their currency to produce particular economic effects -- for example, making imports cheaper. While accusing Chavez for rejecting international markets, the piece also finds fault with the fact that the government is "shopping abroad with dollar reserves" to stock affordable foodstuffs at supermarkets.

Bloomberg reported today that new government legislation in Venezuela requires agricultural producers to address domestic demand before exporting foodstuffs. The measure is meant to address past food shortages. The Miami Herald reports on the ways in which business owners in Venezuela are reacting to the "threat" of greater government involvement in industry: "Some businessmen keep going and take advantage of the bonanza the country is going through and the credits offered by the government. Others stay in the country but do not invest in their companies' growth because they don't believe in the future. Others fold for fear of being punished if they don't comply with government demands on prices, taxes and production. Yet others keep their stores open but invest their profits abroad." A deep political divide may have polarized society, but despite alleged "threats" to business, elites still appear to have options.


The Venzuelan government completed its purchase of a controlling stake in telecommunications company CANTV in Caracas, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. A new board of directors for the company was appointed, and will be headed by Socorro Hernandez, whose background is in the oil industry. The Venezuelan government paid $1.3 billion to take control of 86.2% of shares of CANTV earlier this month. Once under new direction, CANTV quickly announced a decision to cut cellular phone service rates by 20%. In addition to lowering costs to mobile customers -- a reported 6.7 people nationwide -- CANTV will also install 1.2 million fixed telephone lines in impoverished areas by the end of the year. Bloomberg reported that low-income customers of CANTV will enjoy a 10% reduction in the cost of local calls and 15% reduction for long-distance calls. The 11% value-added tax on phone calls made by low-income users will be eliminated in July.


Early this week, President Chavez has asked Pope Benedict XVI to apologize for suggesting that Native American Indians in Brazil were "purified" by Roman Catholic missionaries during colonization, comments which angered Indigenous leaders there and abroad. Reuters reported Monday that Chavez "accused the Pontiff on Friday of ignoring the "holocaust" that followed Christopher Columbus's 1492 landing in the Americas." By Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI had issued a partial correction of the statements. Reuters reports that Benedict recognize religious colonization entailed "injustices and sufferings," but maintained that indigenous groups were "silently longing" for Christianity.

Many news sources reported this week that the U.S. actor Danny Glover has received financing from the Venezuelan government to produce a film about Toussaint L'Ouverture, an Haitian man who led his country out of slavery to become the world's first free Black republic around the turn of the 19th Century. Glover has in the past appeared on President Chavez's weekly televised address, and the two share an interest in anti-racist efforts. Bringing L'Ouverture's story to the big screen may revive interest in an important leader in the history of the Americas.


Venezuela and Cuba continue to protest the release of Cuban-born terrorist Luis Posada Carriles by a U.S. court. The issue is now before the United Nations Security Council, and Venezuela's envoy to that body has accused Washington of "protection of a terrorist" and violating a 1922 extradition treaty signed by the two countries. Venezuela first requested the extradition of Posada in 2005, but this and subsequent petitions have been ignored, Reuters reported Wednesday. Venezuela has also asked the Organization of American States to condemn the U.S.'s release of Posada. Though Posada's bombings and other crimes have affected the citizens many countries in the Americas, a U.S. envoy to the OAS argued that "this is a bilateral issue between two OAS member states, not a multilateral issue.'' More than two weeks after charges against Posada were dropped by a Texas judge and the criminal allowed to go free in the U.S., the position of the OAS on the matter is still to be determined.


Finally, an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday finds that globalization holds few benefits for the poor. A correlation between globalization and inequality is cited, and the suggestion is made that the sense of alienation caused by globalization leads to social tensions and support for political leaders critical of unchecked market capitalism. Countries mentioned as examples are Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. With globalization, the increased movement of goods is often accompanied by human movement: the Miami Herald reports on Latin America's internal immigration problem, noting that the route from Colombia across the eastern border of that country into Venezuela sees the region's largest flow of migrants. As with immigration to the U.S., labor is the issue: new arrivals from other countries seek access to Venezuela's stronger job market. The Herald points out that President Chavez granted Venezuelan citizenship to about 500,000 undocumented migrants in 2004.

Media Advisory
Coup Co-Conspirators as Free-Speech Martyrs
Distorting the Venezuelan media story


The story is framed in U.S. news media as a simple matter of censorship: Prominent Venezuelan TV station RCTV is being silenced by the authoritarian government of President Hugo Chávez, who is punishing the station for its political criticism of his government.

According to CNN
reporter T.J. Holmes (5/21/07), the issues are easy to understand: RCTV "is going to be shut down, is going to get off the air, because of President Hugo Chávez, not a big fan of it." Dubbing RCTV "a voice of free speech,"Holmes explained, "Chavez, in a move that's angered a lot of free-speech groups, is refusing now to renew the license of this television station that has been critical of his government."

Though straighter, a news story by the Associated Press (5/20/07) still maintained the theme that the license denial was based simply on political differences, with reporter Elizabeth Munoz describing RCTV as "a network that has been critical of Chávez."

In a May 14 column, Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl called the action an attempt to silence opponents and more "proof" that Chávez is a "dictator." Wrote Diehl, "Chávez has made clear that his problem with [RCTV owner Marcel] Granier and RCTV is political."

In keeping with the media script that has bad guy Chávez brutishly silencing good guys in the democratic opposition, all these articles skimmed lightly over RCTV's history, the Venezuelan government's explanation for the license denial and the process that led to it.

RCTV and other commercial TV stations were key players in the April 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chávez's democratically elected government. During the short-lived insurrection, coup leaders took to commercial TV airwaves to thank the networks. "I must thank Venevisión and RCTV," one grateful leader remarked in an appearance captured in the Irish film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The film documents the networks' participation in the short-lived coup, in which stations put themselves to service as bulletin boards for the coup? hosting coup leaders, silencing government voices and rallying the opposition to a march on the Presidential Palace that was part of the coup plotters strategy.

On April 11, 2002, the day of the coup, when military and civilian opposition leaders held press conferences calling for Chávez's ouster, RCTV hosted top coup plotter Carlos Ortega, who rallied demonstrators to the march on the presidential palace. On the same day, after the anti-democratic overthrow appeared to have succeeded, another coup leader, Vice-Admiral Victor Ramírez Pérez, told a Venevisión reporter (4/11/02): "We had a deadly weapon: the media. And now that I have the opportunity, let me congratulate you."

That commercial TV outlets including RCTV participated in the coup is not at question; even mainstream outlets have acknowledged as much. As reporter Juan Forero, Jackson Diehl's colleague at the Washington Post, explained (1/18/07), "RCTV, like three other major private television stations, encouraged the protests," resulting in the coup, "and, once Chávez was ousted, cheered his removal." The conservative British newspaper the Financial Times reported (5/21/07), "[Venezuelan] officials argue with some justification that RCTV actively supported the 2002 coup attempt against Mr. Chávez."

As FAIR's magazine Extra!argued last November, "Were a similar event to happen in the U.S., and TV journalists and executives were caught conspiring with coup plotters, it's doubtful they would stay out of jail, let alone be allowed to continue to run television stations, as they have in Venezuela."

When Chávez returned to power the commercial stations refused to cover the news, airing instead entertainment programs?in RCTV's case, the American film Pretty Woman. By refusing to cover such a newsworthy story, the stations abandoned the public interest and violated the public trust that is seen in Venezuela (and in the U.S.) as a requirement for operating on the public airwaves. Regarding RCTV's refusal to cover the return of Chavez to power, Columbia University professor and former NPR editor John Dinges told Marketplace (5/8/07):

What RCTV did simply can't be justified under any stretch of journalisticprinciples?. When a television channel simply fails to report, simply goes off the air during a period of national crisis, notbecause they're forced to, but simply because they don't agree with what's happening, you've lost your ability to defend what you do on journalistic principles.

The Venezuelan government is basing its denial of license on RCTV's involvement in the 2002 coup, not on the station's criticisms of or political opposition to the government. Many American pundits and some human rights spokespersons have confused the issue by claiming the action is based merely on political differences, failing to note that Venezuela's media, including its commercial broadcasters, are still among the most vigorously dissident on the planet.

When Patrick McElwee of the U.S.-based group Just Foreign Policy
interviewed representatives of Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists?all groups that have condemned Venezuela's action in denying RCTV's license renewal?he found that none of the spokespersons thought broadcasters were automatically entitled to license renewals, though none of them thought RCTV's actions in support of the coup should have resulted in the station having its license renewal denied. This led McElwee to wonder, based on the rights groups' arguments, "Could it be that governments like Venezuela have the theoretical right to not to renew a broadcast license, but that no responsible government would ever do it?"

McElwee acknowledged the critics' point that some form of due process should have been involved in the decisions, but explained that laws preexisting Chávez's presidency placed licensing decision with the executive branch, with no real provisions for a hearings process: "Unfortunately, this is what the law, first enacted in 1987, long before Chávez entered the political scene, allows. It charges the executive branch with decisions about license renewal, but does not seem to require any administrative hearing. The law should be changed, but at the current moment when broadcast licenses are up for renewal, it is the prevailing law and thus lays out the framework in which decisions are made."

Government actions weighing on journalism and broadcast licensing deserve strong scrutiny. However, on the central question of a whether a government is bound to renew the license of a broadcaster when that broadcaster had been involved in a coup against the democratically elected government, the answer should be clear, as McElwee concludes:

The RCTV case is not about censorship of political opinion. It is about the government, through a flawed process, declining to renew a broadcast license to a company that would not get a license in other democracies, including the United States. In fact, it is frankly amazing that this company has been allowed to broadcast for 5 years after the coup, and that the Chávez government waited until its license expired to end its use of the public airwaves.

Feel free to respond to FAIR ( fair@fair.org ). We can't reply to everything, but we will look at each message. We especially appreciate documented examples of media bias or censorship. And please send copies of your correspondence with media outlets, including any responses, to fair@fair.org.

Free the Press . . . In June, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will make a major decision: Use the public airwaves for the public good, or turn them over to big companies who will stifle competition, innovation, and the wireless Internet revolution. http://www.civic.moveon.org/airwaves in all's interest, heh?

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