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Freedom marching in reverse
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Hugo Chavez may be a thug, but he’s no dummy. He knows that with a packed Supreme Court, a rump Congress, a divided opposition and — tragically true — a good deal of support from The People, Venezuela’s free press is one of the few remaining institutions strong enough to keep him from realizing his dream of grabbing absolute power.
So he has set out to destroy it. His government has refused to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Television, Venezuela’s oldest and most popular network. It went off the air for the first time in 53 years.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to protest, but you’d hardly know it from watching the news as the Chavez-friendly operation that replaced RCTV ran an orgy of self-congratulatory cheesiness in its first hours of life, instead of covering the controversy.
Which is exactly what Chavez wants. A tame press that reports just the nice stuff. All those lovely stories about how thrilled Vietnam's deputy minister of agriculture is to be among his Venezuelan amigos.
Chavez and his supporters charged that RCTV supported the failed coup of 2002.
What actually happened? RCTV ran continuous live coverage of anti-Chavez protests, with little coverage of pro-Chavez marches.
Unbalanced reporting, sure. Irresponsible journalism, yes. But one price to pay for freedom of the press is that governments have no right whatsoever to censor journalists for being incompetent or biased. Only journalists should police journalists.
Of course, actual treason or openly calling for the assassination of the head of state crosses the line and can justify legal intervention. But RCTV did not cross that line. Instead, they are being persecuted for their political beliefs.
The accusation of “coupmongers” is a pretext to silence Chavez’s opponents. The license-renewal issue provided the perfect opportunity to act, and Chavez is now gunning for another independent news operation, Globovision.
Venezuela still has at least two major opposition newspapers in Caracas, El Nacional and El Universal. They are not licensed like broadcast companies. Chavez has not found a way to shut them up.
Human-rights organizations, journalist groups, Western Europe and the Bush administration condemned the lights out for RCTV. So did some fellow Latin Americans, including former Mexican President Vicente Fox (with whom Chavez has butted heads more than once) said it was “a step toward dictatorship.”
But Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderon, has kept a low profile, even though he and Fox are from the same party, and even though Chavez’s government refuses to recognize Calderon's tight electoral victory over his Chavez-backed opponent last year.
Latin America’s other regional power, Brazil, has also kept silent; President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called it an internal Venezuelan issue.
Ah, the precious principle of nonintervention, the last refuge of those who don't mind seeing freedom stepped on, as long as it's the left boot doing the crushing.

Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.
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