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Under Chavez, time is running out on free speech for Venezuela

As Venezuela continues to move down a dark road toward the abolition of free speech and a free press, it is time for Congress to take a stand.

President Hugo Chavez is days away from shutting down Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest and most popular television network. RCTV has been on the air for over 40 years, and with its mix of news, comedy, soap operas and other entertainment programming, it is the Caracas equivalent of NBC or CBS.

The station also happens to be one of the last independent voices in Venezuela’s broadcast media willing to criticize the Chavez regime — and Hugo Chavez would rather there be none.

RCTV’s 20-year license comes up for renewal May 27, and Chavez is using the opportunity to drive the station from the airwaves. “Forget about renewal,” Chavez said on his own radio and television show, “Alo Presidente!” “What you should accept is a fact that is quite clear: The license is expiring.”

To get a sense of the magnitude of Chavez’s move against RCTV, imagine if a U.S. president, angry at jokes about him on “Saturday Night Live” and unhappy with critical reports about his administration on the “Nightly News,” directed the Federal Communications Commission to shut NBC down — and for good. Fortunately, we can’t imagine that happening in the United States. No president would try; and perhaps more importantly, it would not be allowed.

The people of Venezuela are not simply accepting their ruler’s effort to silence the political opposition. Thousands marched in the streets of Caracas calling on Chavez to renew RCTV’s license. In retaliation the president sent thugs employed by government-funded radio stations to trash RCTV headquarters, defacing the building with slogans against its general manager, Marcel Grannier.

The people of Venezuela do not like what they have seen. In a recent poll of Venezuelans, 70 percent said they opposed the government’s plan to shut down RCTV. Caracas pollster Luis Vicente Leon told Bloomberg News that nothing in Chavez’s eight-year presidency has been viewed as negatively by so many Venezuelans. Calls have increased for international bodies, such as the United Nations and the European Union, to take action to protect Venezuela freedom of the press.

To say that Hugo Chavez is unapologetic would be a gross understatement. “People who believe they can put pressure on me by appealing to international organizations, foreign governments, and the evil court of this and that, with demonstrations, forget it!”

Chavez has ignored pleas from The Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the Inter-American Press Association, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And when Costa Rican President (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Oscar Arias criticized Chavez’s strong-arm tactics, including the move against RCTV, Venezuela promptly responded by shutting down an aluminum plant it owns in Costa Rica, putting 400 people out of work.

Freedom House reports that press freedom has declined dramatically in Venezuela over the past several years. In its annual review of global press freedom, released in early May, Freedom House named Venezuela as one of two nations in the hemisphere that are “not free,” with Cuba being the other country.

The threat to reject RCTV’s license renewal is just one of many examples of the Chavez government coercing the Venezuelan press. Perhaps most menacing has been the expansion of the country’s desacato laws, which make it a criminal offense to insult the president or other government officials.

Mr. Chavez has not been exclusively cracking down on independent media voices; he has been aggressively expanding his own media empire, regularly preempting commercial radio and television programs, in addition to seizing control of media assets. The Venezuelan government is not merely putting RCTV out of business; Mr. Chavez’s regime will be taking control of the station’s frequency to use for its own programming.

We should be standing up against Mr. Chavez’s crackdown on the independent media. The Fortuño resolution (H. Con. Res. 50) has 40 cosponsors and continues to gain support in Congress. This legislation would call on the government of Venezuela “to abide by its freely undertaken obligations under international human rights treaties and international law to respect and ensure the rights of all individuals, irrespective of their political views.” Furthermore, the measure expresses support for the secretary general of the Organization of American States for his support for freedom of expression in Venezuela.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has made an admirable effort to call attention to the deterioration of press freedom in Venezuela. There is plenty of room for press freedom groups and other international organizations to do more. Free-speech advocate Blanquita Cullum will address the issue at the upcoming gathering of over 700 talk show hosts in New York. The first step is to dramatically raise public awareness, so that the 70 percent of Venezuelans who oppose Mr. Chavez’s attack on RCTV realize that their concerns are shared and that their calls for basic human rights and freedoms are not being ignored. The U.S. Congress has a responsibility in all of this to side with the people of Venezuela.

On May 27, if RCTV goes dark, so does the hope of Venezuela’s free press to cover, report, and express their views openly and freely.

Fortuño represents Puerto Rico in Congress. Cullum is a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and chairwoman of the Talk Radio First Amendment Committee.