Thursday, April 26, 2007

What should replace RCTV? 

Over the coming weeks we are going to hear an lot about RCTV losing its broadcast license. Much of the discussion is likely to revolve around whether RCTV deserves to lose its license and whether that constitutes censorship or supression of free speach on the part of the government. This is unfortunate because as we’ve seen, for those familiar with the activities of RCTV over the past few years, there really isn’t much to discuss in this regard.

Rather, what needs to be discussed, and has much greater implication for the future of Venezuela, is what will replace RCTV. But before proceeding with that question we first have to back up a little.

Those familiar with present day Venezuela know that just as its society is highly polarized so too is its media. The electronic media is no exception to this. Want to hear an all pro-Chavez position all the time? Just turn on the government run VTV or Vive channels. Want to hear anti-Chavez views all the time? Just turn on the anti-Chavez RCTV and Globovision networks. Want to hear thoughtful and well balanced news that tries to make sure all sides are heard? Sorry, you’d be out of luck with that one in Venezuela. Probably the best you could do is watch a bunch of VTV then watch a bunch of Globovision and split the difference. To say that Venezuela has a dysfunctional media would be an understatement.

Another thing that needs to be considered before discussing how best to replace RCTV is what should a society want from the media? What construct of the media will promote the healthiest type of society and foster values that most people consider important?

Most people would probably want media that gives them as much information as possible. They would want information that is accurate as possible – though that is a tough one as veracity is often in the eye of the beholder. They would probably also want information wasn’t filtered, censored, or otherwise controlled by any one group; neither rich cliques nor governments.

It is interesting to compare how electronic media is currently structured in most countries with the ideals just listed. In the United States, Venezuela and most other countries the media is either controlled by the government (not good – who wants the government controlling the information available to them?) and/or wealthy corporations who have a seemingly permament monopoly over their airwaves (why should a handful of wealthy people be the trend setters and opinion makers for an entire society?).

It would seem then that the way the electronic media of most societies is controlled is quite flawed and really doesn’t serve the interests of a truly democratic and pluralistic society which most of us claim to want. However, these systems have been in place for so long and are so entrenched that it is practically unheard of for the way the media is structured and controlled to be questioned. But if we are ever to build the “more perfect” societies we want we need to question this arrangement and then change it. The RCTV case provides Venezuela with a perfect opportunity to do just that.

The question then becomes, is there any better system out there that could be put in place? Is there a way to make sure the media isn’t monopolized by particular groups, presents a wide range of viewpoints in a free, unfettered and uncensored way?

The answer is yes. In fact there is a real system that has been used in a real country for decades – the Dutch Public Television system. Up until 1989 commercial televisions stations were banned in the Netherlands. Instead there were a number of public stations that broadcast a very wide variety of programming. And rather than being controlled by the government they were (and still are to a significant extent) controlled and operated by various political, religious, cultural and other groupings. Hence the media is controlled in part by the Catholic Church, Protestant churches, trade unions, youth groups, conservative and liberal political parties, etc.

Of course there has to be some system for controlling who controls what stations and for how much air time. And there was. Each group that wanted air time would have to register as a formal entity and then how much airtime it got would be in direct proportion to how many Dutch citizens signed up with that group. In other words the airwaves were completely democratized. The Dutch people themselves controlled what was broadcast.

How could this be applied to Venezuela and what does it have to do with the RCTV situation? Simple. The broadcast frequency of RCTV will soon be freed up so it will be free to be used a Dutch style system. But while I wouldn’t propose replacing the entire television system in Venezuela with a Dutch type system they would probably need to do this with more than just one station.

Given that the first station being converted would be a pro-opposition station the logical and fair choice for a second station would be one that currently is controlled by pro-Chavez forces – say Vive TV. That would have two networks be part of this system and would mean their combined airtime (up to 48 hours per day) would be large enough to accommodate a large number of different groups wanting broadcast time. It would also leave one solidly pro-Chavez station (VTV) and one solidly opposition station (Globovision)on the air for the extremists on each side to watch.

Also, in the untrusting environment of Venezuela instead of people joining groups, which they might be afraid to do, they could vote by secret ballot once a year for various broadcasting groups. Those groups would get air time in proportion to how many votes they got (the system could be weighted to limit the time of groups with lots of votes while giving more time to groups with fewer votes as a way of promoting diversity).

This system would be open to all. Instead of just watching what some billionaires want you to see or what the government views as being worthy Venezuelans could watch what environmental groups want to show; or what political parties like Primero Justicia or the Tupamaros want; what the Catholic church might show and also what gay and lesbian groups chose to broadcast. Even RCTV could set up its own group and if enough people voted for it they would have broadcast time too.

This system would be quite an improvement over the way Venezuela’s media is currently controlled. There would be more points of view, more ideas, more freedom, and more diversity – all of which are important things which should be fostered in any society. And they would be decided upon by the people themselves in a democratic way – not controlled by the government, not by a rich clique, nor by who is most assertive in a supposedly “community controlled” station.

Of course there are details that would have to be worked out. Any system has its flaws and this would be no exception. It would have to be perfected over time. But the alternatives are worse. The coup-aiding RCTV certainly deserves to lose its broadcast license. But if what replaces it is controlled by some other small group, or the government, is Venezuela really that much better off? Or would it jut be replacing the propaganda of the right with the propaganda of the left?

It is clear to me that the RCTV case provides Venezuela with the opportunity to take a BIG step forward in how its media is controlled or a BIG step backwards. How to make sure that the big step is forward, not backward, is the debate that should be taking place right now.


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