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Regional court orders Venezuela to reinstate RCTV's on-air license

This statement was originally published on cpj.org on 8 September 2015.

A recent ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordering Venezuela to reinstate the broadcasting license of Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, sets an important precedent for freedom of expression in the hemisphere, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. RCTV has been confined to cable and satellite since being forced off the air in 2007.

"We welcome this ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as an important victory for freedom of expression in the Americas," said CPJ Americas Senior Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría. "The court stated that Venezuela violated freedom of expression by punishing RCTV for its critical editorial line in an attempt to silence dissent. We now urge Venezuelan authorities to comply with the ruling and return RCTV back to the airwaves."

The Costa Rica-based court, an autonomous judicial institution which is part of the human rights protection system of the Organization of American States (OAS), ruled that the withdrawal of RCTV's license was a "restriction on the exercise of freedom of expression designed to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions." The ruling was dated June 22 but made public on Monday.

The court said that the Venezuelan government's decision not to renew the TV station's broadcast license was predetermined and based on its editorial line, according to the decision which was reviewed by CPJ. The court said the government misused its power, which "had an impact on freedom of expression, not just on RCTV workers and executives, but also on the public's right to access RCTV's editorial line." The real purpose of Venezuela's decision, the court said, was "to silence critics of the government."

RCTV has operated in Venezuela since 1953 and had an editorial stance that was critical of the administration of the late President Hugo Chávez. The shutdown of RCTV, together with an array of legislation, threats, and regulatory measures, have gradually broken down Venezuela's independent press, CPJ research shows.

The court gave Venezuela one year to reinstate RCTV on the air. IACHR decisions are binding on member nations. Venezuela withdrew from the American Convention on Human Rights in 2012, but the government must comply with the court's decision as RCTV was forced off the air five years previously.

The case, Marcel Granier and others vs. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, was the first brought before the inter-American system that directly involved a state's decision not to renew the license of a free-to-air television station.

"The ruling sets an important precedent for governments who use assignment of licenses to inhibit critical voices," Catalina Botero, former OAS special rapporteur for freedom of expression, told CPJ. "It represents an act of justice to the people who were arbitrarily displaced from their jobs in RCTV based on their opinions," said Edison Lanza, the current OAS rapporteur.

In May 2014, CPJ and the New York City Bar Association filed an amicus brief before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, arguing that Venezuela's refusal in 2007 to renew RCTV's broadcast license violated Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and was "a violation of settled inter-American principles of freedom of speech and the rule of law."

The brief was submitted for the New York City Bar Association by the Committee on Communications & Media Law and the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, and was prepared by the New York-based law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, whose lawyers include litigation partner Jeremy Feigelson and Thomas H. Norgaard, a Venezuela- and U.S.-trained lawyer who focuses on international law matters.

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