Neoconservative forces, via compliant media outlets and Christian right groupings within the European parliament, are preparing their latest attack on Hugo Chávez and the government of Venezuela. The latest focus of the campaign is the decision of Venezuela's broadcasting authorities not to renew the licence of the private television channel RCTV. The anti-Chávez apparatus once again presents a test for Foreign Office ministers.
Washington's outriders characterise the decision as an affront to freedom of speech, yet the facts speak in louder tones. Over 80% of Venezuelan television and radio outlets are privately owned; this excludes a number of cable and satellite television networks that are widely available. Of this 80%, significant sections are owned by corporate groups. According to a recent New York Times editorial, this has led to a situation in which "even the best news outlets tend to be openly ideological...so the owners' views can permeate reporting".
Almost all Venezuelan newspapers remain in private hands. The press is free to report, and express opinions, without government interference. Most do so with considerable brio on a daily basis. No media outlet has encountered licensing problems for the expression of political views. No journalist has been imprisoned or punished for report or comment.
In RCTV's case, 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.
In the UK, if Channel 4 aided an attempted coup against the government that resulted in civil unrest and even death, would anyone be supporting the renewal of its licence? RCTV has lost its licence because its wealthy owners slanted news coverage to provide support to the April 2002 coup against Chávez and the elected government. This will not be news to those who gathered in parliament last week to view John Pilger's excellent documentary The War on Democracy, which shows footage of RCTV involvement.
As the coup failed and Venezuelans questioned Chávez's "resignation", RCTV prohibited correspondents from airing these developments.
So what hope that our representatives in the EU might withstand rightwing pressure and argue against a discriminatory move against Venezuela at a meeting in Strasbourg next week? If the Foreign Office's public strategy document Latin America to 2020 is anything to go by, not very much.
Lord Triesman, the document's main author and a Foreign Office minister, outlines an adherence to free-market liberalism and singularly defined democracy as the prerequisites for UK engagement in Latin America. The document shows our government remains committed to the neoliberal model as a means of tackling the highest levels of social inequality in the world. However, anyone interested in nations such as Venezuela or Bolivia can see that the "Washington consensus" trade and aid packages have failed the most desperate people of those nations.
In the document, many Latin American leaders are named and congratulated, yet Chávez receives no such recognition. The Foreign Office appears to ignore the reasons for the popularity of Chávez, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador: the failure of neoliberal policies imposed by Washington and endorsed by the EU.
It is not too late for a Labour government to engage with those who wish to achieve justice for their peoples. Events in Strasbourg next week provide an opportunity for the UK government to show reason and goodwill.
Colin Burgon is Labour MP for Elmet and chair of Labour Friends of Venezuela firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2007 The Guardian