CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that an opposition-aligned TV channel will remain on cable for now, acting just hours before a government-set deadline that could have yanked it from the cable lineup.
The Supreme Court of Justice said in a statement that it suspended the telecommunications commission's order for Radio Caracas Television and other cable channels to register as national producers, a category that would require them to interrupt programming to carry some of President Hugo Chavez's speeches.
With its ruling, the court — which was selected by the Chavez-dominated National Assembly — defused a political standoff and opened the way for it to consider which cable and satellite channels should be bound by rules requiring domestic stations to transmit government-mandated programming.
RCTV, the country's oldest private channel, began transmitting by cable and satellite about six weeks after Chavez forced the station off the air by refusing to renew its broadcast license, a move that prompted protests by opponents who called it a blow to free expression.
Chavez accuses the station of supporting a 2002 coup that briefly removed him from power and insists freedom of expression is respected in Venezuela.
RCTV, which is fiercely critical of Chavez, faced a midnight Wednesday deadline to agree to carry Chavez's speeches or be yanked from the cable lineup. Wednesday's court decision gives the station a temporary reprieve but leaves it open to future court rulings.
RCTV executive Marcel Granier suggested the court decision was a way out of a difficult situation for the government. "After they made the rules against Radio Caracas, they realized that they would have to bust 45 more companies," he told the private channel Globovision.
The court's constitutional branch said it decided to take up the case, brought by cable and satellite TV channels, in part due to a lack of regulations clearly defining "national audiovisual production services" and which channels fall under that classification.
The channel RCTV International says it disagrees with the requirement to register and intends to be an "international channel." The telecommunications commission had given the channel until midnight Wednesday to register.
Venezuela's Chamber of Subscription Television asked the court to intervene and clarify which stations are considered national producers and what requirements they face, chamber president Mario Seijas said.
He said other channels could be affected and they should not have "to guess if they are obliged to register" or not.
Telecommunications Minister Jesse Chacon told Union Radio that RCTV, even as a cable channel, is still clearly a "national audiovisual production service" and is required to be properly registered.
Chacon said if RCTV refuses, "it is more for political than economic reasons."
"It's false that the government is taking it off cable," Chacon told Union Radio. "The only thing it has to do is register itself to be able to be on cable."
Many of Venezuela's media outlets are still privately owned and critical of Chavez. But the RCTV case has drawn criticism because only one other major TV broadcaster, Globovision, remains firmly sided with the opposition.
Chavez regularly takes over the airwaves for marathon speeches, requiring channels to carry portions of them in what is known under Venezuelan law as a "national network."
RCTV said being forced to carry such mandatory programming would make its operations "economically nonviable."
While other nations have similar provisions, few presidents use it as often as Chavez.