Adopting Arguments of Debevoise Client, Human Rights Court Issues Precedential Ruling to Reinstate RCTV on the Air

11 September 2015

A recent ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ordered Venezuela to reinstate the broadcasting license of Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, setting an important precedent for freedom of expression in the Americas. The ruling adopts arguments made by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the New York City Bar Association as amici curiae, represented by Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.

In May 2007, the Chavez regime in Venezuela refused to renew the broadcast license of RCTV, an independent station that has operated in Venezuela since 1953 and did not follow the regime’s preferences in its broadcast content. RCTV has been confined to cable and satellite since being forced off the air in 2007. RCTV and its supporters contended that the non-renewal violated Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and – as the amici stated – was “a violation of settled inter-American principles of freedom of speech and the rule of law.”

The Costa Rica-based Inter-American 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 court said that the Venezuelan government’s decision not to renew the TV station’s broadcast license was predetermined and based on RCTV’s 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.”

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 challenged a member state’s decision not to renew the license of a free-to-air television station.

The Debevoise team was led by partner Jeremy Feigelson and associate Thomas H. Norgaard, and included associates Terra L. Gearhart-Serna, Jarad I. Kagan and Joseph B. Rome who worked on the brief with the City Bar’s Committee on Communications & Media Law and Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice.