Sean Penn’s Hero, Killer of Free Speech

Joining those mourning the passing of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela recently, Sean Penn called him “a great hero to the majority of his people.”

But how would he know?

The final nail was driven into the coffin of independent journalism in Venezuela last week with the forced sale of the last remaining television network critical of the government, Globovision. Guillermo Zuloaga, Globovision’s truly heroic owner, explained that the station became unviable after a campaign of harassment against it, including the imposition of millions of dollars in fines:

Globovisión is “on the wrong side of an all-powerful government which wants to see us fail,” Mr. Zuloaga wrote. “On the contrary, we are harassed by the institutions of the state, backed by a Supreme Court which is its accomplice and collaborates in everything that can hurt us.”

His license for Globovision up for renewal in two years, Mr. Zuloagao also faced the specter of owning a television station with no license:

As president, Mr. Chávez moved aggressively to take over the airwaves, opening a plethora of state-run channels that gave him supportive coverage. In 2007, the government went after private broadcasters, ordering that the license of the biggest and most outspoken broadcaster, RCTV, not be renewed. The move forced it off the airwaves. The government then later forced the channel off cable television as well.

Mr. Zuloaga was forced to flee Venezuela in 2010, after his arrest for “saying on a television show that Venezuela lacked freedom of expression.”

Well, yes, being arrested for saying there’s a lack of freedom of expression might be a sign of the statement’s veracity.

The “sale” is to a man believed to be a front for the government, and sends a chill down the spines of all who value independent journalism.

A value one would have assumed those such as Mr. Penn would hold dear.

If Mr. Penn is holding to a strictly utilitarian view—”the ends justify the means,” “one must accept the loss of a little freedom in exchange for the benefits being provided the downtrodden,” etc.—he might be interested in a few facts on that count, as well:

The central bank admits that over the past 10 years inflation in food and nonalcoholic beverages is 1,284%, and that food shortages are increasingly prevalent.

Given that food comprises a disproportionately high share of the poor’s expenditures, one might think this would be seen as disproportionately hurting the poor. But I guess not for Mr. Penn.


Economic hardship isn’t the only heavy burden that Chávez’s constituents bear. The official murder rate in 2012 was 73 per 100,000 inhabitants and the killing is happening mostly in low-income neighborhoods. Families of crime victims have no hope of getting justice for their loved ones.

By contrast, the murder rate in the U.S.—with “epidemic” gun violence—is 4.2 per 100,000.

I’m not sure just what Mr. Penn’s definition of “hero” is, but surely even in Hollywood it’s a stretch to so label a man who gags the press, puts life’s necessities out reach, and greatly increases the poor’s chances of death by violence.

See also the related post on our Spanish-language blog: “Venezuela: Desaparece el único canal crítico de la tiranía chavista

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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