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Garzón, ‘clowns’ and freedom of speech and dissent on the left… June 22, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in media, Media and Journalism, The Left.

Who would be Judge Baltasar Garzón?

According to a report in todays Guardian he has fallen foul of the Venezuelan government. Apparently in reference to the non-renewal of the license for opposition TV station RCTV he said that “closing a medium of communication was not the best means for guaranteeing freedom of speech”.
The response from the Chavez administration had been rapid. The Guardian notes that…

Mr Garzón’s intervention prompted a furious response. The deputy president, Jorge Rodríguez, told a rally that the judge was a “clown” who spoke on behalf of privately owned media organisations. The foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, said the judge’s comments were “cowardly and sad”, and echoed anti-Chávez propaganda from Washington. “It appears he has become a mercenary”.

The president of Venezuela’s supreme court, Luisa Estella Morales, said Mr Garzón lacked ethics and morals.

It’s not a big thing, but Garzón is a man of the left, or as the Guardian notes:

The strength of the response reflected official sensitivity about criticism of Mr Chávez, even if indirect and from a figure who would normally be considered on the same side of the ideological fence.

Indeed he would be. A quick perusal of wiki indicates that Garzón was not merely the man who issued an arrest warrant for Pinochet, but also was active in seeing that Argentinian junta members were open to prosecution on genocide charges for the murder of Spanish citizens. He has been strongly antagonistic to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and was against the Iraq war. George Bush is also under ‘threat’ since Garzón plans to sue him.

He was a member of the PSOE, and tellingly adheres to a strongly pro-Madrid line on the Basque issue (which must make for some intriguing conversations in his head about previous PSOE administrations and their stance and activities on that issue – although his work was pivotal to the later conviction of a PSOE minister due to acts related to the GAL).

But all in all he is broadly of the left, certainly the humanitarian left (and distinctly not of the ‘cruise-missile’ left).

Whatever about him, the response from the Venezeulan government appears disproportionate. I’m always a bit troubled when governments use injudicious language. We saw a good example of same in this country in the not too distant past where a government minister was able to make allegations about a journalist. And the point is that government is often a bully pulpit.

As to the rights and wrongs of the issue, in principle Garzón is clearly correct in so far as any abridgement of press freedom, even that of such a partisan voice of that which he (indirectly) defends. He’s not alone in that, Human Rights Watch amongst others is disturbed by the action.
Problem is that the victim does appear to be at least in part the architect of its own downfall. And this sits on a line where it is hard to see it as a massive infringement of press freedom.

Yet the principle remains and to my mind to close any media outlet necessitates considerable deliberation.

But what is truly depressing is the sort of proto-Jacobinical language that is used. Garzón is no ‘clown’. He is indeed quite the opposite, whatever one might view his position on individual issues. He is not an enemy of the Chavez government. He has simply enunciated a principled position. And even if that position is one that the Chavez government disagrees with, as indeed is their absolute right, it demands a better discourse than ‘clown’ or ‘lack of ethics or morals’. It’s pointless to – often correctly – accuse others of bullying by their words and actions and then take the lift down to their level. That rather macho rhetoric is empty and counterproductive.

And that goes for a broader discourse within the left. Those with opinions that are different, difficult to listen to or to accept also demand a respectful hearing, even – perhaps particularly – in a context where agreement cannot be reached.

That too is difficult, but it’s the right thing to do.


1. ejh - June 23, 2007

One curiosity is that a leading figure on the Latin American left doesn’t appear to have heard of Garzón, which given the latter’s role in the pursuit of Pinochet is passably strange.

I think this is probably a situation where people are fed up with being criticised in a way that they (with some justice) consider hypocritical and inappropriate – I’m thinking of the general criticism on this issue, not what Garzón specifically said – and of course when you lash out you end up hitting out at the wrong target.


2. I.O - June 23, 2007

The Guardian and ejh are taking a pretty benign view of this. The less rosy take is that maybe the closure of the station and the hyperbolic attack on Garzón are simply symptoms of an intolerance of any criticism.

Also what does the political stance of Garzón have to do with anything? The attacks would still have been OTT if they had come from a right winger.

Btw what’s the ‘cruise-missile’ left?


3. Pidge - June 24, 2007

I think (and I could be wrong) a “cruise-missile” left refers to a pro-interventionist left (for example, lefties who supported the war in/on Iraq).

I never quite know what to think of Chavez. One day he seems to be doing good things, the next he’s speaking like a tabloid editorial.


4. Worldbystorm - June 24, 2007

Three thoughts. Firstly it is odd that they don’t seem to know who Garzón is and what he has done. Secondly, I take the point that his political stance should not be material, but in the context of my first thought it is bizarre that they would attack him with such vitriol. Thirdly Chavez and his government appears to me to be largely benign, but exceedingly populist in tone and – perhaps – approach. But there is also a sense of a the jury being at least slightly out…


5. ejh - June 24, 2007

The less rosy take is that maybe the closure of the station and the hyperbolic attack on Garzón are simply symptoms of an intolerance of any criticism

A certain amount of hyperbole in this comment too, since criticism of Chávez in the Venezuelan media remains rife and remains tolerated. Hence my benign view.


6. franklittle - June 25, 2007

“closing a medium of communication was not the best means for guaranteeing freedom of speech”.

This Garzón quote, referenced in WBS’ piece, should in and of itself undermine the very argument he is making. Garzón has ordered the shutting down of a political party, two newspapers (Including the best-selling paper in the Basque Country at the time), a radio station, a Basque cultural group, two Basque youth organisations and a Basque support organisation for the families of Basque prisoners. And those are just the ones I know of off-hand. I’m not sure what role he had, if any, in more recent bannings of electoral lists in Basque elections.

He is a one-man offensive against the principle of free speech and the right to politically organise. Whatever criticisms are to be made of some of Chavez’s actions in Venezuala, and I am personally not wholly comfortable with the decision not to renew the licence for RCTV, the notion that Balthazar Garzón, of all people, feels in a position to lecture anyone about free speech is nothing short of ridiculous.

While certainly, ‘of the left’ in a broad, very broad, social democratic sense in many of the positions he has taken, he is also a committed Spanish centralist. As well as the traditional left/right split in Spain, there is a longstanding fissure along the lines of a centralised Spanish state and one with greater degrees of regional autonomy going back decades.

Anthony Beevor convincingly argues in his book on the Spanish Civil War that as well as a war between the left and the right, there were internal conflicts on both sides, occasionally breaking out into violence, between those in each camp on either side of the debate about the status of the regions in Spain.


7. ejh - June 25, 2007

there is a longstanding fissure along the lines of a centralised Spanish state and one with greater degrees of regional autonomy going back decades.

There is, but PSOE largely supports the principle of regional autonomy (though opposing independence referenda) while the PP is very much opposed.


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