WASHINGTON—Following the government’s decision not to renew its broadcast license for the alleged violation of ethical standards, Venezuela’s oldest TV network went off the air on Sunday. Consequently, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), the pugnacious media outlet that was too much for Hugo Chavez to bear, has become Latin America’s latest cause celebre.

It is not easy for those who are unfamiliar with the region’s history to understand the big fuss over Chavez’s decision to close down RCTV. I have seen many news stories in the United States and elsewhere that betray a certain incredulity with regard to the heroic status being accorded to the broadcast network and its chief executive officer, Marcel Granier. After all, these stories seem to imply, this is a bureaucratic matter and, however arbitrary Chavez’s decision may seem, RCTV had gone beyond the boundaries of independent journalism and become a political instrument against the authorities.

Leaving aside the obvious argument that the judgment over a broadcast network’s journalistic content should be left to the viewers, and that Chavez’s track record makes him an unsuitable custodian of any country’s morals, there is a deeper reason why the case of RCTV is worthy of universal attention. It has to do with the role that, in the absence of checks and balances in the steady march toward totalitarianism in Venezuela, this network was forced to play.

Forced by circumstances, RCTV had become in recent years something of a surrogate National Assembly, a surrogate Supreme Court, and a surrogate electoral authority. “We are not politicians,” Granier told me a few days ago, “but in a situation like this you cannot avoid being perceived as part of the political struggle by those who lack effective representation or democratic safeguards, and by those responsible for doing away with both. Simply by providing information to a society starved for information we were placed in that position.”

This is keeping with tradition in Latin America and some other places, where the recurrence of tyranny has often forced civic institutions to substitute for political parties or opposition leaders. During the 1960s and 1970s, Brazil became the soap opera capital of the world. Due to censorship of the media, Brazilians began to see their soap operas as a more accurate reflection of real life than the information they were fed in news bulletins. Similarly, in many Latin American and some Central European countries, the work of novelists seemed more respectable and credible than the official institutions.

In some nations, media outlets have assumed political roles. During the Somoza dictatorship, the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa became such a powerful symbol that its owner, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, was killed by government thugs. After Somoza’s fall, Chamorro’s widow, a homemaker, was catapulted by forces beyond her control onto the civic arena; she became the bane of the Sandinista dictatorship and eventually won the presidential elections.

Granier and his TV network are profoundly deserving of the solidarity they are getting from millions of Venezuelans and from governments, international bodies and world leaders who are denouncing the heinous act against this 54-year-old institution that employed 3,000 workers. RCTV, the flagship of the 1BC corporation, is the latest chapter in a long tradition of civic virtue turned into political necessity at a time of extreme peril to a nation’s freedom. The decision, a few days ago, by Venezuela’s Supreme Court—the institution that should have reversed Chavez’s diktat—to confiscate RCTV’s broadcast equipment, adding insult to injury, exemplifies the circumstances that have made Granier and his journalists a reference for those desperate to find something or someone who embodies justice in Venezuela.

RCTV had the perfect leader in these extreme circumstances: a serene man who never flinched in the face of awesome forces—not when Chavez promulgated the Law of Social Responsibility and amended the penal code a couple of years ago to muzzle the broadcast media, not when government-organized “Bolivarian circles” attacked his employees, not when his coffin was paraded through the streets as a death threat.

Chavez is right to fear such a man. Granier tripled his company’s investments in Venezuela when everything told him he might come to regret that decision, and, through critical journalism and entertainment, managed to command 44 percent of the national audience. In characteristic spirit, Granier said, “We will go back to work on Monday even if we are off the air and people cannot see what we are doing.” In Chavez-land, such a man is indeed intolerable.