THE MEDIA IN VENEZUELA (part 1)
The story of the "opposition" media
Wednesday 8, October 2003
It is rather difficult to try to write an objective article on this subject these days. In particular after the Chavez administration last Friday maimed our largest news network, Globovision (1). Perhaps the best thing to try is to describe what is the situation of the media today. Since it would be a rather long article I will do it in three stages. First I will describe the “opposition” media, its roots and what it claims to have been suffering since Chavez has reached office in February 1999. Then, for the second installment I will describe what has Chavez done with the state media, and what he has done to affect the media that opposes him. The last installment will be dedicated to the written media, electronic or paper.
HOW THE “OPPOSITION” MEDIA BECAME THE “OPPOSITION” MEDIA
Last Friday CONATEL, the regulating agency in matters of broadcast permits, seized the microwave transmitters of Globovision, thus making it impossible for the all news network to transmit live, its “raison d’être”. As the days have been unfolding it seems more and more that there was few, if any, legality in the process of last Friday. Discussing the technicalities is not our point here, but rather how we came to this situation.
Chavez was elected on a show of popular support and initially the private networks of Venezuela did not overtly confront him, if anything because he was high rating material. Certainly, the owners were not likely supportive of someone like Chavez, a support that some papers did, papers that today are his bitter opponents. But in the first few months talk shows and opinion programs were dominated by the Chavez supporters. This is very important to note since there is a certain school of journalists, here and abroad (2), that have made a career of saying that the media always opposed Chavez, always blocked him, always obscured his message until eventually they led the April 11 take over. These apologists of Chavez must not have visited Venezuela the first few months of Chavez tenure.
The relationship with Chavez soured when the Constituent Assembly was convened. The electoral campaign was pushed hard by Chavez even though the political opposition was rather despondent. Chavez was not afraid to use the tool of the “cadena” during the campaign even though the legality was more than questionable. This caused not only disruptions in the networks organization, but loss of revenues. The situation became more tense as the Constituent Assembly addressed the articles that would define the role of the media in the new constitution (3). When the august assembly used words such as “Informacion Veraz” (“true information”), this words were seen as code words for censorship, or at least its lesser form, self-censorship. In a country that is difficult to cover, where people tend to let their imagination run free, it is not possible to certify fast veridical information. Only the right to reply or a legal time lapse for verification and correction can work.
December 1999 was tough on the networks. The referendum to vote for the constitution brought more “cadenas” and tensions as the opposition made its first attempt at reviving as Chavez charged head on. The natural disaster of Vargas and the difficulty to cover it, difficulties sometimes created by the government that perhaps did not want to show all of the disaster, the applications of some new constitutional measures that changed the old regime judicial staff in the middle of the holidays disrupted the system more than necessary.
The year 2000 brought the country to a new reality. First, Chavez retained his electoral bite as a new set of elections where scheduled for May 2000. Second, after a year of rule the first hints of corruption were noted and the evidence of the administration incompetence became harder to hide. Of course, the media started reporting on these things. As the opposition seemed unable to gain any momentum the media opinion talk shows slowly but surely became to be seen as the voice of the opposition. This role of the media is in a way universally true: private media, independent media is always somehow in the opposition. After all, its role is to report on what goes wrong within the country and whether they like it governments do usually bear a significant share of the blame.
The media-predicted collapse of the May 28 election can be considered as the definitive breaking point. An upset Chavez, facing the postponement of the elections until July 2000, might have decided to blame the messenger. We will never know. The fact is that it was during that 2000 campaign that Chavez started attacking the press, attacking the journalists “that were letting their conscience bought by special interests” (4). The results were not long in coming: excited Chavez supporters started throwing stones at journalists trying to cover political events. The rest is history.
THE COMPOSITION OF THE BROADCAST MEDIA TODAY
The private media in Venezuela comprises 5 national networks and several independent local stations. Directing a TV network today is an expensive proposition and all the private networks are linked to big business interests, one of them, Venevision linked to the first global media company originating from Venezuela, the Cisneros family. This of course brings the same type of claims that one sees North, such as the Murdoch group.
Three networks offer a mix of soaps, news and entertainment, and they try to differentiate themselves with their socio-economic targets. Thus, intuitively we could assume that at least the two major ones, RCTV and Venevision would try to avoid to upset the same social base that Chavez courts. Globovision is an all news network, CNN like. Some of the local stations are actually loosely tied to Globovision since they tend to be local all news station. Promar in Barquisimeto is such an example. Finally there is the State network, VTV who in theory should be a cultural and information vehicle.
The radio bands tend to divide along the same lines, some more or less affiliated with the TV networks, some being a large assemblage of local radio stations such as Union Radio. No radio system, like in the US, is allowed to reach every major market in the country. The government counts on the only radio system that extends across the entire nation, through FM or AM, RNV.
There is a plethora of “independent”, “community oriented” radio and TV stations that have been sprouting lately. It is not clear how this system is legally operating.
HOW DO THE MEDIA WORK TODAY
It is important to point out one thing: so far it is true that pretty much everyone can say whatever he or she wants, sometimes to excess. Be it the community radios, be it the constant private network drumming during the December 2002 strike. Or be it some rather improper material shown on children hours, either soap operas of dubious content, or the violent speeches of Chavez in an afternoon “cadena”. The State has definitely failed in providing some guidelines that could be respected and followed by all parts.
This being said, private networks have been suggesting for a couple of years now that Chavez would eventually counter their freedom of speech. Speeches where these menaces have been proffered are countless. And the recent intervention of Globovision might indicate that the moment has arrived.
Nevertheless, there is something very different about the media today. Venezuela is probably the only country where the daily work gear of the journalist on the beat includes a helmet, a bulletproof vest and a tear gas mask. You can see that equipment spotted from any journalist of the private media. Indeed, these days are tough for journalists working in for the private media. Since 2000, attacks to journalists have crossed the 200 cases, many of them resulting in injuries. Several TV cars have been burnt or trashed by Chavez supporters. Personally I saw live on TV three journalists and cameraman from Promar being attacked in a Barquisimeto square. This makes for impressive viewing at lunch time news. A newspaper photograph, Jaime Tortosa, was killed on April 11 2002.
Does the private media has reasons to complain? Assuredly. Is the media exaggerating its role in its opposition to Chavez? Possibly. Does Chavez bear a significant part of the blame? Likely. Can you get objective information from private TV? The images do not lie and one is always free to turn off the sound. Can you get good balance from the State TV? Read the next installment.
(1) Links to many of the organizations mentioned here can be found in the one page portal Venezuela Today.
(2) One of the most notorious exponents of the networks as conspirators and “golpistas” is the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique through the pen of its editor Ramonet or one of its journalist Lemoine. This magazine should not be confused with Le Monde, the respected French daily which has had a considerably more critical approach on Chavez and its political movement. Other examples of this theory can be picked in Forero’s article in the New York Times. A recent visit by some US journalists shows how necessary it is to know the events of 1999 and 2000 to understand today’s situation. The Carter foundation sponsored a visit by two journalists, Ellen Dzik and Francis Rolt, who were quick to point out ways in how the media contributed to the escalating Venezuelan violence, but where not as convincing at demonstrating their understanding of Chavez’s role in that increasing violence.
(3) The Constituent Assembly was dominated by 95% of chavista representatives even though their total vote was around 60%. The fears of imposing certain unpalatable views in the constitution was not unfounded.
(4) One of the most known attacks by Chavez against a media celebrity was when he asked publicly Zapata, the decades long op-ed caricaturist of the prestigious El Nacional, how much he was being paid to draw unfavorable cartoons of the Revolution. Zapata, whose prestige is immense within Venezuelans of any political bent, has lampooned in his very personal style, every folly of every government for over 4 decades.