Friday, October 10, 2003

THE MEDIA IN VENEZUELA (part 2)
Chavez’s tools

Friday 10, October 2003


It is shortly before dinner time. You are drinking a cold beer checking your e-mail and Globovision is in the background with some newsy talk show. Suddenly a pompous little ditty breaks through and you know that the government will speak to you whether you like it or not.

You keep reading your e-mail while you hear in succession a welcome message from the chair of an international conference on poverty opening in a Margarita Island resort, then a chorus from local boys intoning the Venezuelan national anthem, followed with a tune written for the circumstance in the style of a “polo margariteño”, a tune that speaks of Venezuela’s illustrious past, some poverty talk and semi-cryptic lauds to president Hugo Chavez. By then you have shut off your computer and are in the kitchen fixing dinner and you hear that the said Chavez, as president of the host country will make his welcoming speech. That is OK, you have cable TV so when dinner is ready you eat it in front switching channels. Foreign channels such as Discovery that is, since all Venezuelan channels, including the sports one and the MTV like one are passing Chavez speech, right now on imperialism.

With dinner over you check back and Chavez still speaks, this time accusing Globovision of delinquency for using supposedly illegal wavelength. You get your desert, some juice, flip some more, Chavez is still speaking, this time attacking some international organization, making them delinquent by association for not condemning Globovision. There is nothing on TV so you decide to go back to your laptop. A last scan reveals Chavez now ranting against April 11 2002. At no point you caught him defending Venezuela record on the war on poverty, or congratulating the effort of one of the attending countries, or even proposing a new credible plan to fight poverty. It has been now nearly two hours since the little ditty announced the speech.

You have just seen what a cadenais.

CHAVEZ MEDIA

Presidents in Venezuela dispose of one powerful tool to communicate their messages, at least those that they deem important for the nation, the “cadena” (the ‘chain’). This allows any president to commander all the TV and radio signals at will, without financial compensation of course. This is accepted since traditionally the exercise was reserved for crisis announcements, New Year and 5 of July salutations, and occasionally a well placed political messages to bolster one’s sagging political fortunes. Chavez has changed all of this. Cadenas heretofore a monthly one hour occurrence have become almost daily events, sometimes marathonic events. With the abuse of this right Chavez has found a way to try to annul the effects of whatever propaganda the private media has tried. Effectively, all of the media is now partly Chavez media.

To measure the extension of Chavez use and misuse of cadenas, the following table lists the number of hours that either Chavez or his ministers, mostly Chavez, have occupied the entire broadcast spectrum of the nation since he reached office in 1999. The numbers for 2003 are until October 3 (1). The use of cadenas has been growing steadily until 2002 when after April 11, a semi chastised Chavez dropped the cadena intensity for a few months. But the December strike reactivated his fury to reach a total of over 3 hours a week, mostly prime time.



YearHours per yearHours per week
199969:271:20
2000107:562:04
2001 116:582:14
2002 73:271:24
2003136:383:24


WHEN THERE IS NO CADENA ON

The casual observer could be excused, when hearing the excessive tone of Chavez in a cadena, to think that this one is just defending himself from all the aggravations that are unjustly piled on him by private media. But that is not the truth as Chavez has several ways to emit his message all day long besides the frequent cadena.

Venezuela used to have two state TV networks, and never managed to have one work efficiently, BBC like (2). All were mismanaged and the prey of diverse experiments from political appointees. The survivor is VTV which has been very obliging in accommodating Chavez wishes. Slowly but surely VTV since 1999 has become a total propaganda network, unable to generate any significant programming besides a series of talk shows all, outbidding themselves to illustrate the virtues of the Bolivarian Revolution.

The crown jewel of VTV is “Alo Presidente” (“Hello President”, but a special Spanish hello for the phone). This Sunday presentation is Chavez weekly talk show (close to 150 last time I checked). It started on radio as a way to show that the people could call their president with their complaints. Today it has a very established format where very little room is left for spontaneity, and certainly none for phone calls which are always favorable to the president.

Alo Presidente” can be performed live from anywhere in the country Chavez fancies at the moment. It has the usual crowd of official hanger-on to provide adequate applause on cue, some ministers having made a habit not to miss even one. A choir of “the people” is provided for popular joy symbolism, and a few times conveniently has hidden some noises from the streets such as people banging pots and pans in protest. Early in its history the show had notorious guests such as Fidel Castro. These days Chavez does not seem to need guests and looks quite happy with his very own company and some minister to hand in talking material as needed. The total length varies from 2 to 5 hours. Ah! And most importantly it serves to give the clue of what the week reserves, some opposition politicians saying that they do not miss a broadcast as they know that way where the blow will fall. Chavez message does seem to get out.

Finally there is a last and very valuable set of resources. For starters, the government controls the only radio station allowed to broadcast country wide, RNV. And RNV is in no better shape than VTV, except that it plays a lot of classical music. But what might be more important is that dozens and dozens of “community” radio stations have sprouted freely, and probably illegally for the most part. Besides being fervent Revolution supporters (not necessarily of all the dramatis personae of said revolution as some get a beating on occasion), some might be serving as a neighborhood watch system of sorts to organize counter actions against the opposition initiatives.

IS CHAVEZ HEARD?

Clearly he has all the means to make sure that the people will hear his version of the events. So how come he is complaining that the private media does not give him space enough? Just a silly excuse for him to give cadenas. The problem is actually not there.

Chavez is the product of the media and he never looked back. It was on February 4 1992 that Venezuela discovered Chavez, courtesy of the media showing live his surrender for the aborted coup. It was the media that allowed Chavez charisma to reach the poor, the sorry, the unhappy. It was the thirst of news that made the media show Chavez during the campaign even if they did not share his vision for the country. Chavez truly understands TV. His silly jokes and out of tune singing in “Alo Presidente” seem to have thrown a spell over a large sector of the population.

The media that Chavez controls directly has become just a booster for his followers. Objectivity is unnecessary there. Opposition figures are rarely invited, and when so, second tier leaders preferably. Interestingly the opposition media still invites Chavez followers to attend its talk shows, but the no-shows are almost the rule now. And those that show up tend to be stone faced, or repeat endlessly the same line no matter what the question is. Perhaps trying to discredit the opposition talk shows by not deeming the questions worthy of reply? Perhaps implying that listening to Chavez on VTV is only what matters? I have met several chavistas that confessed that they only listen to VTV. Effective brainwashing through Chavez message or failure of the private message to find the adequate language? Unfortunately I have met some of Chavez opponents shocked when I tell them that still on occasion I watch VTV. Are we all brainwashed by now?

The communicational dice have rolled. The bet is the future of real information for Venezuela.

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(1) Numbers taken from El Universal which publishes weekly a “cadenometer” feature to tabulate the total cadenas according to a TV rating monitor organization, AGB.

(2) One state TV was Canal 5, which was handed to a Church related foundation in 1998. This became Vale TV which specializes in canned educational programs. Chavez complained about that when he got into office, but whoever has directed Vale TV has done an impeccable job to stick to the documentary format, without any political overtone. Chavez administration has decided for the time being to leave it alone.

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