Monday, January 08, 2007

Freedom of expression in Venezuela: a matter of perception?

Lately the great dispute, to give a name to the autocratic decision of Chavez seeking revenge on a TV network, is the announced closing of the oldest network in Venezuela, RCTV. The reasons are clear to any Venezuelan with an inch of knowledge and understanding: this action is a mere revenge for Chavez on strictly personal grounds. And at the same time the first step in establishing controls on the freedom of expression.

There is always a first step in such regulations, sometimes brutal after a coup d’etat or a real revolution, sometimes more discreet and progressive. In Venezuela freedom of expression has been challenged since 1999, when the new constitution introduced the concept of “veraz” (Truthful? Verifiable?) to qualify how the information should reach the masses, opening of course the possibility that the government could be the one deciding what would be the "true" information allowed to be published.

Yes indeed, the casual observer could say that newspapers are free to write whatever they want, and let’s not mention bloggers who can rant and rave as they wish. Or simply look at the pages of Noticiero Digital forums who sometimes is little bit more than a dog pile of insults against the government, with comments that would be banned outright in this blog comment section, yet a blog who is particularly disliked by the few chavistas aware of its existence.

Simon Romero in the New York Times was writing about the RCTV affair a few days ago and there was a paragraph who caught my attention:
With their vociferous criticism of Mr. Chavez and his policies, private newspapers, television stations and radio broadcasters, along with a small community of Internet bloggers, offer daily evidence that freedom of expression still exists here.
Mr. Romero is of course right, and from the rest of his article we can see that he is not fooled about the growing threats on the freedom of expression in Venezuela. Yet this short quote in a way is slightly misleading in that it seems to point out that there is still freedom of expression when in fact this is not quite the case anymore. Let’s go by parts.

Historical perspective

The problem with freedom of expression in Venezuela is that its limitations are delicate, difficult to measure and are much more oriented at limiting information toward the group of likely voters for Mr. Chavez than for the public in general.

It must be remembered that Chavez reached power in 1998 at a time where freedom of expression was too established a fact of life in Venezuela to be challenged by an incipient government under the international magnifying glass from the start, and among a growing Internet presence in Venezuela. Chavez was simply too weak at first to attempt anything serious. Then again, through 1999 his popularity was real enough across all social strata while the new constitutional process was taking place. All major newspapers for example had numerous pens defending the new programs when the regime could still be defended.

But all changed in 2000 and 2001 when Chavez had to start running the country and soon enough it was clear that he was not up to the task. Or at least he was unable to name people able to do what needed to be done. A purely political presidency could only walk towards a permanent confrontation with the press, media, Internet and any opinion maker. In fact, as the political opposition collapsed through 1999 and 2000, it was the press who was forced to become an opposition party of sorts since only noted journalists such as Colomina or Maso in those days had forceful words against the regime.

The reaction was brutal if not direct. Chavez started indirectly suggesting that journalists were mercenaries of the private media owners and soon enough the chavista radicals were attacking any journalist from the “opposition” media, with even a few murders to be lamented over the years. It must be stressed that "opposition" here means anyone that is not following the governmet line. If you are with Chavez but start criticizing this or that, soon enough you find yourself dumped out of the ruling cast and equal to any opposition from the radical extremes to ex-close associates such as Miquilena or the MAS leadership.

This of course had two terrible consequences. Opposition radicals did start attacking journalists identified with governmental media (although these attacks pale considerably in number and intensity when compared with the ones suffered by, say, Globovision alone). But what was worse, the radicalization of the language in the country was established per force on part of the Venezuelan media and opposition by Chavez, who, it seems, deliberately provoked the excesses of some of the independent media. Needless to say that the conflicts between 2002 and 2005 saw constantly major journalists and media at the cross fires.

Chavez strategy for the slow silencing of the media

Unfortunately for Chavez the abuses of his regime, the general incompetence of his administration and the moral and financial corruption more evident every day became dangerous for the survival of the system. One help came with high oil prices which allowed for many social programs who silenced many a critical voices: there is no mystery where many of the 63% of last December election come from when in mid 2002 no polls gave Chavez much more than 40%. The country is in worse shape today than in 2002 (start by a look at downtown Caracas) but there is more cash in people's pockets.

However the risk of the media discrediting the government was always something that Chavez could not tolerate but yet had to accept in his desire to prove to the world that he was a truly beloved leader. He did have some tools to help him along and a few he set up along the way.

First it was the abundant use of cadena. These forced and simultaneous broadcast across all the TV and radio airwaves where not only a precious propaganda tool for Chavez but also a punishment against private media (who lose revenue during these forced commercial free broadcasts). In addition the skilful timing of such cadenas could even be sometime a subtle form of censorship as the evening news for example could be blocked because Chavez was occupying the air waves.

The second strategy was to buy and expand governmental media. VTV, the state media became quickly known as Discovery Chavez as it became a permanent hagiographic documentary for all the triumphs of the revolution, and how mean the opposition was to deny them. With time new networks were created, new radio stations added. The only radio station with a national coverage is RNV is obviously a full propaganda one.

But that was not enough because, well, propaganda 24/24 can only get so much rating. To try to stop the media from exposing the government numerous failures the penal code was modified in that it was made it easier for journalists or media owners to be sued. A "gag law " was also set to limit what and when could be said during day time in order to "protect children's mind". Also, the packing of the high court all but guaranteed that any freedom of the press case would be settled in favor of the government. Soon enough self censorship reared its ugly head. Two networks considered “opposition” neutered themselves quickly after the Recall Election of 2004 (Venevision and Televen) as well as most of local radio/TV stations who did not have the financial spine to resist a costly judicial process. One must realize that a freedom of expression trial is paid from one side by the individual, at great expense, and from the other by the state who for all particular purposes has a battery of lawyers free of charge. In other words freedom of expression became a luxury that few could afford.

But this was not enough. Soon the lone voices of Globovision and RCTV were too much for the government. Hence this trumped up charge against RCTV, based on 2002 actions that are only brought today as excuses. The head of Globovision, Ravell, today in El Universal declared that he would not change his editorial line, come what may. A confession of sorts that soon enough Globovision will be silenced one way or the other. We can also add to this that Union Radio, the only radio network with a partially national coverage and carrying still some noted opposition figures in its staff is rumored to have been bought by a chavista group who will control all the provincial stations, leaving only the Caracas station under all management. That is, the take over of the radio system would be soon more advanced than the take over of the TV system. Already many small and medium towns in Venezuela are without any significant opposition media, if we define “opposition” as criticizing the governmental actions. Even Globovision reaches some areas only through Cable TV.

Freedom of expression is only for some

The truth in Mr. Romero observation is that freedom of expression is only reserved for some in Venezuela. Some have already lost it. We all know that when a system manages to limit the freedom of expression of a group, it automatically acquires the possibility to take it away from all when it becomes politically necessary, and at not great cost on the short term. Look at the modern example of China that gives and takes freedom of expression and information as it pleases, while nobody says or does much about it.

In Venezuela it is true that someone like Teodoro Petkoff can say whatever he wants. True enough for politicians who can pretty much speak their minds unless they belong to chavismo where already they cannot say anything unless approved by higher ups. In fact the first journalists that lost any liberty to write or express themselves in Venezuela were those of VTV, the state TV. It has been years that this network has had a “critical” talk show, years that opposition politicians are invited to its sets regularly (only around election time is an opposition politician allowed on occasion, and always in less numbers than what can be seen from chavismo visiting Globovision or even the much hated RCTV). And forget about opposition voices in VEA, the infamous pamphlet that pretends to be the answer of chavismo to El Nacional.

It is also true that the media that are willing to fight for their rights and are willing to give up on the juicy advertisement contracts from the state can say what they want. Such is the case of Globovision and RCTV or the two main papers of Venezuela. But largely local papers, and local radios have now a very neutral stance, when not pro Chavez, as they need some of the state advertisement money to survive as only Caracas carries a real economic clout that allows some to laugh off government bucks.

Finally Internet. The situation is less clear there. To begin with the large chavista electoral mass does not do Internet and even less knows how to use the info that can be gathered through Internet. Possibly no more than 1 in 4 chavista voter ever visits a site such as Aporrea, and that drops dramatically about those who might visit El Universal. Chavez is greatly helped when the most notable opposition papers tend to be by registration or subscription, El Universal still being the only national paper free on line.

Forget about blogging freedom. Bloggers can indeed say as they please, however their impact is nowhere close to the impact they can have in the US. In that way if it is flattering that Mr. Romero acknowledges that he scans opposition blogs, they have little reach, yet. But this is eventually bound to change: the faster RCTV is closed and self censorship widens, the faster Internet will grow even among chavismo. The government surely knows that as we can gather from its extensive Internet presence whereas the opposition presence is limited to blogs, Noticiero Digital (up to a point, and El Universal). Already bloggers in English are regularly harassed in their comment sections by people who seem to be professional at messing up blog comment sections. These people are also found vilifying English language bloggers in almost any international blog or web anywhere who quotes or mentions a Venezuelan opposition blog. Interestingly these same English language bloggers rarely even discuss pro Chavez blogs and participate very little in the blogs where these Chavez “agents” monitor constantly (including even Wikipedia whose Venezuelan articles have been hijacked by pro Chavez activist). This only indicates that opposition blogs are monitored closely. For the time being they can certainly write whatever they want but when chavismo decides to go into high censorship gear the Internet will become a target.


At least in this blogger opinion freedom of expression in Venezuela is only the privilege of a few today. And thus it does not fully exists.

Figures such as Teodoro Petkoff are too mythical still for many people within chavismo to dare silence. Yet, one could observe that during the electoral campaign Rosales quite often avoided mentioning certain topics. Even at the level of certain politicians not all is said already, and signs point out that soon only Petkoff will be opening his big mouth at will. Newspapers have been exerting a more restrained editorial line against Chavez, letting only some well known opposition writers say as they please. This in a way is not a bad thing if chavista media were also allowing more diversity as does for example El Nacional. But this is not happening: chavismo gets and gets but does not give up anything, in papers or on the air.

The broadcast media situation is much graver. Today the only network that offers a reasonable news coverage, with all its excesses, is Globovision. RCTV for all chavismo accusations only berates the government in the early morning and very late at night. The rest is all but silent, only Televen has an “objective” news at night but that soon might not be enough, even if they removed Colomina and Rondon in 2004. Radio is gone in many areas of the country or is limited to local political battles leaving Chavez out of the scuffles.

Internet has little influence yet and thus is free of restraints but this will change as the above mentioned start feeling more and more the weight of government.

Finally, with projects such as the single pro Chavez political party it is to be expected that chavismo media will become even more monolithic, that any tiny dissent will be silenced speedily.

The only question these days is which way will chavismo use to silence or neuter any possible opposition mean of communication. Outright closing as for RCTV? Bribing as for Venevision or Televen? Buying out as for radio stations or local papers? Outright threats and trumped charges as for many journalists now in jail or in exile or out of a job as nobody dares hiring them? With an unlimited pocket book I am sure that Chavez will find ways to stop criticism in a way that he will not be bothered much more than what China is. Hey, who knows, even this blogger might receive a threat or a bribe someday. I sure hope it will a juicy bribe! Heck, I would do a much better job to promote chavismo than what is currently seen on the Web ……..

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