Sunday, July 22, 2007

The control remote wars as the road to censorship in Venezuela

Over the past few months we have been told constantly that the closing of RCTV had nothing to do with censorship, that it was just a "non renewal" of a license because, you know, there was the need to create a different media system, not beholden to any disgusting commercial interest.

Well, this week we were brutally reminded that all is just a charade and that the only objective of the government all along was to force people to subject themselves to the incessant pro Chavez propaganda, preferably when the great and beloved leader directs himself the shows.

But to understand what started developing this week, it might useful to go back in time and see how all started, how it all steadily progressed and how today the remote control of your pay TV has become the most dangerous subversion weapon.

The Beginnings: the cadena policies

When Chavez reached office on February 2, 1999, he only had at his disposition the state TV network to promote his propaganda. Until then he had been helped by a complaisant press and media. By the time the Constituent Assembly was elected its opinion was rather unfavorable to Chavez. The reason? The divisive discourse of Chavez already at work.

Very early in his term chavismo tried all sort of "information" outlets, such as the miserably failed newspapers Barreto's Correo del Presidente. Soon the only viable solution was to turn VTV, the state channel, into a pro Chavez propaganda vessel. Today, in a strange way, we look at 1999 as a year where VTV could still be watched, where opponents could still visit and speak their mind on occasion. That is, compared to today where VTV is a 24/24 outlet to defend chavismo and attacks anything not in agreement with chavismo.

But very soon, better than any propaganda outlet, Chavez found the perfect weapon to fight back the perceived media crusade against his positions: the cadena. For memory, it is the forced simultaneous broadcast of any of Chavez speech whenever he feels like it, for as long as he wants it, over ALL radio and ALL TV of the country. Soon cadenas were the dreadful tools that Chavez used as frequently as needed, as a reply to any talk show on TV that displeased him.

Cadenas worked, and still work to some extent, as they were justly perceived by Chavez followers as a retaliation against all the representatives of the "ancien regime" which is perceived, rightly or unjustly, to reside inside the press and media of Venezuela. As such cadenas are the clear indication of the political line to follow. I think that all the way through 2001 I could walk in the streets of San Felipe and when a cadena came I could see people stopping their errands and stay stuck in front of any TV they could find to watch the presidents words. I suppose from a long tradition of cadenas used by past presidents to address the nation in time of urgency or drama, the Venezuelan folk retained that attitude of wanting to watch cadenas to get "important" information. I am pleased to announce that today that reflex is no more, that a TV showing a Chavez cadena is simply either turned off, or switched to some music channel on cable if the store subscribes.

The Escalation: the media empire

I suppose that sometime in 2001 chavismo realized that cadenas alone would not do it. Also the success of the Alo Presidente format made chavismo realize that its very best exponent was Chavez himself. Thus the need to promote his media presence in more ways than just cadenas which soon enough started showing their limitations. That is how Alo Presidente went from being a radio talk show in 1999 to a full fledged very expensive TV production to promote Chavez message at tax payer expense of course, as its official state web page shows.

The year 2002 was a watershed in more ways than one. Since the media participated so actively in the protest against Chavez, this one decided to counter attack. The first approach was the establishment of a media empire at the service of Chavez. In this respect Chavez has outmatched any media baron that ever existed: at taxpayer expense he has created a personal broadcasting system dedicated at promoting his image and his ideas as much at home as abroad.

New TV stations were created for internal consumption such as ViVe and ANTV. Private radios systems were bought by pro Chavez interest and the only Radio with full national coverage became RNV which went from a classical cultural outlet to a propaganda system. For his promotion overseas Chavez had Telesur established, a Latin American CNN wanna-be.

On the left you can see an ad published this week end announcing the return of Alo Presidente after the Copa America hiatus. I have circled in green all the networks that are transmitting the show, 5 TV and 3 radio systems. Plus all sorts of "community" radio station and TV. The communication empire of Chavez is so big and so obvious that the regime actually takes great pride in advertising it.

But that was not enough: once the 2004 scare of the recall Election passed, a new legal system was installed. This was done in two parts. The first one was the modification of the penal code which simplified ways in which people could sue for opinions emitted against them, favoring a certain self censorship of the press. The other more successful initiative was the famous RESORTE law which limited effectively the amount of political talk shows, limited their scape as some type of material could only be shown after hours, and best, forced all media to transmit for free 10 minutes a day of "institutional" messages. These messages are quite often barely disguised propaganda.

One thing should not be forgotten: aggressions against journalists from the private media were also on the rise during these years, although lower these days. This was also a way the government tried to force more favorable reports on its polices. It did not help much, of course, but it opened a Pandora box of violence as now Chavez supporters feel free to object to the presence of any media they do not like. The IACHR has a complete report on the aggressions toward journalists and some of the legal apparatus established to induce self censorship of the press.

At any rate, these set of measures had a favorable effect for chavismo: two of the nationwide broadcaster, Venevision and Televen decided to go "neutral" when not indirectly supporting the regime. By the time the presidential election of 2006 came, only RCTV and Globovision were left to give fair coverage to the Rosales campaign. European Union electoral observer report (PDF format), for example, mentions the pro Chavez bias of a majority of TV networks in Venezuela including Venevision almost as supportive as VTV! The figure below (click to enlarge) shows this astounding finding of the European Union, on how successfully Venevision has been tame and coopted.


The final solution: taking away the remote control


But the success of Chavez in 2006 was not enough for him, even if he won by an alleged landslide against the vigorous opposition of RCTV. A few days after his victory Chavez announced that the license of RCTV would not be renewed, even as there were questions as to when that license did indeed expire (1). The fact of the matter is that Chavez did not care about expiration dates, it was a political revenge and sure enough on May 27 RCTV went off the air, leaving Globovision alone as the only media where the opposition political figures could regularly speak, and where news about the "real" Venezuela could be shown.

Soon this turned out to be an empty victory for Chavez. Besides badly damaging his image at home and overseas, it did not tame at all the remaining free press or Globovison who bravely decided to pick up where RCTV had left, even if its coverage is barely 50% of the country. Chavismo cannot have failed to notice that the number of cable TV subscribers have gone up by 14% this first semester of 2007 when compared to the first semester of 2006. This increase in subscribers is due to people deciding to make the economical sacrifice to get cable as their only option from free broadcast is generally pro Chavez.

If we do a quick math: about 22% of homes now receive some form of pay TV and if this is increasing by 20% a year, within barely three years a third of the country will escape from any pro Chavez message if it wishes. And it only can keep growing as in poorer areas many people might pool resources to start watching the Discovery System rather than TVes. As the number of customers grow, cable systems might even start lowering costs and get even more subscribers. It is not impossible that by the next presidential election 50% of the population has access to cable and in front of such a market new viable sources of information could be created that would devote themselves to counter Chavez without this one being able to respond or force his cadenas upon.

RCTV managed one month an a half later to come back on Cable and Satellite as RCTV International. However there was a difference now: RCTV was a cable only network and now was, theoretically, not subjected to the RESORTE law rules, such as passing the national anthem at given hours, or those 10 minute propaganda every day, or even the cadena. The law is obscure on that since Telesur, although emitting from Venezuela but to all of South America, does not pass cadenas. The fight has already started with two ministers saying that RCTV should be subjected to the same rules as the others. RCTV says no, that it should be subjected to the same rules as Telesur as it is now a new channel from Miami and as its contents will increasingly be modified to satisfy an international market.

There is no need to scrutinize the legal aspects of it, it is enough to see at which speed the government reacted in front of the possibility that RCTV could skip cadenas. As soon as people realize that they can watch real Venezuelan events while Chavez tries to cover up a situation as he did in April 11 2002 when he started a cadena to make sure TV could not cover the massacre of the march against him, people will flock to cable systems.

Thus the new proposal of the government: to force cable systems to abide by the RESORTE law. That is, National Geographic channel, or the BBC of London will have to pass the national anthem at the hours stipulated by the government, plus the 10 minutes a day of propaganda, and perhaps at some point even the cadenas. Needless to say that this will be impossible because of the international contracts and rules that regulate copyrights of these networks. It will either force cable systems to close, or limit the available selection as the BBC, National Geographic, the Discovery network and other movie channels will simply prefer not to sell their programming to Venezuela. The only folks that will be able to avoid official propaganda will be those lucky enough to afford Direct TV on paid codifier from Puerto Rico or Colombia. Until the government decides that satellite dishes are illegal and thus we will be like in such Islamic countries where dishes must be hidden from view from outside least some censor sees them. (2)

Will we reach such a level of censorship? Frankly, yes, it is a matter of time, it is in the nature of the system and we have seen how increasingly chavismo has been sending its tentacles to take control of that remote control in your home, to make it useless as any button you press will bring you to an irrelevant channel, or a propaganda media.

Reality

The real issue there is simply that chavismo and Chavez cannot tolerate anymore that a remote control can trump their message. Chavismo cannot deal with the fact that when TV ratings are made they always put at the bottom the Chavez media. Together VTV, ViVe et al. never reach a combined total of 20%, if that much. That is, not even all of the faithful chavista core that this blogger always has given as a 30%.

All the money, time and resources to create a "state media system" has been in vain: with more TV networks than many a ruler or press magnate in the world, chavismo is unable to create a newspaper that people are willing to pay money for it, or a TV programming that people enjoy watching on a regular basis. It is paradoxical that the two only "hit" shows of chavismo are Alo Presidente and La Hojilla. Curiously those are the only shows that many in the opposition also watch as many do like to know what the future has in store for them.

So there is chavismo, bitter and resentful that no one wants to play with them. And thus, when everything failed, chavismo can only think of taking the remote control away. Do not forget that in Orwell¡s 1984, the higher up in the party had access to more news than the hero. Just as in Cuba Castro has some satellite system to watch any show in the world he wants but Cubans must satisfy themselves with Gramma as owning a TV is probably not worth since there is nothing to watch on Cubavision or Telerebelde.

1) El Universal carries in English an RCTV dossier with many translated articles.

2) The pretense of locking all TV signals reaching Venezuela is already seen as a Human Rights violation and already Reporters Without Borders has issued a statement on this respect. More is to come for sure if the government persists in this crazy idea.

-The end-

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