Venezuela Journalists Demand More Public Media
On the tenth anniversary of the attempted coup against President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the questions of media freedom and access remain contradictory and polemic. State-run and private media both exist, but have a hostile relationship.
It seems that the next frontier of the battle between government versus commercial media is moving to the airwaves. While television has become more evenly represented in viewership, like newspapers, the majority of radio listened to by most Venezuelans is in the hands of the opposition media. This has led to the Venezuelan government’s push to subsidize local radio stations, which compete with commercial stations, less for audiences, but more for spectrum. Despite whatever political motivations may be behind the Chavez government promoting local radio stations, the government campaign to subsidize community stations in Venezuela could be seen as a window of opportunity to foster the growth of public media in radio by spreading audience viewership more evenly across government, commercial, and locally-run radio stations.
Government supporters accuse much of the country’s commercial media of practicing its own form of anti-Chavez censorship and of provoking violence during and after the coup d’etat in 2002. Government critics in Venezuela and the United States slam Chavez for his pressure on the private media, such as recently proposed “reviews” of as many as 240 commercial radio licenses– more than one-third of all AM and FM broadcasters. Since 2007, the government has closed 34 radio stations and the television network RCTV. The government also banned ownership rights from being inheritable.
“This government has turned into a mutilator of rights,” Juan Carlos Caldera, of the opposition political party Primero Justicia, said on Globovision TV, which was itself recently fined $2 million by the Venezuelan government for covering a prison riot. Like Globovision, the radio stations shut down were critical of the Chavez government.
Venezuela’s National Telecommunication Commission (Conatel) is at the same time promoting small, community-run radio stations. Conatel announced two weeks ago that it would give $4.2 million to finance 126 community radio and TV stations. This latest announcement comes ahead of the October 2012 presidential elections. The top three communities on the list for increased funding are municipalities which have been in opposition to Chavez, according to El Universal, an opposition paper. Critics say that like the recent decision to raise the minimum wage 32 percent,the subsidies for these new radio stations in poor communities appear designed to curry the favor of Venezuela’s working class in anticipation of the October elections.
Chavez’s move on the media began with an emergency “enabling law” passed in 2010 by the National Assembly giving the president temporary special powers to deal with heavy rainfalls in the country.
“Chavez was the third president in Venezuela who passed an enabling law,” said Michael Fox, editor of the North American Congress on Latin America’s Report on Latin America. But the act went fromdisaster relief to also allow the government to “issue or reform regulatory norms” in the telecommunications sector.
Shortly after the martial law measure was lifted, the assembly—controlled by Chavez after the opposition refused to participate in earlier elections—approved two more permanent controversial measures, theReform of the Law of Social Responsibility for Radio and Television (RESORTE) and the Reform to the Organic Law.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous unit of the Organization of American States, said RESORTE “represents a serious setback for freedom of expression that primarily affects dissident and minority groups that find in the Internet a free and democratic space to disseminate their ideas.”
Fox disagrees. He says that analysts should take a step back and have a more nuanced view of Venezuela’s media laws. Rather than promoting censorship, he said that RESORTE is a measure that seeks to strengthen community decision-making power of what they watch on TV or listen to on the radio.
“It’s about communities deciding what they want their children to watch, and whether their programming should be more nationally based or coming from the United States,” he said. “Otherwise, it is hard to understand what is going on in Venezuela. [RESORTE] is really about democratizing the private airwaves.”
The commercial media, including RCTV (whose license was revoked by Chavez in 2007), Globovision, El Nacional, and others, owned 95 percent of the airwaves before 2002. Now, the Chavez government owns its own his own weekly TV and radio program on the state broadcaster. Venezuela is the main shareholder in Telesur, a Caracas-based pan-American TV network, alongside left-of-center governments who are stakeholders in the TV enterprise. The private media is primarily owned by Chavez opponents and has a pro-privatization and right-wing slant.
Alexandra Hall, a researcher at Columbia University’s Institute of Latin American Studies, says that because the opposition media has more resources, their point of view is more widely published and accessible to a greater audience.
But it depends on the medium. For newspapers, resources play a greater role than in TV and radio. While the Venezuelan government claims that over 90 percent of the airwaves are in private hands, the commercial broadcast media contend that the key element in coverage is reach. The more centralized government TV and radio stations, they say, have a higher audience penetration rate than the commercial stations, which are mostly local.
The newest struggle between the Chavez government and the opposition private media may be around community airwaves. Some of the local community radio stations that are being subsidized by the Venezuelan government are competing with the commercial local stations, less for audiences, but more for spectrum.
“Those that are saying there is not freedom of press in Venezuela do so out of their own relative interest. They have access to social power,” Hall said.
While Venezuelan media laws guarantee freedom of the press and speech, there are laws that proscribe boundaries. Slandering the president is punishable by six to 30 months in prison without bail, with lesser penalties for insulting lower-ranking officials. This is not unlike Germany or other countries, where politicians enjoy immunity from slander. Inaccurate reporting which threatens Venezuela’s social order is punishable by two to five years of prison time. Most notably, the media is required to disseminate information deemed as “true,” leaving much open to political interpretation.
Last year, four journalists were prosecuted under these laws, according to the U.S. Department of State. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 195 journalistsaltogether have experienced some sort of harassment by the Venezuelan government or government sympathizers.
The Venezuelan government’s attacks against the commercial press have also been economic. On December 3, 2010, the Superintendence of Banks and Other Financial Institutions took over Sindicato Avila C.A., which holds 20 percent of the shares of Globovision, causing the, the IACHR’s Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression to issue a statement expressing concern about the possible intervention by the government in Globovision.
Chavez is pushing for strict national controls over Internet traffic. On March 13, he ordered the prosecutor general to open an investigation of the Web site Noticero Digital for falsely reporting the assassinations of Minister of Housing and Public Works Diosdado Cabello and pro-government talk show host Mario Silva, as well as for hinting at another coup attempt. Chavez warned, “The Internet cannot be something open where anything is said and done. No, every country has to apply its own rules and norms.”
Next, there is speculation that Chavez may be moving in on social media giants Facebook and Twitter. But whether that would be realistic is questionable, due to the wide use of social media in Venezuela. According to a BBC analysis and Internetworldstats.com, there were 10.4 million internet users in Venezuela last year, more than 8 million of whom have Facebook accounts, and 2.3 million who are active on Twitter.
Part of the Venezuelan government’s antagonismtowards commercial media derives from the 2002 attempted coup. Chavez accuses the news media of having fomented a polarized political climate that led to the 19 deaths.
The Venezuelan government’s concerns may not be not unfounded. In a 2008 broadcast, Globovision’s talk show host of Aló Ciudadano, Rafael Poleosuggested in that another coup attempt should take place and encouraged the assassination of the president by saying, “Be careful, Hugo. Don’t end up like your counterpart [Italian Fascist Dictator] Benito Mussolini, hung upside down.”
Conatel is continuing its investigation of Globovision. During the tense coup days ten years ago, the newspaper El Nacional headlined an article, “Final battle will be in Miraflores.”
In April, on the tenth anniversary of the coup attempt, Chavez ordered a broadcast on national television paying homage to the pro-government supporters who were killed. Pro-Chavez media reported that tens of thousands of people in the streets of Caracas commemorated a Day of National Dignity and offered moral support for Chavez in his current battle with cancer.
Telesur broadcast a forum titled, “The Revolution Will Not Be Censored.” It looked at an alleged role that the private media, along with the right-wing CTV union,had in planning and carrying out the coup.
The opposition media also accuses the Chavez government of continuing to suppress vital information in the public’s interest today. El Universal published an expose of contaminated in the Caracas water supply, pending government-approved test results.
“This is effectively a gag order on a matter of public health,” said Carlos Lauria, senior program coordinator for the Americas at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Internet and social media providers may in the hands of the conglomerates Chavez seeks to fight, but the question remains as to journalists’ access to the tools to use it for independent reporting and news gathering. Will journalistic freedoms in Venezuela be protected in a climate where the forces of political opportunism and commercial profiteering play tug-of-war?
Gregory Wilpert, a writer for VenezuelaAnalysis.com, maintains that there is free speech for journalists in Venezuela, and that polarization between the private and the government media has helped foster diversity of angles in Venezuelan news coverage.
“People are free to give a diatribe against the government,” he said. “The only thing one can say is that since Chavez came to power, there is more variety of opinions than before.”
The question arises as to whether the class struggle between the conglomerates and pro-Chavez media should be resolved at all, or whether a certain degree of antagonism between these bilateral “camps” in the media–commercial and socialist—can sustain a healthy controversy. Wilpert is one analyst who feels that a multilateral media landscape rich in independent media may be the healthiest option for Venezuela.
“My main gripe is that there is no public media in Venezuela,” said Wilpert. “Rather than ownership or reach, you have to look at audience share in the media.”
Commercial newspaper El Nacional gave the following statistics about audience shares in government versus commercial media in Venezuela before RCTV’s license was revoked:
That is, in television, RCTV and Venevisión are watched by about 60% of the viewing audience (RCTV about 35-40% and Venevisión about 20-25%). The remaining 40% are shared among the government station VTV (about 15-20%), Televen (around 10%), Globovisión (around 10%), cable channels, and various local channels.
The political stances of these media before RCTV’s license was revoked could be broken down as follows:
Private local: 5%
Neutral or balanced: 30-40%
Other (Telesur, Vive, Community): 5%
And after RCTV’s license revoked, one sees a shift toward more variety across the board in Venezuela’s television landscape.
Private Local: 5%
Neutral/balanced: 30-40% or more
TVes: unknown %
Whether this kind of diverse media slants should come at the price of draconian measures like revoking a station’s license as the Chavez government did is the question.
For Venezuela’s television, Wilpert offers the following solution to make these political conflicts work better for the public.
“TV should be in a public trust,” he said. “Not just in the hands of the Chavez government or corporate media.”
Perhaps healthy polarization between government and opposition media can fuel open debate in Venezuelan media across all platforms. Combined with fostering public and independent community-run media outlets in radio, TV, and print, can serve to keep the various forces of social power in Venezuela under scrutiny and in check, as long as heavy-handed statism or economic barriers do not interfere in the “fifth estate.”
Rebecca Ellis is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter (@rebejellis)