Venezuela's Media Coup
by Naomi Klein
The Nation magazine, March
Poor Endy Chavez, outfielder for the Navegantes
del Magallanes, one of Venezuela's big baseball teams. Every time
he comes up to bat, the local TV sportscasters start in with the
jokes. "Here comes Chavez. No, not the pro-Cuban dictator
Chavez, the other Chavez." Or "This Chavez hits baseballs,
not the Venezuelan people."
In Venezuela, even color commentators
are enlisted in the commercial media's open bid to oust the democratically
elected government of Hugo Chavez. Andres Izarra, a Venezuelan
television journalist, says that the campaign has done so much
violence to truthful information on the national airwaves that
the four private TV stations have effectively forfeited their
right to broadcast. "I think their licenses should be revoked,"
It's the sort of extreme pronouncement
one has come to expect from Chavez, known for nicknaming the stations
"the four horsemen of the apocalypse." Izarra, however,
is harder to dismiss. A squeaky clean made-for-TV type, he worked
as assignment editor in charge of Latin America at CNN en Espanol
until he was hired as news production manager for Venezuela's
highest-rated newscast, El Observador on RCTV.
On April 13, 2002, the day after business
leader Pedro Carmona briefly seized power, Izarra quit that job
under what he describes as "extreme emotional stress."
Ever since, he has been sounding the alarm about the threat posed
to democracy when the media decide to abandon journalism and pour
all their persuasive powers into winning a war being waged over
Venezuela's private television stations
are owned by wealthy families with serious financial stakes in
defeating Chavez. Venevision, the most-watched network, is owned
by Gustavo Cisneros, a mogul dubbed "the joint venture king"
by the New York Post. The Cisneros Group has partnered with many
top US brands-from AOL and Coca-Cola to Pizza Hut and Playboy-becoming
a gatekeeper to the Latin American market.
Cisneros is also a tireless proselytizer
for continental free trade, telling the world, as he did in a
1999 profile in LatinCEO magazine, that "Latin America is
now fully committed to free trade, and fully committed to globalization....
As a continent it has made a choice." But with Latin American
voters choosing politicians like Chavez, that has been looking
like false advertising, selling a consensus that doesn't exist.
All this helps explain why, in the days
leading up to the April coup, Venevision, RCTV, Globovision and
Televen replaced regular programming with relentless anti-Chavez
speeches, interrupted only for commercials calling on viewers
to take to the streets: "Not one step backward. Out! Leave
now!" The ads were sponsored by the oil industry, but the
stations carried them free, as "public service announcements."
They went further: On the night of the
coup, Cisneros's station played host to meetings among the plotters,
including Carmona. The president of Venezuela's broadcasting chamber
co-signed the decree dissolving the elected National Assembly.
And while the stations openly rejoiced at news of Chavez's "resignation,"
when pro-Chavez forces mobilized for his return a total news blackout
Izarra says he received clear instructions:
"No information on Chavez, his followers, his ministers,
and all others that could in any way be related to him."
He watched with horror as his bosses actively suppressed breaking
news. Izarra says that on the day of the coup, RCTV had a report
from a US affiliate that Chavez had not resigned but had been
kidnapped and jailed. It didn't make the news. Mexico, Argentina
and France condemned the coup and refused to recognize the new
government. RCTV knew but didn't tell.
When Chavez finally returned to the Miraflores
Palace, the stations gave up on covering the news entirely. On
one of the most important days in Venezuela's history, they aired
Pretty Woman and Tom & Jerry cartoons. "We had a reporter
in Miraflores and knew that it had been retaken by the Chavistas,"
Izarra says. "[but] the information blackout stood. That's
when it was enough for me, and I decided to leave."
The situation hasn't improved. During
the recently ended strike organized by the oil industry, the television
stations broadcast an average of 700 pro-strike advertisements
every day, according to government estimates. It's in this context
that Chavez has decided to go after the TV stations in earnest,
not just with fiery rhetoric but with an investigation into violations
of broadcast standards and a new set of regulations. "Don't
be surprised if we start shutting down television stations,"
he said at the end of January.
The threat has sparked a flurry of condemnations
from the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without
Borders. And there is reason for concern: The media war in Venezuela
is bloody, with attacks on both pro- and anti-Chavez media outlets.
But attempts to regulate the media aren't an "attack on press
freedom," as CPJ has claimed-quite the opposite.
Venezuela's media, including state TV,
need tough controls to insure diversity, balance and access, enforced
at arm's length from political powers. Some of Chavez's proposals
(such as an ominous clause banning speech that shows "disrespect"
to government officials) overstep these bounds and could easily
be used to muzzle critics. That said, it is absurd to treat Chavez
as the principal threat to a free press in Venezuela. That honor
clearly goes to the media owners themselves. This fact has been
entirely lost on the organizations entrusted to defend press freedom
around the world, still stuck in a paradigm in which all journalists
just want to tell the truth and all threats come from nasty politicians
and angry mobs.
This is unfortunate, because we are in
desperate need of courageous defenders of a free press at the
moment-and not just in Venezuela. After all, Venezuela isn't the
only country where a war is being waged over oil, where media
owners have become inseparable from the forces clamoring for "regime
change" and where the opposition finds itself routinely erased
by the nightly news. But in the United States, unlike in Venezuela,
the media and the government are on the same side.