Venezuela's Media Wrestles with Stigmas, New Rules
Venezuela's recent presidential election further illustrated the divide among the Latin American country's private and state-sponsored media outlets. Depending on the news source and polls cited, Hugo Chavez was going to beat his opponent, Manuel Rosales, by nearly 40 points or 6 points.
The disparity, say media experts, is the latest example of the schism between the state-run press and its affection for Chavez and Venezuela's agenda-driven private press. In the last campaign, the private news organizations in the country largely used polling data from Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, for example, a company that dismissed Chavez's 2004 referendum victory as fraudulent.
In that case, the polling firm predicted that roughly 59 percent of Venezuelans would vote to oust Chavez, but in the end 58 percent of Venezuelans voted for the president to stay, according to the Venezuelan Electoral Council.
There's no shortage of denouncement of Chavez in Venezuela's private media. During the 2006 presidential election, Teodoro Petkoff -- the editor of a newspaper notoriously critical of the state -- was a leading presidential candidate until he dropped out in August to support Rosales.
Nonetheless, Freedom House, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, ranks Venezuela second only to Cuba in terms of suppressing press freedom in the Americas, citing specific laws recently enacted that have "deteriorated" the legal environment for the press.
Despite their continuing work, activists say Venezuela's private media is nothing short of repressed, but according to the Venezuelan government and many experts, the state has a right to defend itself from an aggressive media bent on anarchy.
The opposing media
The debate over the role of the media in Venezuelan society has remained at fever pitch since supporters of Chavez accused the press of condoning the coup that tried to oust him in 2002.
The 2002 documentary, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," suggests that the media -- "bereft of any pretense of impartiality, objectivity or even willingness to report on the news" -- deliberately ran anti-government stories in order to dupe the general public. The media alleged that Chavez had entered into a secret deal with Iran and Lebanon's political-military organization Hezbollah.
The story goes that Chavez utilized his television program, "Alo Presidente," broadcast on a state-owned television station to defend himself against "this formidable media muscle." On April 11, 2002, the day the coup was staged, when government officials tried to block the signals of the private television stations that were particularly provocative, the owners simply rerouted their broadcasts through cable and satellite. According to the documentary, the private stations broadcast scenes that appeared to show Chavez supporters shooting into a crowd of unarmed opposition marchers.
When Chavez reassumed power two days later, the private television stations broadcast cartoons and cooking programs instead of reporting Chavez's return to presidency. The end result, argued the makers of the documentary, is that the general public in Venezuela lost trust in its media.
And the media's agenda hasn't changed much since then, say critics.
"They're quite outrageous. It's like Fox News times 50,000," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
Weisbrot said that during a 2002 trip to Venezuela, he recalls the media running commercials calling on people to overthrow the government. "And that was after the coup. So it wasn't like an idle threat. They had already overthrown the government once that year," he said. "It's calmed down, but they're still completely against the government."
The newsstands the day after the election appeared to confirm the largely anti-government stance of the media, with many dismissing or downplaying the Chavez victory. Media observers say this blatant criticism has resulted in a backlash against the media and the journalists who report for it.
In November 2006, Simon Romero reported in The New York Times the death of journalist Jesus Flores Rojas, who was shot in the head in his driveway the preceding August. Rojas was the fifth journalist killed since the beginning of 2002. Although there's no evidence to suggest that Rojas was murdered by Chavez supporters, "the killings and other aggression towards journalists point to a trend in which threats and intimidation have become all too common, even in what remains a flourishing free press under President Hugo Chávez," wrote Romero.
Romero also cited a Caracas-based media expert who said the Rojas murder "fits a pattern of falling within a gray zone in which the death of a journalist can be seen as if it were a random killing."
Some more sympathetic to the left-leaning Chavez government believe the case of intimidation against journalists is overstated. Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research said he calculated that the number of journalists killed since 2002 is 100th of 1 percent of the number of murders in Venezuela in the last four years. "You have journalists getting killed less than the rate of the general population. So [The New York Times] article could have been written about dairy delivery men being killed -- or almost anybody else."
New media laws
In addition to the alleged intimidation of journalists, the government has reportedly unleashed a wave of new legal restrictions on the private media.
Advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have pointed to one recent law called the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which imposes restrictions on content. The law, for example, forbids depictions of violence between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. on television and radio stations, thereby making it illegal to show, for example, protests. The law also stipulates that insulting the president could result in six to 30 months in prison.
The Law of Social Responsibility has its defenders. Richard Gott, a former reporter for the Guardian and author of "Hugo Chavez: The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela," said the law is similar to regulations in Europe.
"It's really the modern way of introducing a certain amount of regulation into television in a world that had hitherto been totally unbridled," Gott said in a 2005 interview. "And indeed anyone knows who's been [to Venezuela] the media are having a field day and are about 80 percent anti-Chavez. So there isn't much to complain about there."
But David Natera, who owns a newspaper in the Bolivar State within Venezuela, printed criticisms of the governor. In turn, the state ordered Natera's offices to be demolished so that the land can be returned to its natural state.
Journalists also complain that they are denied entry into the presidential palace and other official events, reported Freedom House.
Moreover, the government requires that broadcasters to suspend programming when Chavez wants to make an announcement, which he does often, said two U.S. State Department officials in Caracas. These pauses mean that advertisements -- the lifeblood of a news organization -- aren't broadcast. By law, the stations must return the money.
Press-freedom advocates say such an environment can yield self-censorship.
"There's a lot of self-censorship -- a lot, a lot," said Miguel Octavio, a harsh critic of Chavez and founder of the blog, The Devil's Excrement. "I think there's a lot of fear in the media. They don't say everything that they want to say."
Octavio cited an example from his personal experience involving Venezuela's purchase of Argentinean bonds and the subsequent resale of those bonds to banks at auctioned prices. "We're talking obvious graft," said Octavio. Editor and former presidential candidate Petkoff followed Octavio's lead and covered the story. But no one else did. "Not one newspaper has written about it, because that would be accusing the government of corruption."
Octavio also said that he has been threatened. In February 2004, he had taken photos of some violent demonstrations in Caracas and posted them on his blog. He received threats via email. "It said, We know who you are, where you work, and we're gonna go after you, you fascist."
But government supporters say the restrictions on the private press are needed to combat rampant anti-government sentiments.
From behind her large wooden desk in her office at home, Maryclen Stelling Macareņo talked about how "unbalanced" both the private and state-owned media are.
Macareņo, director of El Observatorio Global de Medios (Media Watch), which she calls an independent media analysis organization, said the laws are a defense against the private media which she said needs to become more objective.
Chavez owns the "powerful weapon" of the airwaves and so the government has the final word, she said. As she spoke, children could be heard chanting from outside an open window, "Uh ah, Chavez no se va," ("Chavez isn't going anywhere"), a common chant among Chavistas.
She said that if the media doesn't "behave," then Chavez will quite simply shut them down. Asked if the state media also intends to become more objective, she answered, "Who is going to be the first one? No, nobody knows."