Published by The Narco News Bulletin
By Andrew Kennis
What is the Venezuelan News Media Actually Like?
In light of characterizations by the Bush administration of the Venezuelan media that are too often unquestionably reported and frequently parroted by the U.S. news media, serious concerns of media independence from President Bush’s foreign policy line arise; a comparison between the two goes far to illustrate the serious problem of the lack of media independence.
Public officials in Washington – never great friends of President Chávez – have always seen the media as a key battleground. U.S. legislation has launched and financed significant news propaganda incursions into the Venezuelan media. Representative Connie Mack IV (R-FL) successfully pushed through an amendment in 2005 to a Foreign Relations Reauthorization Bill that provided for 30 minutes of programming every day from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the same government agency that runs Radio Free Europe) to be transmitted over Venezuelan airwaves. Mack remarked at the time, “in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela there is no free press – just state controlled anti-American propaganda.”
Other initiatives have followed, including a 2007 measure that brought $10 million in financial support for Voice of the America to expand its broadcasts in Venezuela. Mack once again railed against the Venezuelan media: “Freedom of the press died in Venezuela on May 27, 2007, when Chavez shut down Radio Caracas Television” (Miami Herald, 06/22/07).
This stance is a familiar one, coming both from Congress and the White House. In a speech to the Organization of American States after the Venezuelan government refused to renew private network Radio Caracas Television’s (RCTV’s) broadcast license last May, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: “Freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of conscience are not a thorn in the side of government … Disagreeing with your government is not unpatriotic and most certainly should not be a crime in any country, especially a democracy.”
The U.S. news media have overwhelmingly parroted such claims from the government. Many of these news accounts came after the controversial RCTV decision, but such coverage has long existed and has been well documented by the media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
Typical of opinions on the RCTV decision was that of syndicated columnist Miguel Perez, in an op-ed published in the Chicago Sun-Times and other papers. Perez called the license denial “totalitarian censorship” and a clear example of “censoring the opposition in the media” (01/09/07). A Washington Times staff editorial wrote that Chavez’s RCTV decision should be marked as nothing less than “the return of the authoritarian left” (06/08/07).
The coverage revealed confusion about some of the basic issues in the RCTV license non-renewal. The Washington Post, one of the most influential dailies in the U.S., irresponsibly included quotes about non-existent legal reforms in the leading paragraphs of one article. “The government is trying to change the laws and indoctrinate the population,” read a quote from a protesting college student and Venezuelan expatriate (06/16/07). However, no law was changed by not renewing the network’s license. Legal Reforms in the early 1990s bestowed this responsibility on the Venezuelan executive branch (a fact rarely cited in mainstream accounts).
News reports published in the U.S. sometimes contradicted themselves with conflicting facts and unquestioned characterizations. In an analysis from the Houston Chronicle, one of the longer and more comprehensive think-pieces on the RCTV issue, Chávez’s actions were described as a “frontal assault on freedom of the press.” In the same piece, it was interestingly admitted toward the end of the article that, “RCTV and other stations … are owned by some of Venezuela’s wealthiest families [and] began playing an overt political role” following Chavez’s initial landside electoral victory in 1998. Further noted, was the fact that “the Chavez government has the legal right not to renew RCTV’s license,” characterizations that would seemingly clash with the unquestionably reported “frontal assault” description that led the article (Houston Chronicle, 05/27/07).
Polls supposedly revealing deep opposition and “widespread disagreement” to Chavez’s decision were routinely cited out of context (Romero, NYT, 05/27/07), often without any reference to the fact that most, “viewers in [at least one oft-cited] survey expressed little concern about losing access to RCTV’s anti-Chavez news programs … [and] instead … complained about missing the station’s soap operas and game shows – like the Venezuelan version of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.’” This latter piece of information, however, was a buried item in and of itself and appeared toward the end of the article (Houston Chronicle, 5/27/07).
To be sure, the RCTV “closure” is a complex one, and there are many different perspectives that should be presented. But the issue never received the subtle and careful treatment it deserved in U.S. media coverage (again, see the sidebar for links to FAIR for more information on this point). More importantly, the obsessive focus on the RCTV issue effectively shut out any substantial attention to a key question that would have gone far in settling many of the points of disagreement in that debate.
Analyses Found in Independent News Media
Far different depictions, noticeably absent in mainstream coverage, were found in independent news sources.
Writing for the Nation, Mark Weisbrot, who is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, characterized Venezuela as having “the most anti-government media in the hemisphere” (12/06/06). Eva Golinger, a Venezuelan-American lawyer and prominent critic of U.S. foreign policy, wrote that, “You turn on any of the channels here and you’ll see that there’s more freedom of expression enjoyed in Venezuela than probably anywhere else in the world. It’s the only place where they can go on television and talk about killing the president, or saying the most derogatory and offensive things on a news hour” (interview on Z-Net, 2005). PR Watch refers to the “… former AP correspondent in Venezuela Bart Jones, [who] dismisses the criticism of the RCTV non-renewal as the result of a ‘web of misinformation,’” and instead maintains that RCTV “should not be seen as free-speech martyrs. Radio, TV and newspapers remain uncensored, unfettered and unthreatened by the government. Most Venezuelan media are still controlled by the old oligarchy and are staunchly anti-Chavez.”
Contrasting points and analyses such as these beg the question: what is the actual composition of the Venezuelan media in terms of its ownership and editorial positioning toward the Chávez administration? Indeed, some characterizations in the U.S. news media described RCTV as being: “one of [only] two [broadcast networks] that presented opposing views of President Hugo Chavez’s rule” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 10/23/07). However, the facts show otherwise.
Ownership Structure and Editorial Leanings of the Venezuelan News Media
A Venezuelan Congressional leader protested to the New York Times in a June 2007 letter to the editor that: “broadcasters like Venezuela’s Radio Caracas Television use a limited public good – the broadcast spectrum – and must abide by long-accepted public-interest standard,” adding that the overwhelming majority of ownership “is in private hands, much of it owned by huge conglomerates.”
Starting with the television media, the favored new source of most Venezuelans, there are at least five nationally broadcasted television stations that transmit via “free-over-the-air” and publicly allotted signals (other accounts put the total as high as eleven, depending on different definitions of what is considered “national”). Even using the conservative estimate, previous to the RCTV closing, three of these five stations were privately owned and commercially operated. These included Venevisión (established in 1961, formerly owned by Mexico’s Televisa, but now controlled by Grupo Cisneros), whose television programs are picked up by a television source familiar to U.S. citizens, Univision; Televisión de Venezuela (Televen; established in 1988); and lastly, RCTV.
All three of these broadcast networks were overwhelmingly favorable to the two-day-long 2002 military coup that temporarily unseated President Chávez. The government’s claim that RCTV actively participated in the coup is well documented. So there is little controversy about the autonomy and independence of these corporate-run stations. Venevision and Televen both maintain that they do not want to be involved in political conflicts and strive to maintain “objective” positions. No prominent analyst has seriously contended, however, that either of these stations are “pro-Chávez.”
The other national channels on the limited electromagnetic spectrum are public and state-controlled. Before RCTV, there were only two, but now there are three: Venezolana de Televisión (VTV, established in 1964); Visión Venezuela (ViVe TV, established in 2003); and Televisora Venezolana Social (TVes, established in 2007 as RCTV’s replacement). By the most conservative of estimates then, 3 out of 5 national channels are funded by the state. And according to other accounts that give a higher total number of national stations, seven of the eleven stations are private and corporate controlled. None of these seven maintain in any meaningful way “pro-Chávez” stances.
By broadening the picture to include regional stations, as well as cable and satellite stations, we see an even greater presence of private and corporate media. Both Globovisión and CNN en Español have attracted the ire of Willian Lara, the Venezuelan communications minister, for their sharp criticism of Chávez and their alleged anti-government messages (Romero, NYT, 05/29/07). In an interview with this author, CNN en Español president Christopher Cromwell proudly remarked that Chávez may not like the programming on his network, but this meant CNN was doing it job correctly.
Globovisión is one channel somewhere between regional and national, as it is widely broadcast in the major metropolitan areas of Caracas, Carabobo and Zulia, and also via satellite on the DirectTV network. It is also one of the most resolutely anti-Chávez stations in its editorial stance.
There is even a major regional network that is neither state-run nor commercially oriented. Valores Educativos Televisión (Vale TV) has been on the air since 1998 and is run by Asociación Civil, which is managed by the Catholic Church. Vale TV is indeed one of the reasons why the Venezuelan news media is arguably much more diverse and free than U.S. news media are depicting.
Despite their nearly national reach, the U.S. commercial media rarely mention these networks. However, even the most conservative estimates put private commercial ownership at no less than 75% of the television news media. Other estimates that include more outlets are as high as 95%.
Looking at Venezuela’s print media paints an even greater opposition presence than television, with publications deeply critical of the Chávez administration, commercially oriented and corporate-owned. The D.C.-based think-tank Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) described the issue in blunt terms: “nine out of ten newspapers, including [the most prestigious daily] El Nacional and [the business-oriented] El Universal, are staunchly anti-Chávez” (Council of Hemispheric Affairs, August 21, 2005). Opposition to Chávez, given the commercial character of daily newspapers in Venezuela, is especially rampant in print; not even one major daily newspaper is controlled or funded by the state.
There are twenty-one daily newspapers in Venezuela’s largest city and capital, Caracas, eleven of which are considered to be of significant influence and eight of which that are also distributed nationally. This pales in comparison to the situation in the U.S., where the largest city has only four major dailies (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Daily News), at least two of which are significantly sympathetic to the Bush administration’s policies. Further, only two of these four papers (New York Times and Wall Street Journal) double as a nationally distributed daily newspaper – the U.S. only has four nationally distributed daily papers (the USA Today and Washington Post comprising the other two).
Venezuela thus has at least as varied a print sector as the U.S. does – and in some ways, it is more diverse. Indisputably, Venezuela has a wider array of print choices and a larger amount of nationally distributed publications. But this is not the only democratic aspect of Venezuelan media. An often overlooked but widespread movement has also come to bear in a country full of social and political change.
Community-oriented, non-profit, non-commercial, citizen and volunteer run media has long been a part of the changes that have swept Venezuela.
Next year will mark the first decade of community media’s constitutional existence in the country. Indeed, community media’s origins date back to the Venezuelan Constitution that was adopted in a 1999 referendum, with over 90% of the vote in its favor. More importantly, however, is the tremendous growth of this new form of media since 2002.
The failed 2002 military coup against President Chávez is widely seen as one of the prime triggers for the furious growth of community media in Venezuela. In 2002, there were seven community radio and two community television stations operating in Caracas. Since then community media has grown markedly. The successful staying of the short-lived 2002 military coup was, in part, the result of the efforts of community media activists counteracting the huge show of support for the coup by private media companies. In fact, during the coup’s two-day run, the opposition reportedly forced the closure of community media outlets such as Catia TV. After the failure of the coup, however, the popular resistance that had toppled it inspired the creation of dozens of community media collectives, ballooning its presence across the country.
Eighteen months after the coup, leading political analyst Greg Wilpert was already writing about, “the explosion of Venezuela’s alternative and community media,” which he argued was a consequence of three related factors: “the complete lack of balance with Venezuela’s private mainstream media, the successful overthrow of the April 2002 coup attempt, and the active legal support of the state for community media” (Venezuelanalysis.com, 11/14/2003). By 2005, over thirteen times as many community radio stations appeared on the scene, the total increasing from 13 to 170. Community television stations are also sprinkled across the country and have a considerable presence in Venezuela.
Another vital part of the community media movement has been an online-based news agency Aporrea.org. Operating on a shoestring budget and a staff of six to eight full-time activists – supported by hundreds more contributors – the cutting edge reporting and analysis published on its web site has garnered tremendous hit counts, sometimes numbering in the millions (see extensive interview conducted by former Narco News editor, Luis Gomez: Part I, Part II).
The collaborators and members that are part of Aporea.org read like a cross section of the type of Venezuelans most attracted to community media in general: “members of popular, cultural and community work groups of the Caracas neighborhoods, communicators from the Community Radio stations, union activists from the Bolivarian Workers Force, members of neighborhood organizations and of Bolivarian Circles, people from the popular and progressive networks that live in the Venezuelan capital,” as Aporrea’s most involved activists told to Gomez. As a result of these inclinations, it is fair to say that community media is not a resource to those who would identify themselves with the opposition to the government. Instead, however, it has opened up a huge channel to voice the viewpoints of sectors of the Venezuelan society that simply do not have a significant presence in the mainstream media.
Given the popular support that President Chávez commands , there are enough elements in community media to support a healthy stream of criticism that is undertaken in order to “deepen the revolution,” to borrow the words of one of the founders of Aporrea, or to simply uncover abuses of authority and corruption in the government. More than anything else, however, Venezuelan community media acts as a buffer against the plethora of uncovered stories and overlooked facts in the corporate dominated mass media in Venezuela. Despite the important roles that community media in Venezuela fulfills, even its most active participants are under no illusions about the challenges that remain ahead, as they often describe their status as “marginalized” forcing them to act amongst merely “small nuclei and groups.” Nevertheless, in light of the numbers generated by impressive online hit counts, the diffusion of television and radio broadcasts and the ever-growing number of stations connected to them, the facts that millions of Venezuelans read, listen to, watch and/or directly involve themselves in community media.
It is once clear that the media in Venezuela do not suffer from direct state control or censorship. Conversely, the key question for the future is not how little freedom of expression is present in Venezuela, but how much expression and influence will be achieved directly by citizen-run and community oriented media.