Winners and Losers of Venezuela’s Coercive Policy for Presidential Addresses

The Venezuelan government has received severe domestic and international criticism for blocking cable television channel Radio Caracas Television International (RCTV) from broadcasting its programming. While the natural immediate reaction for most outside observers is to condemn the action as a violation of Venezuela’s freedom of the press, an analysis of the issues surrounding the subject will provide a more nuanced understanding of the legal environment present in Venezuela, the government’s motivations, and possible alternative responses that could be taken if the will were there.

The Current Situation

World attention again briefly turned to the Venezuelan media confrontation following the second closure of the RCTV facility. Issues of content control and censorship have been brought to the surface again following new conflicts between the Chávez government and the opposition cable channel RCTV. In 2005, Venezuela passed a Law of Social Responsibility for Radio and Television (RESORTE), thereby establishing a code to regulate the material that television channels could air (1). This included monitoring content as well as required coverage of presidential addresses by all public and national television channels.

As suggested above, the recent shutdown is not RCTV’s first run-in with the Chávez administration. In 2007, the government refused to renew its broadcasting license, forcing it to move to subscription broadcasts. The Economist in July of 2007 reported “Just seven weeks after disappearing from Venezuelans’ television screens when the government refused to renew its broadcasting license, RCTV is back. But the station, whose opposition politics and “capitalist” programs aroused the ire of Hugo Chavez . . . is now available only to the roughly two-fifths of households that have access to cable or satellite television” (2). Even though RCTV switched over to cable in 2007 to avoid governmental interference in its broadcasting, a recent change in the Venezuela’s National Telecommunications Commission’s (CONATEL) policy has brought the issue up again.

On December 22 of 2009, the definition of some of the law’s terms and conditions expanded its jurisdiction to include subscription (cable and satellite) channels that might even operate from abroad. The Venezuelan government promulgated these definitions through the “Norma Técnica sobre los Servicios de Producción Nacional Audiovisual.” This policy defined what was meant by “national content”(3) and was aimed at Venezuela’s domestic population. It further determined that if 70% or more of a channel’s programming consisted of national content, then that channel had to obey the RESORTE law, meaning such a channel would have to broadcast the national addresses, as well (4).

CONATEL determined in January 2010 that RCTV violated the RESORTE law because 94% of RCTV’s programming consisted of national content, yet it failed to broadcast an obligatory presidential address (5). CONATEL suspended RCTV’s broadcasting privileges by blocking it from cable providers and continued its crackdown on January 24 by revoking five other channels’ (Ritmo Son, Momentum, America TV, American Network and TV Chile ) rights to broadcast (6). These broadcasts are distinct from Hugo Chávez’s weekly television program Aló Presidente, which has an established programming schedule. Direct presidential addresses can occur at any time, interrupting the regularly scheduled programming to inform the citizenry of the government’s latest decisions and initiatives. Thus, it is the government’s position that by refusing to broadcast the presidential address, these cable stations violated the RESORTE law, and the Venezuelan government’s actions in this matter appear to be consistent with its legal authority.

The move to shut down RCTV by the Venezuelan government inspired domestic protests on January 25, manifested through marches that ended in violent confrontations between police —who used tear gas to disperse protesters—and both, pro- and anti-Chávez groups. Two people died as a result of the fracas and several others were injured (7). On February 4, opposition student protests were met with tear gas, plastic bullets, and water cannons (8), based on the fact that the state had denied the students’ petition to march, citing that the proposed route coincided with a pro-Chávez march taking place the same day to commemorate Chávez’s 1992 failed coup (9). This is ironic due to the fact that Chávez’s address was meant for his own troops, broadcasted directly to the people and contained two famous words, “Por ahora,” that would endear him to the people and set the foundation for his later meteoric rise to the Venezuelan presidency.

RCTV’s forced closure brought widespread criticism from the international community, as individual countries (most prominently the U.S. and Canada), the Organization of American States (OAS), as well as non-profit groups like Reporters without Borders (RwB) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) (10), condemned CONATEL’s decision.

The strength and uniformity of both the domestic and international response should provide some indication to the Venezuelan government that barring RCTV in this fashion has been a tactical if not a substantive mistake. At the same time, Chávez consistently has worked to undermine the opposition, but the Venezuelan authorities consistently have asserted that as long as RCTV abides by the law, it will be allowed to broadcast.

Fabiola Sanchez of The Canadian Press reported on February 22 that, “Company president [and Chávez foe] Marcel Granier told a news conference that Radio Caracas Television Internacional will try to make a comeback on cable after agreeing to meet government rules on carrying official broadcasts” (11). This development will allow RCTV to return to the air after being shut down for slightly over a month, and demonstrates the Venezuelan government’s dedication to the legal framework that it has established. While the government’s current policies may go beyond reasonable limits, its actions regarding RCTV consistently have been justifiable according to the law, despite the demurer of its critics.

The Context

Venezuela is currently facing a barrage of economic challenges, which help provide the backdrop to the media controversy. Droughts have caused a shortage of hydroelectric energy, the primary source of electricity for the oil-exporting country. While relying on hydroelectric power could be construed as an admirable commitment to environmental responsibility, the lack of back-up systems to deal with its present travesty demonstrates the government’s shortfall in maintaining a viable infrastructure. The shortages have resulted in rolling blackouts and electricity rationing. Chávez also devalued the country’s currency with lofty long-term ambitions, as well as some readily observable, and obvious political motivations.

Politically, Chávez rearranged voting districts to favor him in September’s parliamentary elections, and he has reacted against signs that fans brought to baseball games, which had generated a persistent opposition slogan that Chávez has “struck out” (12).

Since the opposition boycotted the last election, Chávez’s party controls the National Assembly. This political blunder by the anti-Chávez claque exposed a significant flaw in the opposition’s strategy because it excluded itself from the legislative body where its presence was most essential. Due to the opposition’s lack of participation in the democratic process, it can do little but accept the laws that Chávez pushes through parliament, including the laws that are now bedeviling RCTV.

Also, the changes to television coverage must be seen in light of overall communication media. There is a wide array of commercial and community radio stations that exist alongside public television channels, cable stations, and print media. Access to television is less widespread than access to radio across the country, with both types of media still missing a large segment of the population. For instance, Gale (2010) reports that in 2003, there were only 186 TV sets/1000 people. Of this figure, only 32.4/1000 people were cable subscribers (13). Christopher Toothaker of the Associated Press reported, “Government figures say about 37 percent of Venezuelan homes received cable television in 2008. But some private companies say their research shows about six out of every 10 households have subscription TV service” (14). Despite this discrepancy, RCTV’s popularity and its reputation as an opposition station amplify its influence in Venezuela. Generally, the cable segment would include the relatively more affluent segments of the urban population, which has been increasingly marginalized under the Chávez administration. This group matters politically in Venezuela because 93% of the population resides in urban areas (15).

The Legal Framework

The RESORTE law set standards for conduct regarding social codes and property, including the use of profanity, sexually explicit material, and violence. By defining a spectrum of this type of material (16), the law allows different degrees of this material to be broadcast according to the demand for such goods at different times, depending on the likely viewing audience. Likewise, it forbids ads for products that promote the use of tobacco and alcohol. Thus, the law is intended to protect less mature audiences from exposure to inappropriate material and is similar to U.S. FCC policies that forbid channels from airing “Obscene, indecent, and profane broadcasts” (17). The Venezuelan law goes even further, though, and requires that radio, television, and cable channels televise official national addresses aired by the government based on the percentage of national coverage their station broadcasts or televises (18).

This is quite different than communications norms in other countries. For instance, network stations voluntarily choose to carry such addresses in the United States. In a telephone conversation with COHA, FCC Director of Media Relations, David Fiske, asserted that in the U.S., “A television station can broadcast according to its own discretion on how it serves its community” (19). And on some occasions certain channels (such as openly conservative Fox) have opted not to carry addresses by Presidents, even though all the other major network stations did carry them. Unlike in Venezuela, the U.S. permits television channels to choose to broadcast or not to broadcast these political messages.

Aspects of the RESORTE law are similar to the United States’ Emergency Alert System (EAS), which is designed to inform the nation in times of emergency of impending danger. The FCC website explains, “The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is a national public warning system that requires TV and radio broadcasters, cable television systems, wireless cable systems, satellite digital audio radio service (SDARS) providers, direct broadcast satellite (DBS) service providers, and wireline video service providers to offer to the President the communications capability to address the American public during a national emergency” (20). “Only the President,” the website further states, “determines when the EAS will be activated at the national level, and has delegated the administration of this function to FEMA. Accordingly, FEMA activates the national EAS, and directs national EAS tests and exercises” (21).

Voluntary Coverage of Presidential Addresses: a Broader View of the Impacts

To understand the highly-charged debate around the closure of RCTV, it is important to first understand the impacts of media coverage of governmental messages. While political opinions may ultimately drive the decisions made by executives of television companies and officials in government agencies, there are positive and negative effects for both the private sector and the broader public that should be considered apart from the philosophical discussion of media freedom. Within a voluntary framework, one can assume that many of the channels will still carry the speech due to the public demand for such information. Television media would find it in their interest to broadcast presidential addresses if the benefits outweigh the costs of doing so. In a sense, government messages also can represent a public good, so many additional public benefits and costs should also be considered.

To begin, a private analysis would consider the impact of such broadcasting for the interests of the television station in question (as well as other firms). On the benefit side, a television station—whether a public or a cable channel—could gain positive public relations by broadcasting presidential speeches. If a large segment of the relevant viewing public holds a preference for such messages, stations will be competitive since they are meeting a demand for presidential broadcasts. The stations also could make themselves appear more legitimate by broadcasting such messages which could appear as “covering the facts”.

Citizens will want to know what the president is saying and will be concerned with how it will affect their lives. Likewise, television channels will demonstrate an ethic of civic responsibility by supporting the government and its efforts at transparency. The government will be respecting the individual channels’ rights by allowing them to make their own decision while demonstrating their faith in domestic media outlets. Finally, the government has its own channels, so the message is guaranteed to get out through this venue at the very least, making these channels more important to the citizenry because they will know where to turn in the time of an emergency.

Similarly, this policy will benefit television and cable channels by allowing them to assist their government and their country without being compelled to do so. They could maintain their free will by broadcasting the speeches, or not, according to their own light, but broadcasting the speeches will yield them legitimacy in the people’s eyes, as they cover the facts for the viewing public.

On the cost side, television companies may stand to lose revenue because the time they allocate for ads will be taken up by governmental addresses. By altering the amount of available advertising time, these speeches could disturb the economic equilibrium of the television broadcasting market, especially, when the authorities exercise this right all too often, as President Chávez tends to do. In such circumstances, a new equilibrium could emerge that will account for the uncertainty associated with the requirement to oblige the president. In instances where ratings matter, a television station may also see a dip in its competitive standing if it uses its airtime for a presidential address over more popular programming. For instance, one study mentions that RCTV’s station is watched by 40% of the country’s viewing public (22). As it airs more presidential addresses, it stands to lose this audience. Over time, a public station may lose viewers or a cable station may lose subscribers if it broadcasts unpopular programming.

A Coercive Policy

The Chávez government has used these messages to a much greater degree than previous administrations (23). Several messages a week are likely to tire viewers and predictably will not be aired voluntarily by stations. Often private analysis can demonstrate that there are insufficient private benefits to encourage voluntary adoption (choice) of broadcasting a government message, such as a presidential address. Public service announcements would meet the criteria of being for the public good (non-rival and non-depletable) so that some role for government broadcasts is necessary because of the market’s tendency to undersupply such goods. Many tools—both carrots and sticks—are available, ranging from financial incentives to stations broadcasting these messages and sanctions, such as financial penalties.

As a result of such fetid, the government has chosen to take such aggressive unilateral actions in order to ensure the delivery of such messages across public television stations and cable channels. Rather than use incentives to compel television stations to continuously broadcast these messages, the Chavez administration, (perhaps unfortunately) has chosen to take a more aggressive approach. The current policy clearly is a coercive one in that it gives television and cable companies the option to either acquiesce and broadcast the speech, or accept the penalty of losing their broadcasting privileges and face fines. This guarantees that there is no competition for the public’s attention because all domestic channels or even international channels with predominantly (more than 70%) domestic programming, like RCTV, face tough penalties for not complying. This policy also could be used strategically to coincide with opposition attempts to broadcast its own messages. From the television and cable companies’ perspective, this policy is archly constraining. It removes any need to deliberate over whether or not it should comply, but likewise, the companies do not have any real avenues for dissent.

Is there any positive net benefit which could come to Venezuelan society from such an action? This analysis, then, turns on weighing the public benefits and public costs of such messages, particularly the quantity of messages and the forced nature of their delivery in Venezuela.

There are public benefits of the broadcasting of government messages. In a time of national crisis, this represents an essential service that allows the state to communicate with the people over a national grid. There is a rationale to the Emergency Alert System operated in the United States, for instance. By broadcasting the presidential address across all television channels—even subscription channels like cable and satellite—the government guarantees that all television viewers have access to the information. This can create a well-informed citizenry and promotes efficiency in times of national crisis. Providing such messages to the viewers represents a legitimate social responsibility because these communications can inform the citizenry and prepare it for a coordinated response. These speeches can be important even without a national emergency because they provide transparency for governmental actions, allowing the president to justify the policy changes that he is implementing by presenting his case to the public.

However, it must be emphasized that the public benefits of such transmission of information diminish as the quantity of government broadcasts increases, or if their quality decreases, verging on propaganda. On the margin, how society gains from the 170th “emergency” broadcast is surely less than the first such broadcast in a crisis. The sheer magnitude of presidential addresses in Venezuela suggests that efficiency gains from such forced broadcasts of such public addresses by Chávez could be low.

And there can be associated public costs from forced broadcasting. There is an opportunity cost to the viewers who tuned in for their regularly scheduled programming, but instead could only find the president’s speech coming at them from every outlet. They have lost the chance to enjoy other media for which they have a preference. Most importantly, the policy undermines the government’s tolerance for private initiatives and freedom of speech by mandating compliance with the government’s will. Broadcasting companies legally are obligated to acquiesce, preventing them from providing a public service of their own device—thus undermining the society’s sense of civic responsibility. Additionally, the government incurs the regulatory costs associated with enforcing the law. CONATEL employees could have dedicated their time to other public business rather than the closure of RCTV.

International criticism has also emerged at a significant political cost, as foreign observers have interpreted these actions by President Chávez to have grave implications for Venezuela’s respect for human rights, if this becomes an issue at play. Therefore, as the quantity of forced presidential speeches increases in the country, the “marginal costs” in terms of bad international relations will increase for Venezuela.

With these costs apparent in Venezuela, an alternative policy must be considered. While this alternative may not suit Chávez’s goals of severing the opposition, it might give his administration some enhanced legitimacy in the eyes of foreign observers. Decreasing the number of presidential speeches being broadcast under coercion would be a clear option. Alternatively, innovative methods of incentives for private cable providers and public stations or a coherent system of fines could bring about a more optimal balance of presidential speeches and other programming. Of course, this would require changes to the RESORTE law, which works against the historical context of Chávez’s usage of the television media.

The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) published a report on February 24, 2010 that analyzed democracy and human rights in Venezuela and suggests RESORTE options. The 319 page report criticized Caracas for failing to meet international human rights standards, specifically related to the RESORTE law. The Commission states Venezuela has the proper legal framework:

The Venezuelan State has recognized its obligation to protect, guarantee, and promote the right to freedom of expression in Article 57 of its Constitution and, in a paradigmatic example, has decided to honor its international obligations indicating in Article 23 of its constitutional text that: “Treaties, pacts and conventions relating to human rights, signed and ratified by Venezuela have constitutional rank and prevail over domestic legislation, insofar as they contain provisions for the enjoyment and exercise of such rights that are more favorable than those established by this Constitution and the laws of the Republic, and shall be immediately and directly applied by courts and the organs of public power.” Additionally, the protection of freedom of information is recognized and protected in the Constitution at the highest level, by establishing it in its Article 337 as one of the untouchable rights that cannot be restricted even under exceptional circumstances. (24)

After some 2,000 instances of interruptions, a presidential address hardly even qualifies as an “exceptional circumstance,” indicating that the RESORTE law exceeded its practical application, especially since it has led to the infringement of RCTV’s ability to broadcast. Nevertheless, the Commission does not condemn the law wholesale. It does not discourage the social responsibility that the law tries to imbue in the media. Rather, the IACHR exposes deficiencies in the law and proposes clear modifications to correct it shortcomings:

Therefore, taking into account the standards described in this section, the IACHR exhorts the State to modify the text of Article 29 of the Law on Social Responsibility, to subject the interpretation of the provisions on sanctions to the mentioned regional standards, and to establish institutional, organic, and functional guarantees to ensure the independence of the authorities applying the laws on radio broadcasting with the aim of ensuring that the opening of administrative proceedings and the eventual imposition of sanctions in the framework of this instrument are the responsibility of impartial organs that are independent of the Executive Branch. (25)

Thus, if Venezuela were to delineate the RESORTE law’s vague requirements and punishments according to the Commission’s observations, the country would ensure CONATEL’s impartiality by removing its vulnerability to political pressure. In this manner, Caracas could silence its critics.

Chávez’s Love for National Addresses and Media Innovations

It is important to note why the opportunities for these presidential addresses are so important to the Venezuelan leader. Chávez directly addressed the people of Venezuela in the aftermath of his 1992 failed coup, asserting that his efforts to enact change in the country had failed for the moment. Even though he had failed, the address endeared him to the people. He was later pardoned in 1994 by then-president Rafael Caldera and ran for the presidency in his own name, and won in 1998.

Chávez has rewritten the constitution and won two successive presidential elections, and throughout it all, he has sustained a populist character, focusing on the Venezuelan poor. In doing so, he has spent a significant amount of time on the air, addressing the citizenry. RwB reported that “President Chávez’s total time on the air in the course of the 2,000 ‘cadenas’ adds up to around two months of non-stop talking. This does not include the show called ‘Aló Presidente,’ which Chávez himself hosts every Sunday on VTV [Venezolana de Televisión]” (26). While the presidential addresses represent an important aspect of his leadership, the idea that all the channels with a primarily domestic programming mission should carry his speeches whenever he is so inclined, could go beyond reasonable limits.

Another case that established the connection between Chávez and the Venezuelan people and continues to motivate Chavez’s derisive attitude toward RCTV was the 2002 coup d’état. The military detained President Chávez, while Radio Caracas Television consciously chose not to show any support for the democratically elected government. In 2007, the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) reported that,

[F]or two days before the April 11, 2002, coup, RCTV canceled regular programming and ran constant coverage of a general strike aimed at ousting Chavez. A stream of commentators delivered fierce criticism of the president with no response allowed from the government. RCTV also ran nonstop advertisements encouraging people to attend an April 11 march aimed at toppling the government and later broadcast blanket coverage of the event. When the march ended in violence, RCTV ran manipulated video footage falsely blaming Chavez supporters for scores of deaths and injuries. (27)

RCTV’s support for the coup has since gathered for the channel Chávez’s total contempt, which he has not been ashamed to show openly.

Chávez has attempted to bring further innovation to international news transmission through support for the creation of an alternative 24-hour news service, TeleSUR. Founded by Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, TeleSUR aspires to provide a “space for a new order in communication” by supplying programming produced in Latin America (28), as opposed to North-American-focused networks like CNN. By offering a distinct view of local and international affairs, TeleSUR and its backers aim to provide its viewers with a more balanced understanding of events in the region and around the world.

Conclusions

The communications issue in Venezuela has become a problem because, to a certain degree, Chávez has abused his privileges in favor of mandated presidential addresses to the people. Due to the fact that the Venezuelan president does have his own weekly television show, the idea that he must interrupt regular programming to make a political speech is specious at best. Nevertheless, the government’s actions were clearly legal according to the RESORTE law. The negative consequences of this move, though, appear to outweigh the benefits.

The shutdown by the government has yielded severe international criticism on human rights grounds and has generated domestic outrage among student and opposition groups. The OAS provided general recommendations to bring the RESORTE law into line with international human rights norms and media freedom; however, a whole new approach may be more appropriate for the Chávez administration. Giving television and subscription channels the authority to broadcast or to refuse to broadcast non-emergency presidential addresses could create a net benefit to Venezuelan society, although the argument could also go in the opposite direction. Such a policy would support the transparency in a non-coercive environment. The Chávez administration may have won a minor battle by forcing RCTV to comply with the RESORTE law, but the loss of legitimacy and the further erosion of Venezuela’s standing on the world stage could cause significant damage to Chávez’s Bolivarian cause. With parliamentary elections on the horizon, Chávez might come out on the wrong end of a confrontation with the Venezuelan public, if the latter sees this as a heavy handed matter.

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