August 18th 2009
By Caitlin McNulty and Liz Migliorelli
Upside Down World
When Hugo Chávez won the Venezuelan Presidential election in 1998, he immediately implemented one of his primary campaign platforms, the rewriting of the Venezuelan Constitution of 1961. This new constitution included a broader scope of social, economic, cultural, political and civil rights. A popular referendum was held to elect qualified citizens to make up a Constituent Assembly whose job was to draft the new constitution. This constitution was truly written for the people and by the people. One of the articles in the constitution required the restructuring of the Venezuelan oil industry in order to provide a more equal distribution of resources and wealth to the Venezuelan people. For the economic and political groups who traditionally held power and who had benefited greatly from this oil profit, this shift in structure and fortune was not at all welcome. Since then, this large block of private media (whose ownership belongs to the most powerful businessmen and corporations) has worked toward removing Chávez from power and slowing the revolutionary process.1 Since Chávez won the presidential election and the traditional political parties Acción Democratica and COPEI lost power, the news media has become the greatest weapon of the opposition in a war against the Chávez administration.
Media Sources in Venezuela
The preferred news source of most Venezuelans is television media. There are at least five nationally broadcasted television stations that dispatch via “free-over-the-air” and publicly allotted signals. These stations include Venevisión (controlled by Grupo Cisneros), Univision, Televisión de Venezuela (Televen) and previous to it’s closing (which will be explained later in the article), Radio Caracas Television (RCTV).2
For several decades, commercial television in Venezuela has belonged to an oligopoly of two families, the Cisneros and the Bottome & Granier Group. The tremendous influence of these parties reaches beyond broadcast networks into advertising and public relations agencies that operate for the welfare of the stations, as well as record labels and other societal industries that produce material to be promoted on the stations. Not only does the Cisneros family own Venevisión, the largest station in Venezuela, they own over seventy media outlets in 39 countries, including DirecTV Latin America, AOL Latin America, Caracol Television (Colombia), the Univisión Network in the United States, Galavisión, Playboy Latin America as well as beverage and food distribution such as Coca Cola bottling, Regional Beer and Pizza Hut in Venezuela. They also own entities such as Los Leones baseball team of Caracas and the Miss Venezuela Pageant.3 The reach of the Cisneros power is massive; the media monopoly broadcasts to more than four million television screens in Venezuela, giving it tremendous power and influence.
Globovisión, a channel that is widely broadcast in major metropolitan centers such as Caracas, Carabobo and Zulia and is also available on satellite on DirecTV, and CNN en Español are both private stations that have a harsh anti-Chávez rhetoric. President of CNN en Español Christopher Cromwell has said that Chávez may not like the programming on his network, but this meant that CNN was doing its job correctly. Another station, Valores Educativos Televisión (Vale TV) is a major regional network that is neither state-run nor commercially aimed, run by the Asociación Civil, which is managed by the Catholic Church.4 These smaller, regional networks are never mentioned in reports of media in Venezuela. Five major private television networks control at least 90% of the market and smaller private stations control another 5%. This 95% of the broadcast market was quick to express its opposition to President Chávez’s administration as early as 1999, soon after Chávez first took office.5 There are three public and state-controlled television channels that exist on the same national electromagnetic spectrum, including Venezolana de Televisión (VTV, established in 1964, a state-owned television network); Visión Venezuela (ViVe TV, established in 2003, a cultural network funded by the government that is not yet broadcasted nationally); and Televisora Venezolana Social (TVes, established in 2007 as RCTV’s substitute).6 These channels cannot compete with the privately owned, commercial media that serve as the dominant source of television news media in Venezuela.
Print media in Venezuela is diverse, but it depicts a greater opposition presence than seen in television networks. Many publications are corporate-owned and extremely critical of the Chávez administration. In comparison to the United States, where New York, the largest city, has only four daily papers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Daily News), two of which are markedly sympathetic to the Bush administration, Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, has twenty-one daily papers. Whereas the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Washington Post are the only nationally distributed daily papers in the United States, Venezuela circulates eight daily papers nationally.
A Washington D.C. based think-tank Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) has described the print media situation in simple terms: “nine out of ten newspapers, including [the most prestigious daily] El Nacional and [the business oriented] El Universal, are staunchly anti-Chávez.” 7
Never was corporate media’s agenda of destabilizing the Chavez government more transparent than during the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez, which was seen by many as the “first media war in world history”.8 Overwhelming public outrage broke out as the majority of Venezuelans who voted Chávez into office saw the democratic process derailed before their very eyes. Their voices, actions, and protests were silenced by the news media in favor of the “inauguration ceremony” of Pedro Carmona, the illegitimate coup-appointed interim President of Venezuela. In response to the government’s change of the executive board of Petroleros de Venezuela (PDVSA, Venezuela’s oil company) a massive opposition march to the headquarters of PDVSA was promoted by print media, radio and television incessantly. In the days before the coup, instead of regular television programming, Venevisión, RCTV, Globovisión and Televen broadcasted constant anti-Chávez speeches and propaganda calling for viewers to take to the streets. Some ads urged, “Venezuelans, take to the streets on Thursday, April 11 at 10 a.m. Bring your flags. For freedom and democracy. Venezuela will not surrender. No one will defeat us.”9 Many propaganda ads were extremely threatening and clearly intended to instigate violence and an overthrow of the Chávez government.
On April 11, 2002, the march that was directed toward the PDVSA headquarters changed route toward the presidential palace, where a group of pro-government supporters were rallying that same day. When sniper gunfire rang out and pro-government supporters began to fall, the Chávez supporters started to shoot back in the direction of the gunfire. RCTV, along with other major news networks, selectively showed footage of Chávez supporters firing guns off of the Puente Llaguno bridge along with a voiceover of “Look at that Chávez supporter…see how he unloads his gun at the peaceful opposition march below.”10 They failed to broaden the angle to include the abandoned street below, or include that a mix of two peaceful marches of both Chávez supporters and opposition members had been fired upon by unidentified gunmen, the majority of victims were Chávez supporters, and the men on the bridge were responding to a direct attack. The private media held the Chávez supporters responsible and blamed the Chávez government for arming the aggressors.
Shortly afterwards, a video of objecting high-ranking military officials pronouncing themselves against Chávez’s government and requesting his resignation was shown. By projecting these videos over and over again in the mass media, the coup plotters hoped to justify their final goal of kidnapping Chávez and carrying out the coup. The next morning, after Chávez had been taken away but had not resigned, a Venevisión morning program hosted some of the military and civilian coup leaders. The guests on the show thanked the private media channels for their integral role carrying out the coup. As powerful businessman Pedro Carmona became the de-facto president of Venezuela, all the private media owners were present in the palace cheering loudly as the new president dismantled the democratic institutions that Chávez’s government had put into place.
There was a complete blackout of information about the coup. The private media intentionally kept breaking news and critical information concealed from the public. On April 11, RCTV received information that Chávez had been kidnapped and was being held in a military prison, but withheld that information from the public, continuing to publicly celebrate his “resignation.” During this news blackout caused by the forced closure of the state TV channel, the private media became the primary source of information. Demanding the return of their democratically elected president, Chávez supporters took to the streets on April 13. Instead of reporting these demonstrations and massive mobilizations, the private channels broadcast old movies, cartoons and soap operas. There was a total news blockade; networks prohibited all employees from showing Chavez supporters on screen, forcing those with moral or ethical objections to leave. Venezuelan analyst Eva Gollinger states that;
The intentional censorship was a clear attempt to deny Venezuelan citizens access to true, objective and timely information, violating their constitutional rights and those rights garnered to them under international human rights instruments.11
It wasn’t until the protesters won back the state-run television station that Venezuelans began to receive news of what was happening in their country.
Community media played an integral role in combating this widespread media manipulation and blockade, presenting accurate information about the coup and the popular resistance beginning to mobilize in order to derail it. Gregory Wilpert explains;
During the coup, the community media filled the gap which the private mainstream media left when it played and active role in the coup and refused to broadcast the military and popular resistance against the coup government.12
Although the majority of community media stations were broken into, dismantled, and destroyed, a few managed to convey their message beforehand and helped mobilize the masses that eventually managed to reinstate their justly elected president. On one of the most significant days for Venezuelan democracy, the day the democratic process prevailed and Chávez was re-instated as the President of Venezuela, major news stations broadcasted cartoons.13
In the end, the private media was not able to complete a successful coup d’etat against Chávez, but they were able to rally support from the U.S. media which lead to a greater range of misinformation about what had happened during those few days in April. Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting published a Media Advisory on April 18, 2002 titled, “U.S. Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move” where it explains the way U.S. newsprint sources such as the New York Times declared that “Chávez’s ‘resignation’ meant that ‘Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.’ Conspicuously avoiding the word ‘coup,’ the Times explained that Chávez ‘stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader.'” Although the New York Times did run an editorial three days later when Chávez returned to power and said;
In his three years in office, Mr. Chávez has been such a divisive and demagogic leader that his forced departure last week drew applause at home and in Washington. That reaction, which we shared, overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed. Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer.14
The Times’ “apology” was a thinly veiled criticism of Chávez. The New York Times was not the only paper that celebrated the removal of Chávez; the Chicago Tribune, Newsday and the Los Angeles Times were all quick to pay tribute to the coup. Overwhelming international criticism of the coup and interim government was silenced by this approval of the United States, Colombia and Spain, the only three countries that acknowledged the coup-appointed government as legitimate.
In Venezuela, the government decided in May 2007 not to renew the broadcast license of RCTV, which was one of Venezuela’s largest and most powerful television stations. This decision created a large uproar amongst critics of the Chávez government, international media, press freedom groups and human rights groups, all which claimed that the denial of renewing the broadcasting license of RCTV was direct proof that freedom of speech was being limited in Venezuela.15 By looking deeper, one can see how profoundly the propaganda campaign carried out by the corporate media of the United States and Venezuela affected the way in which people comprehend the issue of RCTV’s “closure.” For the Chávez government and its supporters, this conclusion of RCTV’s broadcast rights was long overdue because of the channels participation in the April 2002 coup attempt, where they used manipulated film footage to convince people that the government was murdering people in the streets and refusing to broadcast any footage of thousands of Venezuelans taking to the streets to defend their democracy. RCTV has been censured and closed repeatedly in previous presidential administrations and the station leads Venezuela in its violation of communication codes, with 652 infractions.16
Not only do the mainstream media dictate the way in which individuals and movements are perceived, they dictate what the framework for that perception will be. Those participating in the international political debate over free speech and RCTV weren’t discussing the fact that RCTV continues to broadcast- on cable- despite its prominent role in the funding of the 2002 coup against Chavez. Neither were they addressing the fact that the US government, through the N.E.D. (National Endowment for Democracy) and US A.I.D. provided several million dollars to the news networks funding and participating in the coup, had a military presence during Chávez’s temporary detention, and therefore had vested interest in the international “debate” (read international propaganda campaign) and how it was framed.
The “Organic Law on Telecommunications” gives Chávez the legal authority to not renew RCTV’s license. “A concession for the use of the radio electric spectrum will not be provided to those who, despite having been in conformity with the modalities established in this law are, nonetheless, involved in the following situations: … 5. When grave circumstances arise relating to the security of the state that, in the judgment of the President of the Republic, make the provision [of a concession] unsuitable.” There is no review process stated in the law, which makes the President’s decision somewhat diplomatic.17
This issue of violating freedom of speech in Venezuela remains a popular debate in the media. It is necessary to look at whose freedom of speech we are addressing, and how we are addressing it. With a few individuals controlling 95% of Venezuela’s broadcast media, the international debate should have centered on the rights of the remainder of the population to express their opinions, ideas, and beliefs. Because media has the power to create commonly accepted truth, freedom of speech should allow everyone to share that power. Political analyst and author Diana Raby states;
the question of expression and communication of social and political discourse is absolutely fundamental to any discussion of democracy, and the notion that such powerful instruments of communication as newspapers, radio or TV stations should be the private property of individuals or commercial enterprises would be laughable if it were not already established practice.18
Without a way to express ideas to a broader audience, freedom of speech and expression is a hollow concept, a negative right. Private corporate media is often used to dominate and control populations, perpetuating a system in which only those with capital truly have a voice. The abstract right to freedom of speech does not negate the fact that only an elite few have the resources to realize this right.
1 Barker, Michael. “Washington Promotes ‘Independent’ Media in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 20 Sept. 2007. 12 May 2009
2 Kennis, Andrew. “What is the Venezuelan News Media Actually Like?” Venezuela Analysis. 4 Aug. 2008. 25 May 2009
3 Golinger, Eva. “A Case Study of Media Concentration and Power in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 25 Sept. 2004. 5 May 2009
4 Kennis, Andrew. “What is the Venezuelan News Media Actually Like?” Venezuela Analysis. 4 Aug. 2008. 25 May 2009
5 Golinger, Eva. “A Case Study of Media Concentration and Power in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 25 Sept. 2004. 5 May 2009
6 Cooper, Helene. “Iran Who? Venezuela Takes the Lead in a Battle of Anti-U.S. Sound Bites.” The New York Times 21 Sept. 2006. The New York Times. 21 Sept. 2006. 24 May 2009
7 “U.S. Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move.” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. 18 Apr. 2002. 7 May 2009
8 Golinger, Eva. “A Case Study of Media Concentration and Power in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 25 Sept. 2004. 5 May 2009
9 Golinger, Eva. “A Case Study of Media Concentration and Power in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 25 Sept. 2004. 5 May 2009
10 Golinger, Eva. “A Case Study of Media Concentration and Power in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 25 Sept. 2004. 5 May 2009
11 Golinger, Eva. “A Case Study of Media Concentration and Power in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 25 Sept. 2004. 5 May 2009
12 Wilpert, Gregory. “RCTV and Freedom of Speech in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 2 June 2007. 4 May 2009
13 . “U.S. Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move.” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. 18 Apr. 2002. 7 May 2009
14 . “U.S. Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move.” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. 18 Apr. 2002. 7 May 2009
15 Wilpert, Gregory. Changing Venezuela By Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government. New York: Verso, 2007.
16 Jordan, James. “Venezuela, RCTV and Media Freedom: Just The Facts, Please.” Venezuela Analysis. 29 May 2007. 12 May 2000
17 Janicke, Kiraz. “Venezuela Strengthens Community Media in “Battle of Ideas”” Venezuela Analysis. 14 Feb. 2008. 12 May 2009
18 Raby, D. L. Democracy and Revolution Latin America and Socialism Today. New York: Pluto P, 2006.