Venezuela’s Media War: Is the Internet the Next Battleground?

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The War Against Opposition Media

On March 1st, 2009, Hugo Chávez announced on his popular Sunday television show, Aló Presidente, that he would commence a kind of “media war” to determine which news bodies were controlled by the oligarchy. Chávez further maintained, “If it weren’t for the attack, the lies, manipulation and exaggeration of the private networks, the Venezuelan government would have the support of at least 80 percent of the population.”

Since this date, Chávez, who has clashed with the media in the past, has fully committed himself to fighting nearly all forms of opposition media. In August of 2009, Chávez withdrew the licenses of 34 radio and TV stations he deemed oppositional. That same month, he launched his new national newspaper Correo del Orinoco, which prints daily and claims to provide unbiased coverage of government actions in the country.

In January of 2010, six broadcast television channels, including the controversial Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) were suspended for refusing to broadcast the president’s long-winded speeches, known as “cadenas.” Previously, Article 10 of the 2004 Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television (Resorte law) only required terrestrial networks to broadcast the speeches. But on December 22, 2009, the national telecommunications commission decreed that the law would now apply to cable stations as well.

At the beginning of last February, five of the six cable stations that had been suspended received permission to continue broadcasting. The suspension of the controversial RCTV, however, was not lifted until the end of that month, when the station finally complied with the governmental demands and agreed to air the “cadenas.” If RCTV had refused to do so, they would have been prohibited from broadcasting in Venezuela, this time permanently.

The Controversy Surrounding RCTV

RCTV was denied a renewal of its broadcast license in 2007. A reasonable argument can be made to justify the denial, as was previously argued by COHA in its January 19, 2007 article “Hugo Chávez, the Media, and Everybody Else.” The Venezuelan government had accused RCTV, on the basis of strong evidence, of playing a pivotal role in the 2002 coup against Chávez’s democratically elected government. Two days before the coup, RCTV substituted regular programming for coverage of a strike aimed at ousting the current government. Commentators also frequently interjected, unceremoniously denouncing Chávez. On April 11, 2002, RCTV ran ads encouraging people to attend a march aimed at deposing the president. After a military golpe had been launched and seemed to be succeeding, thousands of Chávez supporters took to the streets. RCTV, however, neglected to show his followers rallying for his return and instead aired cartoons and old movies as the anti-golpe forces triumphed. If one had only watched RCTV as events unfolded, one would have had no idea of what was transpiring.

Chávez was deposed for less than two days, but he returned to the presidency harboring a bitter resentment towards RCTV, the station he believes to be the primary media culprit for his brief ousting. Nevertheless, Chávez allowed RCTV to continue broadcasting for five years before denying them a license renewal. As mentioned, RCTV resumed broadcasting on cable after a short period of suspension.

The Battle Rages On

Since the 2002 coup, the battle against the opposition media has continued almost without interruption, picking up speed in 2009, after an all-out war was declared between the two sides. In addition to the closing of 34 mainly small TV and radio stations and the suspension of six cable networks, there have been numerous cases involving the stifling of opposition media, especially in recent months.

In March, two well-known Chávez opponents were arrested for making statements classified as “conspiracy against the government.” The first was Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, who, on March 8th, commented on the opposition cable network Globovisión that “Venezuela has become a drug trafficking hub.” He has been detained since March 22nd, accused of inciting crime, conspiracy and the spreading of false information, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). He is possibly facing a two to sixteen years prison sentence.

Guillermo Zuloaga, owner of Globovisión, was also arrested after the Inter American Press Association’s annual meeting in Aruba on March 21st, where he criticized the Chávez government and the “lack of freedom of expression” in Venezuela. Zuloaga was arrested on March 25th upon his return to Venezuela, but was released that same day on the condition that he remain in the country. Zuloaga is facing 30 months in prison for insulting the president and another two to five years for “inciting collective panic by means of false information through the press,” according to RSF. On Friday, June 12th, a warrant was issued for Zuloaga’s arrest on charges of “business irregularities” as reported by the BBC. While the authorities only claim to be applying the law, opposition groups accuse Chávez of trying to monopolize the media. Globovisión is one of the only staunchly anti-Chávez stations still broadcasting.

On June 11th, 2010, a journalist named Francisco “Pancho” Pérez was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. He was charged with defamation after he wrote two columns in 2009 criticizing Valencia’s mayor, Edgardo Parra, for appointing his relatives to government positions in that city. This action, along with the arrest of Guillermo Zuloaga, has caused the OAS to express deep concern over deteriorating press freedoms in Venezuela.

It is likely that these arrests have created a panic stricken environment in Venezuela for members of the media. They certainly increase the likelihood of self-censorship, as many are unwilling to face jail time. While many believe that Chávez had just cause in denying the renewal of the terrestrial broadcasting license of RCTV due to its unprofessional and tendentious role in the 2002 coup, the recent stifling of opposition media is more extreme. Even some sympathetic speculators are now finding that Chávez has crossed the line from justifiable behavior in response to a coup, to an unreasonable, if not excessive, crackdown on opposition press.

The debate is complicated by examples of unprofessionalism on the part of many opposition media outlets. Some even go so far as to say that such bodies are trying to bait Chávez into overreacting. Further, several of the organizations that have been most vocal in criticizing Chávez’s media policies are accused of having ulterior motives, and judging the situation unfairly. The Inter American Press Association (IAPA), for instance, which has continuously condemned crumbling press freedoms in Venezuela under Chávez, has received much criticism from Chávez supporters who note that the organization has a history of attacking left-wing governments. They further complain that IAPA has largely ignored the unprofessional conduct of several major anti-Chávez media outlets, despite the fact that one of its main goals is “to encourage higher standards of professionalism” in media outlets throughout the Americas.

But despite all these complicating factors, the recent arrests of opposition journalists and closing of many opposition stations paint a stark picture. The fact remains that instead of responding to opposition claims with superior arguments, Chávez’s side is seeking to eliminate dissenting voices from the marketplace.

Internet Media: A More Open Environment

Although Chávez has received much international criticism for his borderline authoritarian press censorship policies, when it comes to Internet media, the situation is quite different. Although Freedom House classified Venezuela as “not free” in terms of overall press freedom in 2009, Internet-specific ratings from other organizations have yielded much more favorable results. RSF, for instance, does not include Venezuela on its list of “Enemies of the Internet” for 2010. This list, which consists of 12 countries including China, Cuba, and Vietnam, “[re]presents the worst violators of freedom of expression on the Net.” RSF also has a “Countries Under Surveillance” list, made up of countries that are on the brink of introducing harsh Internet restrictions and becoming “Enemies of the Internet.” This list consists of 11 countries, including Australia and South Korea, but notably, not Venezuela.1

This lack of universal condemnation is compounded by the fact that opposition figures are extremely active on the Internet in Venezuela. Blogs, Twitter accounts, YouTube videos – you name it, they’ve done it. In fact, until very recently, social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter were undeniably dominated by Chávez’s opponents. According to Carlos Jimenez, director of the Venezuelan online polling firm Tendencias Digitales, almost 90% of the 200 most-followed Venezuelans on Twitter were anti-Chávez before the President opened his own account on April 28th of this year.2

Anti-Chávez websites are not only prevalent, but in many cases, very popular. One example is “El Chigüire Bipolar,” a Venezuelan political satire site that features humorous articles, photos, and videos. Taking an attitude that is somewhat comparable to that of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show in the United States, “El Chigüire Bipolar” takes aim at all sides, but still forwards a general anti- Chávez political viewpoint. Recent posts include a video showing Chávez on the phone with Hitler discussing everything from TV to stomach viruses, and an article about a top Minister, Diosdado Cabello, confusing a grocery list with political orders from Chávez. Although such criticisms are funny, they are also influential and cannot be shoved aside as mere mindless humor.

The Venezuelan Internet has been host to dissent of a more formal tone as well. As has been the case in many countries where traditional media is restricted, Venezuelan critics have turned to the Internet and its new forms of media as a place to express their opinions more freely and even to plan other types of action. This January, for instance, students made use of Twitter as a means to plan demonstrations and bring photos of police violence to the public’s attention. Opposition television station Globovisión also has a Twitter account, which it uses to publicize stories that routinely criticize the Chávez regime. Globovisión has more than 290,000 followers.

On March 13th, 2010, Chávez came forth with negative remarks about Internet freedom, stating, “The Internet cannot be a completely free space, where anything is said or done.”3 Made in response to false posts published by users of the website Noticiero Digital, this statement inspired a flurry of press coverage predicting crackdowns on opposition websites. RSF, for instance, warned that Chávez may use the inaccuracy of some posts on forum websites as an excuse to censor websites in general. While such predictions are by no means to be ignored, it is important to note that, as of yet, a serious crackdown has not transpired.

Chávez’s rhetoric is certainly disturbing; he has claimed that the Internet “brings a current of conspiracy”4 and that opposition Internet use can be a type of terrorism.5 But despite these combative words, it seems that, thus far, the strategy he has chosen when it comes to Internet media is very different from the one he has used for traditional media outlets and much less harsh.

Chávez Enters the Online Debate

Shortly after his March 13th statement, Chávez seemed to alter his course. Rather than initiating a shutdown of opposition websites, he began encouraging his supporters to increase their own Internet activity, and made arrangements to personally enter the online debate. On March 21st, just a week after his earlier minatory statements, he announced that he would create a blog. The blog would be used, he said, to directly inform the public about presidential matters, including legislation and meetings with foreign leaders. He also said the blog would be used to respond to comments and questions from both supporters and critics, directly engaging the opposition. Chávez said that his discussions with critics on the blog would be “a battle, indeed.”6 The blog was launched on May 25th and has discussed everything from Mother’s Day, to Venezuela’s upcoming legislative elections, to the World Cup.

In addition to his blog, on April 27th Chávez opened a Twitter account with the username ChavezCandanga. Candanga means daring or rebellious in Venezuelan Spanish. He quickly gained followers, becoming the most followed Twitter user in Venezuela, with more than 500,000 people signed up to receive his tweets.

Chávez has used his Twitter in a unique way. Other world leaders with Twitter accounts, including U.S. President Barack Obama, generally use this outlet to publicize official decisions, rather than share any personal information. Chávez’s tweets are undeniably much more personal than those of any other leader. Whereas President Obama’s Twitter mostly features links to press conferences, Chávez tweets about whom he eats lunch with and the beauty of the Río de la Plata. His tweets are not merely trivial, however. On May 31st, for example, he voiced his opinion about the Gaza flotilla incident, calling Israel’s actions a “massacre.” He also sometimes uses Twitter to announce policy shifts, such as his May 11th decision to nationalize the Universidad Santa Inés.

Chávez and the people of Venezuela have also made good use of the “@” messages function offered by Twitter. The volume of messages Chávez receives is so high that he announced plans to hire a staff of 200 just to read and reply to them. The messages come from both friends and foes of the President and contain everything from words of solidarity to complaints about unemployment or financial problems. Chávez (or at least his staff) actually responds to many of them, sometimes ordering a government official to deal with a complaint, sometimes simply saying thank you to a supporter. He has even responded to certain messages by committing his administration to an investigation of claims of wrongdoing or exploitation.

It seems that Chávez’s new strategy is, in some ways, quite the opposite of his old one. With respect to more traditional forms of media, especially television and radio, Chávez has imposed many restrictions, leading to claims from both domestic and international critics that he has limited the sphere of debate. When it comes to the Internet, however, he has not imposed limits, but rather, has taken steps to add his own opinions to the mix, openly embracing the possibility of public debate. If anything, he has seemed excited about the chance to engage his opponents, calling Twitter a “weapon” that can be used for the benefit of his “revolution.”7 By publicly confronting his opponents rather than silencing them, Chávez has done exactly what free expression proponents would advocate.

Justified Fears

However, the possibility of Internet censorship still looms, and the fears of organizations like RSF should not be disregarded. Plans to change the structure of Venezuelan Internet by creating a single-entry point through which all Internet traffic would flow are in the works. Although this action itself is not a form of censorship, it could be an essential first step in enabling website blocking and other forms of Internet restriction. The government claims that the purpose of the single-entry point is to make Venezuelan Internet more efficient, but critics worry that this could be merely the beginning of a larger plan to limit Internet freedom.

Furthermore, Chávez has begun to strike out against one particular web site. The site, Noticiero Digital, has a very active forum component where more than 120,000 registered users can debate current issues without previous censorship of their posts.8 Proceedings against Noticiero Digital were initiated for the second time since March on June 8th. The first investigation was in response to a post by a forum user that falsely reported the death of a top government official. The second, and most recent, was in response to a column posted on the website which spoke positively of the possibility of a “civil-military transition,” aimed at displacing President Chávez. It is yet to be seen whether these investigations will lead to actual prosecution rather than just aimless threats. Either way, Chávez’s critics fear that such actions will create an environment of fear amongst opposition web users, resulting in self-censorship and a less open debate on the Internet.

Finally, some have reported instances of websites that have already been blocked. The Latin American Herald Tribune, an English-speaking news outlet based in Caracas, claimed that CONATEL, the government communications regulator, blocked their site for 2 days in May, coinciding with the visit of Cuban General Ramiro Valdes.9 According to the Herald Tribune, their site was one of many that could not be accessed during those days. BusinessWeek reported on May 18th that the Venezuelan government blocked websites Chávez believed were responsible for currency speculation.10 The Venezuelan paper El Universal also reported that Chávez had blocked access to several exchange rate websites in Venezuela.11 These instances of Internet restriction do not even begin to approach the level of control that the governments of places like China or Cuba routinely exercise over the Internet, and even pale in comparison to actions Chávez himself has taken against other forms of media, especially broadcast. For that reason, these actions have not yet received much international attention; RSF, for instance, has yet to release a statement on them. However, their presence remains troubling because it could be a sign of worse things to come.

What’s Next?

President Chávez should continue the general strategy of openness he has used thus far for Internet media and not revert to a strategy similar to the one he has adopted for television and radio media. He should keep Venezuela’s Internet free of restriction, continuing to inject his own voice into the debate through his use of Twitter and his blog, rather than silencing opposition forces. Such policies would be both appropriate from a normative standpoint, and practical, as the Chávez administration faces growing domestic and international unpopularity.

Further Internet censorship from the Chávez government would be unjustified. While a reasonable argument can be made that some of Chávez’s actions regarding traditional media sources, such as his refusal to renew the license of RCTV, were necessary to prevent a coup and the subversion of democratic processes, the same argument cannot be made when it comes to the opposition’s use of the Internet.

The site which has been most demonized by the Chávez administration, Noticiero Digital, publishes many anti-Chávez opinion pieces, but also publishes news pieces that are relatively unbiased. Its anti-Chávez tendencies are far less extreme than those of traditional media sources accused of bringing about the 2002 coup. With its forum component frequented by both pro- and anti-Chávez thinkers, Noticiero Digital is a testimony to the current openness of the Venezuelan Internet rather than the product of a monopolistic elite, as many traditional media outlets in Venezuela once were. Even the column that caused the second investigation by the Chávez administration, which the government claims was meant to incite a coup, actually spoke of the author’s opinion of the inevitability of an eventual coup, rather than calling anti-Chavistas to arms. To introduce website blocking or any other form of Internet censorship in Venezuela for fear of a coup would be an act more of paranoia than necessity.

Furthermore, Chávez’s popularity is currently at a low point in Venezuela, with an approval rating of 48% according to Datanalasis, a Caracas-based polling group. This is only a slight improvement from the seven-year-low of 42% measured by Datanalisis in April of this year.12 If Chávez launches an Internet censorship policy, his ratings are likely to sink again, as public outcry will inevitably follow, just as it has in response to his restrictions of other media forms. With ratings that are already below 50% and the September 26th legislative elections rapidly approaching, Chávez cannot afford to undertake a measure so likely to be unpopular without endangering his entire agenda. Thus, if he wants to continue his 21st century socialist revolution, he will need to seriously commit himself to an open Internet debate and avoid significant restrictions on Internet usage.

References for this article can be found here.