The Venezuela Coup and its Accomplices

The Venezuelan government has announced that it won't renew the licence of private TV channel RCTV. Rod Stoneman, the producer of the documentary "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," explains why.

Following his recent re-election, President Chavez of Venezuela has announced that the broadcasting concession to Marcel Granier’s Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), one of the country’s main private television stations, will not be renewed when its current licence ends in May.

One immediate reaction from outside has been to perceive this as an attack on freedom of speech, part of a slide towards authoritarian control. Peter Preston’s recent Observer article ‘Mr Chavez and the Death of Freedom’ exemplified this.

But what is the context of this dispute?

The motives given for retraction include “RCTV involvement in the 2002 attempted coup.”

Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain’s documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised depicted the role of RCTV and the other private television stations in the run-up to and during the military coup against Chavez on April 11 2002.

Their low journalistic standards and aggressive antagonism towards the Chavez government were part of the coup attempt itself. They orchestrated a news blackout as the seizure of power took place.

“We (the coup organisers) had a deadly weapon – the media,” Vice-Admiral Victor Ramirez Perez, one of the coup plotters, pointed out on Venevision on April 11.

RCTV and the other private stations were implicated in the planned events which led up to the coup d’etat. This was confirmed by pivotal extracts from a chat show revealing that a video statement from a military general had been shot in the house of a private TV journalist.

The scenes recorded in The Revolution Will Not be Televised the morning after the coup show journalists and military plotters boasting explicitly of their involvement “to make Chavez stay in the country … then we activated the plan” to get the people on the street and, when things reached their peak, to “activate the army.”

In this exchange, one conspirator says: “I must thank Venevision and RCTV.”

Had a British television station acted similarly in attempting to foment revolt against a democratically elected government, its licence would almost certainly have been revoked. The individuals involved would probably have been charged with subversion.

Andres Izarra, who trained in journalism in the US and became news director for RCTV, reveals that he had received a clear instruction. “No information on Chavez, his followers, his ministers and all others could be related to him.”

When Chavez finally returned to Miraflores palace on April 13 after the coup had been reversed, RCTV broadcast the Hollywood film Pretty Woman.

“We had a reporter in Miraflores and knew it had been retaken by the Chavistas … (but) the information blackout stood. That’s when I decided to leave.”

After walking out on RCTV, Izarra was appointed Washington press attache and then minister of information in Chavez’s government, from where he led a campaign against media destabilisation.

Immediately after the coup, the private stations continued their aggressive anti-Chavez campaign. Chavez decided to tackle the television situation in earnest, raising the question of whether or not attempts to enforce media regulation are necessarily an attack on the principle of press freedom.

The old paradigm in which all journalists want to tell the truth and all threats come from nasty politicians emanates from the myth of the role of the heroic reporter in many fictional representations. It is not always sustainable in practice.

Izarra asserts that, as a result of the commercial media campaign to oust the elected government, the private television stations effectively forfeited their right to broadcast, commenting: “I think their licences should be revoked.”

There have been long explorations and debates in democracies about the statutory and non-statutory regulation of the press. They often spring from the unexceptional proposition that the media should be required to provide a consistent and conscientious service free from deliberate distortion or misreporting.

Mass communication in our society is remote and unresponsive. Accuracy, access and accountability could be improved in both the public service and private media.

However, even if this principle is clear and can be agreed upon, the implications of enforcement are characterised by reference to the dangers of state control.

There have been few attempts to encourage popular participation or to devise any innovative form of more democratic control.

In July 2005, rather than attempting to ban the commercial television stations or revoke their licences, Chavez’s government proposed to outflank them with other media.

Izarra launched a new pan-continental satellite television station Telesur. Describing itself as an antidote to Western-controlled media hegemony and cultural imperialism, it is backed by the governments of Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay and Brazil and screens documentaries by new film-makers and independent films dubbed Nojolivud (No Hollywood).

“Alternative” and community media may offer a challenge to dominant views, but they first must market themselves to achieve a wide audience. That means entering an aggressively competitive sphere where commercial forces have a clear advantage.

While television and newspapers are significant factors in the determination of people’s view of the world, the power of these channels is not absolute.

In December, Chavez was re-elected for a further six-year term by 62 per cent of the electorate. Popular support for Chavez in Venezuela results less from the rather stolid programming of the one government channel and more from “word of mouth” popular discourse outside the media’s domain.

RCTV will not have its licence renewed because the station did not comply with the concise regulations contained in Article 58 of the constitution that guarantee Venezuelan citizens a right to “true and accurate information.”

It may continue to broadcast by cable and satellite and the other private stations, which, although consistently critical of the regime, are not affected at this time.

Even if Preston’s comparison of Chavez and RCTV with Margaret Thatcher and Thames Television is an unfair generalisation, the Venezuelan President’s policy does raise important questions for the media regulation at home.

Rod Stoneman was executive producer of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and is currently director of the Huston School of Film and Digital Media, Galway, Ireland. He was Channel 4 deputy commissioning editor from 1983-93 and Irish Film Board chief executive from 1993-2003.