Opinion and Analysis: Venezuelan Media
A Case Study of Media Concentration and Power in Venezuela
Setting: Venevisión, one of 5 major private television channels in Venezuela, December 20, 2002. The following is a transcription of a television advertisement played on a Venezuelan private media channel during the December 2002 managerial stoppage. The commercial that follows was interspersed amongst 10 back-to-back similar propagandas paid for by the Venezuelan opposition movement. The ads were played during breaks from 24-hour news coverage of opposition marches, speeches and interviews. During the 64-day stoppage, approximately 700 similar, yet varied, ads were broadcast daily.
Advertisement: A big "NO" appears in red letters. Smaller letters state "Don't be deceived" and a male voice narrates the same. The same voice continues, as the written words appear, "In this country, our country, there is only one person responsible for so much abuse, impunity, anarchy and lack of governance." [A fast paced music builds in the background]; A women's voice narrates, as the written words appear over an image of thousands of opposition marchers in the streets, "Venezuela, don't be deceived." Return to male narrator, "The only one responsible for the violation of the Constitution" [words pasted over scenes of national guard repression and violence]; Return to female voice, "of financing the circles of terror created in the shadow of his government" [scenes of violence amongst people in the streets, tear gas in the air, people running, members of Bolivarian Circles speaking and gesturing]; male narrator, "to give away our petroleum" [image of PDVSA, the State-owned oil company], woman's voice, "of the taking of our Marine Merchants by mercenaries" [scenes of armed individuals mounting oil tankers]; male voice, "of the torture of PDVSA" [image of violence in the streets, tear gas, people screaming, running]; cut to woman's voice, "for politicizing our armed forces" [image of armed forces in the streets, violence]; cut to male voice, "disrespecting our institutions" [image of armed forces firing teargas on civilians, chaos in the streets]; cut to woman's voice, "for the stoppage in the nation" [scene of marches in the streets, armed with sticks and rocks, yelling, fighting one another]; cut to male voice, " for the division of Venezuela" [violent street protestors yelling, fighting]; cut to female voice, " for the hate amongst brothers" [continue fighting in the streets, violence chaos]; cut to male voice, "Venezuela, don't be deceived" [image of a giant Venezuelan flag held by opposition marchers]; cut to female voice, "in this country, our country, there is only one person responsible for so much horror" [image of opposition marchers in the background yelling and signaling ‘get out']; male voice "for so much sadness" [image of Venezuelans carrying a coffin through a crowd]; female voice "for so much terror" [image of individual captured for firing at opposition protestors, bloodied and half naked, carried by police]; male voice, "for so much violence" [image in background of man with a stick, swinging it violently in the street]; female voice, "for so much intransigence" [scene of armed guards and police in the streets, harassing civilians]; cut to male voice, "for so much insensibility" [same scene of armed forces in the streets]; cut to female voice, "You, who have been judged in five elections in two years, what is the fear of being judged again?" [background image of polling machines, voters voting, elections volunteers with ballots]; cut to image of animated map of Venezuela with a big "HERE" written on it; male voice, "Here, there is only one responsible..."; cut to yellow screen, the words appear as they are yelled by a chorus of angry people, "Not one step back, OUT, GET OUT NOW." Ends with the Democratic Coordinator logo.
The twenty-first century has begun with the first media war in world history. Although tools of propaganda and use of the mass media to further political aims have been characteristic of previous conflicts, wars and political strategies, the case of Venezuela evidences the first time that the media, as a powerful, private actor, has waged war against the people in order to advance its own agenda. Public access to media and diversity of voices have been usurped by private media moguls in Venezuela propagating their own political and economic aims. Precisely those goals a democratic society and media seek to promote have been turned upside down in Venezuela. In order to fully contextualize the current media war in Venezuela, it is necessary to understand the importance of the history and standards of media regulation, freedom of expression and public access to media in U.S. law and in international instruments of human rights law.
II. Public Access to Media and Diversity in U.S. Law
Diversity and public access to media have been fundamental necessities of a true democracy throughout the history of the United States. In 1927, the Radio Act authorized an independent regulatory commission to decide who should receive broadcast licenses and authorized programming regulation, yet prohibited the government from censoring radio. The Radio Act of 1927 ensured that broadcast stations would be predominantly owned and operated by private citizens rather than the government and established the airwaves as a public resource that no person or business could claim ownership of or claim rights of permanent usage. The Act also required radio broadcasters to provide equal time to political candidates, yet a provision to "permit equal opportunity for presentation of both sides of public questions" was not included in the final version of the Act.
The obligation of broadcasters to air diverse views on public issues was declared a policy of the newly established Federal Radio Commission ("FRC") in 1929, in Great Lakes Broadcasting. The FRC, which predated the Federal Communications Commission, reasoned that because broadcast frequencies were limited, broadcasters were subject to a standard of "public interest, convenience and necessity" based on a duty to the listening public. Great Lakes involved New York and Chicago radio stations owned by labor organizations that had applied for increases in power but were turned down by the FRC on the ground that the stations had been used almost exclusively as propaganda outlets for labor interests. The FRC stated that "the public interest requires ample play for the free and fair competition of opposing views...[T]his principle applies...to all discussion of importance to the public." Furthermore, in KFKB Broadcasting Association v. FRC, a federal appeals court ruled that the FRC could refuse to renew a broadcast station's license if its programming did not serve the public interest.
A few years later, Congress passed the Communications Act of 1934, which replaced the Radio Act. Section 315 of the Communications Act required equal access to broadcast outlets by candidates for public office and Section 312(a)(7) created a right of reasonable access to facilities for federal candidates. Yet neither of these equal opportunities provisions incorporated language mandating citizen access to media. It took the Commission almost two decades to fully develop a fairness principle that would ensure public access to media and a diversity of opinions portrayed in broadcasting.
In Mayflower Broadcasting (1941), the Commission ruled that a license renewal could only be granted to a licensee that agrees not to editorialize and further stated that, "radio can serve as an instrument of democracy only when devoted to the communication of information and exchange of ideas fairly and objectively presented." Yet this doctrine only lasted for eight years, and soon commercial television began to challenge the dominance of radio. A Federal Communications Commission ("FCC") report in 1949 reversed the Commission's previous position and permitted licensees to editorialize, with the exception that the editorials must be "fair" and that programming in general must be "balanced." Moreover, this report required broadcasters to "devote a reasonable amount of broadcasting time to the discussion of public issues of interest in the community served by their stations."
Therefore, after nearly two decades of confusion about the application of the developing fairness principle, in 1949, the FCC established the twofold duty of broadcasters that became known as the Fairness Doctrine. The FCC explained that, "the needs and interest of the general public for new and diverse opinions could only be satisfied by making available to the public varying and conflicting views held by responsible members of the community." As part of the Fairness Doctrine, the FCC required broadcasters (1) to devote a reasonable percentage of airtime to the discussion of public issues and (2) to present contrasting views in the case of controversial issues of public importance.
The Fairness Doctrine, widely applauded by media reformists, judges and scholars yet highly criticized by broadcasters and First Amendment purists, imposed a general obligation on broadcasters to ensure that diverse ideas were presented. Broadcasters reserved the right to determine which views or issues were to be presented and by whom, yet they had to ensure a balanced account was aired. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, that key provisions of the Fairness Doctrine were constitutional.
Red Lion involved the broadcast of a personal attack by right-wing preacher Billy James Hargis to author Fred J. Cook, who had written a book critical of Republic presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. WGCB radio station, in Red Lion, Pennsylvania, aired the attack on their station. The station refused to grant Mr. Cook's request to reply to the attack, unless he found a paying sponsor. Subsequently, Cook filed a complaint with the FCC, which held that WGCB's failure to grant Cook's right to reply was in violation of the personal attack provision of the Fairness Doctrine. Red Lion Broadcasting, the owner of the station, challenged the "right to reply" requirement as an unconstitutional infringement on the radio station's First Amendment right to Freedom of expression. Upon appeal, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine. In that landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fairness Doctrine served to enhance, rather than abridge the freedoms of speech and press protected by the First Amendment. They further proclaimed that, "It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount." This language has characterized the foundations of the media reform movement today, which seeks a more diversified, accessible communications media.
Four years later, in CBS v. Democratic National Committee, the Supreme Court refrained from expanding the public right of access designated in the Fairness Doctrine by holding that the First Amendment does not require broadcast licensees to provide airtime to specific individuals or groups who want to present a point of view on public issues. This decision combined two cases: one involving the Business Executives' Move for Vietnam Peace (BEM), an organization of business people opposed to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam who wished to purchase airtime to express their opposition to the Vietnam War; and another involved a petition by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to the FCC to declare that no broadcaster could refuse to run paid editorial advertisements. In the original decisions brought before the FCC, the Commission had ruled that broadcasters could refuse to sell time for comment on public issues, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed the commission. The Court said a flat ban on paid public issue announcements was a violation of the First Amendment right of the public to receive information. However, in CBS v. DNC, the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court and supported the FCC's original decision, in a five-four split decision.
In 1987, after a series of federal cases slowly chipped away at the Fairness Doctrine, the Reagan-era FCC implemented its deregulatory philosophy by striking down key provisions, claiming they conflicted with the public interest and the First Amendment. Specifically, the Commission argued that its intrusion into the editorial judgments of broadcasters was no longer necessary to ensure the airing of diverse views on important public issues because there had been an "explosive growth" in the number and variety of information outlets since Red Lion upheld the Fairness Doctrine in 1969. Although the Commission recognized the validity of Red Lion, it nevertheless stated: "Were the balance ours alone to strike, the Fairness Doctrine would thus fall short of promoting those interests necessary to uphold its constitutionality."
Yet the Supreme Court of the United States has not ventured to overturn its landmark decision in Red Lion, which remains good law today. Additionally, the FCC has maintained Fairness Doctrine-related policies, including the personal attack and political editorializing rules, and the Zapple Rule, which holds that supporters of opposing candidates must be given the same amount of airtime during election campaigns. These policies echo the general view that operations of broadcasters should be carried out in the public interest. Furthermore, the FCC sets strict regulations governing children's programming and viewing hours, as well as guidelines for the broadcasts of political viewpoints and issues. This class of regulations intends to prevent the mass media from broadcasting just one viewpoint and becoming a concentrated political power, such as in the case of Venezuela.
Principles of balance, access, diversity and fairness still reign in the courts and federal regulations with respect to telecommunications in the United States and internationally. In addition to the historical development and demise of the Fairness Doctrine, those inclined towards democratizing the media in the United States have continued to rely on the First Amendment as the fundamental source of these rights. The ultimate role of the First Amendment's declaration that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press" is to secure the diversity of information and viewpoints necessary for the people's self-governance. In Associated Press v. U.S., the Court recognized the role of the First Amendment in securing the diversity necessary to a democratic system, by declaring:
[The First] Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society. Surely a command that the government itself shall not impede the free flow of ideas does not afford non-governmental combinations a refuge if they impose restraints upon constitutionally guaranteed freedom. Freedom to publish means freedom for all and not for some. Freedom to publish is guaranteed by the Constitution, but freedom to combine to keep others from publishing is not. Freedom of the press from governmental interference under the First Amendment does not sanction repression of that freedom by private parties.
Furthermore, in 1994, the Court's decision in Turner Broadcasting Sys., Inc. v. FCC reinforced the critical notion of regulation as a tool of promoting wider access and diversity:
The First Amendment's command that government not impede the freedom of speech does not disable the government from taking steps to ensure that private interests not restrict, through physical control of a critical pathway of communication, the free flow of information and ideas.
Therefore, despite the FCC's deregulatory actions that repealed the Fairness Doctrine in the late 1980s, the Courts have continued to uphold concepts of fairness, balance and access in broadcasting. At the same time, the United States has not ventured to incorporate rights of public access and to a diverse, objective and balanced media as extensively as those set forth in international instruments of human rights, despite the unprecedented growth of media conglomerates and monopolies and the ever-decreasing spectrum of voices represented on U.S. media. However, the media concentration in the U.S. has not yet reached the point of exclusive control, as the case in Venezuela. It is therefore critical to analyze the situation of media concentration in Venezuela as precisely the outcome that proponents of media reform seek to avoid.
III. International Instruments of Law
Before addressing in detail the media war in Venezuela, it is necessary to set forth international standards of public access to media and diversity of opinions in order to demonstrate the unlawful and unbalanced situation created by the media monopoly on information in Venezuela. International human rights instruments and modern concepts of freedom of expression generally state that freedom of expression is guaranteed under a nation's Constitution or laws. Article 13 (1) of The American Convention on Human Rights declares, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds..." (emphasis added). The American Convention, Article 13 (3) further states, "The right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint, radio broadcasting frequencies or equipment used in the dissemination of information, or by any other means tending to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions." (emphasis added).
Additionally, several articles in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("ICCPR") guarantee the right to freedom of thought, the right to hold opinions without interference and the prohibition of war propaganda. The General Comments to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights reinforce the notion that "...little attention has been given to the fact that, because of the development of modern mass media, effective measures are necessary to prevent such control of the media as would interfere with the right of everyone to freedom of expression..." As such, the Covenant is recognizing the potential of media conglomerates to infringe on the rights and freedoms of expression and access to information of citizens guaranteed by U.S. courts and international law.
The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights during its 108th Regular Session stated that, "Freedom of expression in all its forms and manifestations is a fundamental and inalienable right of all individuals," (emphasis added) and that "All people should be afforded equal opportunities to receive, seek and impart information by any means of communication without discrimination for reasons of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, economic status, birth or any other social condition." Furthermore, The Principles on Freedom of Expression by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have clearly stated that monopolies or oligopolies in the ownership and control of communications media "...conspire against democracy by limiting the plurality and diversity which ensure the full exercise of people's right to information."
Therefore, it is evident that international instruments of human rights plainly recognize the threat of media concentration to freedom of expression and public access to media. But, at what point do the rights of the media to a free press conflict with the rights of individuals to freedom of expression and access, and whose rights are more valued? The General Comments to Article 19 of the ICCPR put forth that "...little attention has been given to the fact that, because of the development of modern mass media, effective measures are necessary to prevent such control of the media as would interfere with the right of everyone to freedom of expression..." Particularly in a society where mass media is privatized and owned by multinational corporations with economic interests and motives other than providing "true and accurate information", it is essential to have laws ensuring the democratization of the media that protect the rights of citizens. Without such laws and regulations, media conglomerates threaten democracy by maintaining control over access to information and the capacity to advance political agendas through propaganda campaigns and thought control. The recent developments in Venezuela are evidence to the point and constitute the most extreme case of media exercise of power in history.
IV. Case Study - Venezuela
The first media coup d'etat ever occurred on April 11, 2002 in Venezuela against a democratically elected and popular president.
"Disinformation, flashing negative imagery, fear and stress induction techniques, quasi-hypnotic suggestion, excessive repetition and falsification and forgery are just but a few of the mindshock techniques deliberately being used, not just in overtly political spots but also in regular programming...Numbing repetition, relentless slandering and demonizing of Chávez supporters. Exaggeration, negative spinning and saturation coverage of any minor fact or event that can remotely make the Chávez government look bad. Loud, rapid-fire, invariably negative interviews. Excessive use of panic-inducing words ("Castro-Communism" is a favorite of Venevisión, along with "mobs", routinely used to describe Chávez supporters). Deliberate use of loaded terms like "crimes against humanity" or "genocide" in the wrong contexts, to describe current events in Venezuela. Exploitation of children in interviews to stir up anti-Chávez sentiment...Venezuelans are being subject to a massive Chávez-aversion therapy program, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, month after month, ad nauseam. People wake up and go to sleep with it..."
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 began to outwardly express its opposition to President Chávez's administration as early as 1999, soon after Chávez began his first term in office. After President Chávez came to power in 1998, the five main privately owned television channels - Venevisión, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Globovisión, Televen and CMT - and nine out of the ten major national newspapers, including El Universal, El Nacional, Tal Cual, El Impulso, El Nuevo PaÌs and El Mundo, took over the role of the traditional political parties, Acción Demcrática (AD) and COPEI, which had lost power after Chávez won the presidential election. The investigations, interviews, reports and commentaries of these mass media have all pursued the same objective for the past four years: to undermine the legitimacy of the government and to severely damage the president's popular support.
President Hugo Chávez FrÌas won the election in 1998 by an overwhelming majority of votes. It was the first time in Venezuela's young democracy that a candidate outside the two traditional political parties, AD and COPEI, had won the presidency, and by a landslide. Part of his virtue was his capacity to relate to the average citizen, his master communication skills, and his background; mixed Indian-Black Venezuelan and working class. Once in office, Chávez immediately began implementing his primary campaign platforms, including the rewriting of the Venezuelan Constitution of 1961 to include a more diverse spectrum of social, economic, cultural, political and civil rights, and to integrate the armed forces into the economic and social life of the country through a program titled "Plan Bolivar 2000". In an unprecedented move, a popular referendum was held to elect qualified citizens to comprise a Constituent Assembly, which would draft the new constitution. Subsequently, the draft constitution was ratified in another popular referendum, receiving 71% of voter affirmation.
The 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela contained articles granting new rights to Venezuelans, such as indigenous rights, education rights, health care rights, job and salary rights, political participation rights and many others that have made the new Venezuelan Constitution one of the most progressive in the world in the area of human rights. Articles 57 and 58 of the Constitution guarantee the right to true and objective information, incorporating international standards of freedom of expression and public access to a diverse, democratic media. Article 58 of the Venezuelan Constitution specifically states, "Communication is free and plural and must adhere to the obligations and responsibilities under the law. Every person has the right to objective, true and impartial information, without censorship..." Furthermore, Article 108 of the Constitution clarifies that all communications media, public and private, must contribute to the social development of citizens. This same article guarantees public access to radio, television, library networks and information networks, in order to permit universal access to information. Public access channels and community-based media were new rights ensured under this Constitution.
The Constitution additionally required the restructuring of Venezuela's oil industry, the fourth largest in the world, in order to provide a more equal distribution of resources and wealth to the Venezuelan people. The implementation of these rights and policies through Congressional legislation was not well received by those economic and political forces that had traditionally held power in Venezuela. The private media were resistant to the growth of independent and community media outlets. As a result of the collapse of the traditional political parties, the private media became the leading voice of opposition to the Chávez administration, because its ownership rests in the hands of Venezuela's most powerful businessmen and corporations.
A small group of businessmen own fifteen television stations in Venezuela. Only six of these stations are national, and the rest are local channels. Three of the local stations, Televisora Andina de Mérida, Canal de los Niños Cantores del Zulia and Vale TV belong to the Catholic Church. There is only one public television station with a national broadcasting frequency, Venezolana de Televisión (or Channel 8), and growing community media stations, such as Catia TVe and Bocon have an extremely limited range. During several decades, commercial television in Venezuela has belonged to an oligopoly of two families, the Cisneros, who own Venevisión, and the Bottome & Granier Group, which owns Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) and Radio Caracas Radio. Against the determined opposition of these two families, Televen, Globovisión, CMT and La Tele were able to enter the private media market, although the latter two only have VHF frequency, with limited reach.
This same small group of media owners are not just the proprietors of broadcast circuits but also own advertising and public relations agencies that operate for the benefit of the stations, as well as record labels and other cultural industries that produce material to be promoted, released and broadcast on the stations. Furthermore, the Cisneros family also owns, in addition to Venevisión, the largest station in Venezuela, over 70 media outlets in 39 countries, including DirecTV Latin America, AOL Latin America, Caracol Television (Colombia), the Univisión Network in the U.S., Galavisión, and Playboy Latin America, as well as beverage and food product distribution (Coca Cola bottling, Regional Beer, Pizza Hut in Venezuela, etc.) and cultural entities such as Los Leones Baseball team of Caracas and the Miss Venezuela Pageant. These are precisely the types of monopolies that developed nations seek to prohibit. These media monopolies broadcast to more than four million television screens in Venezuela, reaching millions upon millions of ordinary Venezuelans. Statistics show that Venezuelan children watch an average of five hours per day of television.
Print media are similarly concentrated in the hands of just a few wealthy families. For example, the six largest dailies are owned by specific family groups. There are two hundred magazines and fifty daily papers circulating in Venezuela. Owners of tabloids are also proprietors of magazines, dailies and public relations agencies. One of the original opposition leaders against President Chávez, Teodoro Petkoff, was the editor of El Mundo, an evening newspaper published by the Capriles group that became the first print medium to take an outspoken position against Chávez. Petkoff utilized El Mundo to propagate his own political position against Chávez and later founded the daily Tal Cual, another print mechanism of opposition propaganda that has played a key role in the media war against Chávez.
The Media Coup
In response to a change by the Chávez administration in the executive board of Petroleros de Venezuela (PDVSA) in early 2002, the State-owned oil company, the opposition convened a march to the PDVSA headquarters in Caracas, on April 11, 2002. The march was promoted and summoned via print media, radio and television. On April 11th, The Daily Journal, an English-language daily newspaper in Caracas, headlined "State of Agony Stunts Government", on its front page. Another national daily paper, El Nacional, released a special edition that day, headlining, "The Final Battle Will Be in Miraflores." Before any incidents had occurred, the media was fully briefed of the outcome.
In the days before the April 11, 2002 coup, Venevisión, RCTV, Globovisión and Televen replaced regular television programming with anti-Chávez speeches and propaganda calling for viewers to take to the streets. Some of the ads clamored "Ni un paso atr·s!" ("Not one step backwards") or "Venezuelans, take to the streets on Thursday, April 11 at 10am. Bring your flags. For freedom and democracy. Venezuela will not surrender. No one will defeat us." In fact, the propaganda on the private television channels became so threatening and clearly intending to instigate violence and an overthrow of the Chávez administration, that the government applied Article 192 of the telecommunications law on more than thirty occasions during the days proceeding and on the day of the coup. This provision requires the government be allotted 15-20 minutes of airtime to broadcast its views and position. However, even though the stations were forced to comply with this regulation, they circumvented it by dividing the television screen in half and continuing to broadcast opposition propaganda and violent images on one half of the screen while the President spoke on the other half.
On April 10, 2002, the private media broadcast a dissident general, Nestor Gonzalez Gonzalez, claiming that the high military command demanded President Chávez step down, or they would rebel and force him to resign. The journalists present asked the General if he was planning a coup, to which he responded only with a malicious smirk. It was later revealed on Venevisión, the day after the coup, that this interview with General Gonzalez Gonzalez was an integral part of the coup plot and was aired to prevent Chávez from flying out that same day to an Organization of American States General Assembly meeting in Costa Rica. The coup plan required that Chávez remain in Venezuela, and the General's statements were made with that purpose. The private media effectuated this part of the plan by broadcasting the General's statements over and over again. Chávez never went to Costa Rica.
On April 11, 2002, although the opposition march had been directed towards the PDVSA headquarters, the leaders, Carlos Ortega of the Central de Trabajadores de Venezuela and Pedro Carmona of FEDECAMARAS called for a change in route: to Miraflores, the presidential palace, despite the lack of a legal permit to take that direction. Immediately, the private media stations broadcast the calls "To Miraflores" and superimposed them over the government's appeals to not seek a confrontation with pro-government supporters rallying outside Miraflores that same day. The private channels were strategically positioned near the Chávez supporters when the gunfire rang out and the pro-government protesters began to fall. The shots were hitting them in the head and frenzied demonstrators were ducking down, trying to find cover from the deadly bullets. They were being shot at by snipers and Metropolitan Police officers, who support the opposition.
Soon after, the private stations began broadcasting a video showing Chávez supporters firing from a bridge near the presidential palace, Puente Llaguno, at an unseen recipient. The video included a voiceover that stated, "Look at that Chávez supporter...see how he unloads his gun at the peaceful opposition march below..." What the video didn't show viewers, was how it manipulated the setting and failed to include the wider angle of the scene, which evidenced an empty street below and Metropolitan Police hiding behind vehicles and buildings, taking shots at the Chávez supporters on the bridge. The opposition march had never taken the route that would have led them to Puente Llaguno. The video was a montage.
The author of the video, Luis Alfonso Fernández of Venevisión, who won the top journalism prize in Spain (Premio Rey 2003) for that same news video, later admitted to the newspaper Panorama (8-31-2003) that "in reality, that day he did not see the Chávez supporters firing at the opposition march." Furthermore, journalist Ricardo Márquez of Últimas Noticias wrote that Luis Alfonso Fern·ndez stated he could not see whom the Chávez supporters were firing at and that the voiceover on the video was added after the events. Also, another journalist from a private channel, Del Valle Canelón of Globovisión, initially affirmed that in the video, the group of civilians were seen firing, but against the Metropolitan Police.
However, during those tumultuous moments, the truth about the video remained hidden, and the world was witness to the makings of the first media coup d'etat in history. The private channels attributed the violence to Chávez supporters and hence, the Chávez government, claiming the government had armed the aggressors. They failed to reveal that the majority of fallen victims were, in fact, pro-government protestors and refused to admit the two groups had never clashed at Puente Llaguno. After the nonstop airing of the Puente Llaguno video, private channels broadcast in unison another carefully prepared image: A group of dissident generals declaring that due to the deaths caused by the government, they would no longer recognize Chávez as the legitimate president of Venezuela.
Sometime after the failed coup, the truth about this video also surfaced. CNN correspondent Otto Neustaldt, participating in a forum entitled "Journalism in Times of Crisis" at the Bicentennial University of Aragua in Venezuela, revealed that "On the 10th at night they called me on the telephone and said, Otto, tomorrow the 11th there will be a video of Chávez, the march will go towards the presidential palace, there will be deaths and then 20 military officials of high rank will appear and pronounce themselves against the government of Chávez, and will request his resignation. They told me this on the 10th at night." Once again, the evidence demonstrated the media's pivotal role in the events that unfolded on the days of April 10-14. The media's involvement in the coup had clearly been premeditated. It was no longer curious as to why the print media had prophetic headlines predicting the "Final Battle" at the presidential palace or the government's "Agony" before anything had even occurred. The video of the dissident generals, broadcast as planned on April 11th, after the Chávez supporters had been shot by snipers, facilitated the final goal: declaration and justification of the kidnapping of Chávez and the coup d'etat.
The day after the coup, the private media provided detailed insight into their involvement in the events of the preceding day. On the morning of April 12th, a Venevisión program with television personality Napoleon Bravo hosted some of the military and civilian coup leaders. During this extraordinary television moment, the guests thanked the private media channels for their integral role in making the coup happen and explained in detail the plans leading up to the coup. They specifically underlined the key role of the private media in broadcasting the images that would justify the coup. Furthermore, on that same program, in an interview with Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo and Victor Manuel Garcia, director of the Institute of Statistics, television presenter Napoleón Bravo of Venevisión confessed to having facilitated in his own house the recording of a call to military rebellion by General González González on April 10th.
Newsweek magazine further revealed that coup leaders Pedro Carmona from Fedec·maras (who later became the de facto president) and others had utilized the Venevisión offices as a "bunker" and were seen coming from the station offices as they headed towards the presidential palace to take control. All the private media owners were present in the palace cheering on as the coup leaders assumed power and dissembled Venezuela's democratic institutions. Furthermore, the media owners had expressed their wish to recommend the names of individuals who would assume control of the communications sector in the de facto government. The front page of one of the two largest national daily newspapers, El Universal, headlined, "A Step in the Right Direction!" on the days after the coup. The media were clearly in complicity with the illegal usurpation of government power.
The print media and the broadcast stations reiterated over and over again that Chávez supporters were responsible for the violence, the death and the injured, despite knowledge to the contrary. It is apt to note that on the evening of April 11th, as the coup leaders were surrounding the presidential palace with tanks, threatening to bomb the building should the Chávez government officials and Chávez himself remain on the premises, the state-run Channel 8 was cut. The only access pro-government supporters and officials had to broadcast their version of events was eliminated. The private media now had the absolute monopoly on information.
The private media not only played an active role in promoting, justifying and executing the coup, but also intentionally kept breaking news and critical information concealed from the Venezuelan viewing public. On April 12th, after the coup leaders had taken power, Chávez's Attorney General gave a press conference prior in which he had made the private stations believe he was going to announce his resignation, when in fact, he began to condemn the coup and reveal that Chávez had not resigned, only to be abruptly taken off the air. AndrÈs Izarra, former Managing Producer of "El Observador" a news program on the private station RCTV, testified to the Venezuelan National Assembly and others that he received clear instructions from the station owner at RCTV on the day of the coup and the following day to air: "No information on Chávez, his followers, his ministers, and all others that could in anyway be related to him." Furthermore, Izarra confirmed that on the day of the coup, RCTV had a report from a U.S. affiliate that Chávez had not resigned, but had been kidnapped and jailed, yet the station refused to report the story. In fact, all the private channels disseminated the news that President Chávez had resigned, despite their knowledge to the contrary. This was an intentional distortion of news and censorship of the truth about a situation of critical importance to Venezuelan citizens and the international community.
The immediate days after the coup, the blackout on information intensified. On April 13th, as Chávez supporters poured into the streets to demand the return of their elected president, the private channels broadcast old movies and cartoons. Even as the presidential guard retook the palace and the Chávez cabinet members returned, the private media refused to report these facts to the Venezuelan public. Journalist Luis Britto Garcia characterizes the media's power in Venezuela as the capacity to create a reality or make an existent reality disappear: "As the private channels made a reality that did not exist appear - they inflated opposition demonstrations, converted a partial bosses' strike into a general strike, invented the resignation of a President who never resigned - they also made an existent reality disappear." Robert McChesney and John Nichols framed the censorship as a news stoppage: "As the protests grew, the media simply stopped covering the news. Newspapers ceased to publish, the state television station was pulled off the air, and privately owned stations started showing a steady stream of soap operas. Only when the protestors took over the state television station did Venezuelans begin to receive news of what was happening in their country."
As the majority of the world condemned the coup and refused to recognize the de facto government in Venezuela, the private media only reported on the support expressed by the United States, Spain and Colombia. Furthermore, they went so far as to broadcast a news anchor interviewing de facto president Pedro Carmona about the normalization of events, claiming he was still in control of the palace, even after the Chávez presidential guard and cabinet members had retaken the grounds and Carmona had been removed from power. Only after the Chávez government regained control of Channel 8 was the Venezuelan public made aware of the true development of events. Even after Chávez was rescued from his kidnappers and returned to power, the state-run channel was the only station to broadcast live his arrival at the palace. The intentional censorship of information 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.
U.S. media was also complacent in the media disinformation campaign surrounding the events of the April 2002 coup. The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Washington Post all ran editorials in favor of the coup and accepted the opposition's version of events as accurate. Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting issued a Media Advisory on April 18, 2002 entitled, "U.S. Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move", explaining that papers such as The New York Times triumphantly declared that "Chávez's ‘resignation' meant that ‘Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.'" The New York Times went so far as to blindly write that Chávez ‘stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader.' After Chávez was returned to power on April 13-14, The New York Times ran a second editorial on April 16, 2002, seemingly apologizing for their April 13th celebratory tone, which stated: ""In his three years in office, Mr. Chavez 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."
Due to the misinformation provided by U.S. media, much of which was fed from Venezuelan private stations, the international community remained unaware of the actual occurrences during the April 2002 coup, as did many Venezuelan citizens whose only source of information was Venezuelan television. In fact, it wasn't until the release of the documentary film, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" in April 2003, one year after the coup, that the true facts were revealed. The documentary, filmed by Irish directors Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Brian, contains on-scene footage of the Puente Llaguno firefight, the takeover of the presidential palace, the people's rebellion, Chávez's return to power and the massive media distortion of events. It is a testimony of the media war occurring in Venezuela, in which often, an outsider's eyes are the only ones able to reveal the truth.
The success of the media coup in April 2002 gave the private media stations in Venezuela a renewed sense of power. Despite the condemnation of their lack of objectivity and accuracy in reporting by international watchdog groups such as Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International, the private media continued to engage in an information war against the Venezuelan people. In December 2002, they unleashed an all-out attack against the Chávez administration. As the opposition declared a "general" strike, the media ensured its implementation. Despite the fact that the strike was a lockout, originating and imposed by bosses, owners and managers, rather than workers, the private channels portrayed it as a massive general worker's strike. This news was picked up around the world, and perceived, although mistakenly, as an oil industry worker's strike, supported by laborers and business owners throughout the nation. In reality, high level managers and executives in the oil industry sabotaged equipment, changed access codes and locked workers out of computer information systems, halting production. Workers were forced off jobs, business closed. The sabotage in the oil industry led to the most severe gas shortage in Venezuelan history, crippling the economy and destabilizing the nation for more than two months.
As millions of Venezuelans were unable to work and had no gas to travel, they were forced to remain at home and engage in the one free-of-cost activity still available to them, watching television. The private media snatched up the opportunity to launch the most massive information war ever experienced in modern times. The four primary stations suspended all regular programming throughout the duration of the 64-day strike: no product commercials, no soap operas, no movies, no cartoons, no sitcoms. They broadcast an average of 700 pro-opposition advertisements each day, paid for by the stations themselves and by the opposition umbrella group, Democratic Coordinator. Luis Britto Garcia reports that, "No less than four television channels (to not bring in radio and print media) joined together 24 hours a day in December 2002 and January 2003, and broadcast 17,600 propaganda announcements against the government, dedicating all of their programming, without a second of rest, to denigrate the government through yellow journalism, to cause all classes of alarm and rumors to invoke terror, precisely."
The situation was so severe during those 64 days that Venezuelan citizens did not know which information source to rely on; the private channels, or the government. On the state-run Channel 8, the Minister of Education would state in a press conference that all public universities and schools were open and functioning normally, while the private media would broadcast announcements claiming all public universities and schools were on strike and closed down. In the end, Venezuelans were left with a government denied access to media and a private media functioning as a de facto government.
Perhaps most damaging was the broadcast of violent images and opposition propaganda by all the private stations during children's viewing hours, in explicit violation of Venezuelan law. One Venezuelan testified how dramatically the media war had affected his child: "Last night I made the mistake of not checking if my six-year old was watching TV. He woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, hyperventilating, unable to breath. He pleaded to be allowed to sleep with his mother and me. He was afraid the "Chavistas" would come in the middle of the night and kill him." This testimony is just one amongst thousands who fell victim to the media's aggressive campaign to incite a climate of violence that would induce either the resignation or ouster of President Chávez. Yet, the media war in Venezuela may be directed against the government, but its victims all along have been innocent citizens and children whose rights to a socially responsible, accurate and objective media have been consistently denied by the privately owned channels.
The Media Reform Movement and The Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television: A Solution?
After the fallout, where does Venezuela go from here? As the media war wages on in Venezuela, the government is struggling to find democratic solutions. Interestingly, Venezuela's current media battle contains striking parallels to the current media reform movement in the United States, which claims ever-expanding corporate media conglomerates are threatening democratic order. Venezuela could precisely be the worst-case scenario of this media reform movement; the case in point of what can happen when media monopolies control all information sources and impose their own agendas on the public.
Proponents of media reform claim that the current media system operating in the U.S. fails to provide basic support for citizens and fails to protect or promulgate the public interest. Scholars such as Noam Chomsky theorize that the media today serve and propagandize on behalf of powerful societal interests that control and finance them. Chomsky explains this phenomenon by viewing major media as corporations "selling" privileged audiences to other business. The picture of the world presented by the media reflects the perspectives and interests of the sellers, buyers and the product. The structure of media in the U.S. is dominated by about ten transnational corporations including, Disney, AOL Time Warner, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi Universal, Sony, Liberty, Bertelsmann, AT&T-Comcast and General Electric (NBC). Similar to the situation in Venezuela, many of these media outlets also have holdings in numerous other media-related sectors outside telecommunications, including film production, recorded music, television production, book publishing, magazine publishing and Internet service provision.
In the United States, as Noam Chomsky articulates, concentration of ownership of the media is high and increasing, and often those in managerial positions in the media belong to the same privileged elites as the corporate owners. Their attitudes and objectives are often the same, and journalists entering the system are forced to conform to these ideological pressures or be excluded from the commercial media industry. In Venezuela, media owners, managers and journalists all tend to be on the same side, projecting the same voice, even at the expense of journalism ethics, objectivity and balance. The orders may come down from above, but the journalists are willing to execute them, despite the explicit abandonment of their own professional codes.
Media reformists call for tighter regulatory standards and more public access to media in order to avoid this corporate control on information and wayward journalism. In essence, a return to the Fairness Doctrine or parallel standard that promulgates balance, diversity and public interest in media. U.S. journalist Bill Moyers warns that, "It's a reality: democracy can't exist without an informed public...So I say without qualification that it's not simply the cause of journalism that's at stake today, but the cause of American liberty itself." These words ring true in Venezuela today. While the Venezuelan public has lost all confidence, credibility and trust in journalists, even worse has been the loss of liberty and basic rights that have been denied to Venezuelans during the media coup and ongoing media war.
Venezuela's response to the media war has been the creation of its own version of the Fairness Doctrine. The Venezuelan National Assembly is presently debating the enactment of the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television ("LSRRT"), which proposes to guarantee public access to media and ensure broadcasting during children's viewing hours abides by socially responsible guidelines. The LSRRT was already approved by the National Assembly Commission on Science, Technology and Social Communications Media in May 2003 and should enter into final debate for passage by Venezuela's general National Assembly before the end of the 2004 term.
Despite its objective of balance and diversity in media, the LSRRT has come under heightened scrutiny and attack by international journalism organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and watchdog groups such as Human Rights Watch, who have been quick to declare the proposed law jeopardizes the vast freedom of expression enjoyed by Venezuelan journalists and citizens alike by attempting to regulate content. Yet the LSRRT does not contain any provisions that endeavor to control the content of programming on private media stations, rather, it proposes to enforce regulations concerning appropriate broadcasts during children's viewing hours and to support independent media outlets, democratization of radio and television and public access to and participation in communications media.
Despite the outcry by private media outlets in Venezuela and groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, many of the provisions and basic ideas behind the LSRRT are familiar to proponents of media reform and those aware of the legal history of communications law in the United States. Venezuela's current debate over the LSRRT is decades old in the United States. While the FCC has recently leaned toward deregulation, these underlying concepts of fairness, public access and equal airtime continue to prevail in U.S. policy and lawmaking, as evidenced in Section II of this paper.
Today, it is the broadcast media that serve to disseminate ideas to the populace. With the growth of media conglomerates owned by the influential and profit-oriented, these broadcasters influence the public in a manner inconceivable to the authors of the U.S. Constitution. Nowadays, instead of promoting a diversity of viewpoints, broadcast media merely perpetuate a monopoly of ideas from the political and sociological mainstream. As has been demonstrated in the case of Venezuela, media is used to advance political agendas, often at the expense of ethics and constitutional order. In order to put an end to the media war in Venezuela and prevent such similar information wars in the U.S. and other nations struggling against ever-expanding media conglomerates, it is necessary to open a space for people's voices in the media. To create a media that serves the public and advances the goals of democratic nations, self-governed by the people and for the people.
Eduardo Galeano cleverly proposes, "Do people watch the game or do they play it? When a democracy is real, shouldn't people be on the field? Is democracy exercised only every four, five or six years, when you cast your vote? Or is it exercised every day of every year?" The people's defense in Venezuela and the U.S. against media conglomerates is to stop watching and start playing - to be given voice, to be seen and heard. Only then will true democracy prevail.
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