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Opinion and Analysis: Media Watch | Venezuelan Media

The “Loss” of Globovision Might not Herald the Apocalypse

The day after the sale of Globovision was confirmed, Venezuelans awoke to new world devoid of any brave voices to question their Orwellian regime.

With its sale to a Chavista loyalist, the last bastion of free thought has capitulated, and will now only broadcast that same monotonous government line that every other television station serves viewers day after day.

This narrative has been widely reported in the West with the consistency of a bowl of well whipped Venezuelan furoro (corn porridge). In other words, everyone from right wing think tanks like CATO to relative centrists like the ABC has dished up the same gooey line: freedom of speech in Venezuela is history.

“[I]f Globovision softens its coverage, as media analysts and prominent journalists here expect, Venezuela’s all-powerful government will have a lock on all broadcast media of any importance,” The Washington Post has reported.

The mood at Globovision didn't seem to correlate with this narrative, when its most prominent news anchor Leopoldo Castillo stating on 2 May that he felt comfortable working with his new bosses “without compromising my principles or values”.

Castillo is among Globovision's most vicious anti-government attack dogs; his capitulation to Globovision's role as President Nicolas Maduro's newest cheerleader is perhaps a little strange.

Stranger still, the post of news director was initially offered to Vladimir Villegas. Although he started his political career in the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), Villegas is now firmly on the far right, and uses his weekly column in El Nacional to rile against the government.

On 14 May, Villegas appeared to turn down the offer on Twitter, citing what sounded like ideological differences. Castillo himself has now stated that there will be a shift “toward the centre”.

Nonetheless, Castillo has also stated that “we will continue our opinion shows just as they are now. At no time have we discussed cancelling any shows.”

It's hard to see where comments like these fit into the narrative that Globovision is no longer capable of government criticism. If Globovision's new owners are trying to turn the station into a government mouthpiece, so far they're failing miserably. For a propaganda artist intent of stamping out dissent, Cordero himself doesn't exactly seem like a blue chip bet. Owning a Caracas based insurance company, he has been labelled by the international press as “friendly” towards the government (all credit to the overworked rumour mill), though details of his political affiliations are hazy at best. He also has no notable past experience in broadcast, so it's hard to predict exactly where he will take the station. For now, this wealthy insurance broker doesn't quite fit the bill for the next Goebbels.

The station's previous owner, Guillermo Zuloaga has asked viewers to give the new management “the benefit of the doubt”; a reasonable proposal at this stage. In March Zuloaga stated that he has known Cordero “for years”. This indicates that maybe the two aren't quite polls apart. For now, though, any speculation of Cordero's motives are exactly that- speculation.

Such ambiguities could undermine the narrative, so for most of the mainstream Western media the solution is simple: just ignore it. Some human rights organisations have applied the same logic, joining the chorus that asserts that the end for Venezuelan journalism is surely neigh. In a press release following the initial announcement of the sale, Viviana Giacaman, director of Latin America programs at Freedom House lamented the imminent “loss” of “one of the few news sources that offer opposition perspectives”. Furthermore, according to Human Rights Watch, since former President Hugo Chavez's “second full term in office, the concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections had given the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticised the [former] president or thwarted his political agenda”. Moreover, in a press release on 5 March, José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at HRW states that the current president, Nicolas Maduro “shouldn’t threaten to use an ‘iron fist’ to restrict and intimidate those who try to voice their opinions.”

However, if Maduro really is trying to restrict opposition voices by creating an environment of media monotony with his  “huge state media empire”, then perhaps he should look north for inspiration, where the most watched cable channel is actually de-educating viewers.

According to statistics from Nielsen Media Research, last year FOX News Network racked up more prime time viewers than  CNN, MSNBC and HLN combined. The O'Reilly Factor alone clocked up nearly 3 million viewers in what was actually a relatively bad year for the network, with considerably lower ratings than a decade ago. Nonetheless, millions of Americans still tune in, even though by doing so they are more likely to be misinformed about the world. In 2012, a study from the Fairleigh Dickinson University asked participants from across the US to answer general questions about international and domestic affairs. The study found that, “...someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly -- a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all.”

Like FOX, Venezuela's largest state broadcaster, VTV, is inarguably partisan (though the similarities end there), but with a mere 6% audience share according to 2012 government statistics, it's not quite the sprawling media empire that we often hear about in the West. According to a study by media research company AGB Panamericana, last year Globovision held 4.29% of viewers. Moreover, figures from Venezuela's media regulatory body, CONATEL indicate that audiences tend to gravitate towards Venevision and Televen, which together told about 60% of the market. Panamericana's study calls this figure into question, indicating that the two channels only hold about 40% of audiences.

In either case, both Globovision and VTV are clearly on the fringes of Venezuela's broadcast landscape. The real action is taking place on the more moderate airwaves. Historically, both Venevision and Televen were staunchly anti-government, but in recent years they have moved towards the political centre, though an article in Ultimas Noticias argued that both channels provided more coverage to opposition leader Henrique Capriles during the October 2012 presidential campaign. Generally, Western media sources have mostly concluded that this move towards the centre occurred due to a “fear of being silenced” by the government. However, VA founder Greg Wilpert offers an explanation that better satisfies Occam's Razor: “they were losing audience share”. Given that over half the country supports the government, an editorial policy firmly aligned with the opposition simply doesn't make commercial sense for stations trying to garner mass appeal. If this is the case, then it's true that the Venezuelan media is subjecting itself to increased self-censorship. Indeed, across the board nobody seems to openly call for the violent overthrow of the government anymore. Before labelling that as evidence of oppression, I think we should wait to see what happens to CNN next time they back a violent coup in Washington. The likelihood that anyone who sponsored a failed attempt to topple the Obama administration would be allowed to run a major U.S. television network seems a little unlikely.

Of course, in the U.S., you don't even need to call for the overthrow of the government to be silenced. Since being branded a supporter of terrorism by Donald Rumsfeld in 2004 for showing violence in war (strange how those two seem to go together), Al Jazeera has struggled to expand within the U.S. market. In 2003 the station was temporarily banned from the New York Stock Exchange due to security concerns (it's based in an Arab country, remember?). In 2005, the U.K.'s Daily Mirror reported that according to a leaked British government memo, the White House had even considered bombing Al Jazeera's Doha headquarters. Until this year, it looked like Al Jazeera would never effectively circumvent what looked a lot like a boycott from cable providers. Now that it has purchased Current TV from Al Gore, Al Jazeera America might be about to get off the ground at long last. Of course, cable provider Time Warner quickly dropped Current TV when news broke of the sale, and the announcement has been met with plenty of the same “anti-American” commentary that has plagued Al Jazeera for over a decade. Moreover, just to make it this far, Al Jazeera English has had to considerably tone town its criticism of the U.S., and suffer the abduction and imprisonment of one of its cameramen for six years in Guantanamo Bay. Strange then, that Al Jazeera's floundering attempts to establish a U.S. beachhead hasn't made it into the latest annual reports of HRW, Amnesty or any other major human rights monitor.

Of course, Venezuela's media faces serious challenges; political polarisation being one of the most severe. However, it's difficult to argue that there is a lack of opposition voices.

While there is some balance on television, print media is inarguably skewed towards the opposition. Two of the nation's three largest daily papers, El Universal and El Nacional are both firmly to the far right. The largest national paper, Ultimas Noticias is run by a relative of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, though surveys from Datanalysis indicate that most readers consistently view the paper as relatively balanced. More detailed analysis of the country's media landscape can be found here.

Overall, the narrative that the government has some kind of iron grip on media commentary just doesn't seem to match up with the facts. As for the fate of Globovision; it's hard to say where the station will go. Perhaps it will maintain it's outrageous rhetoric, and continue to be ignored by most television viewers. Or, maybe Cordero will do what he said he would in March- raise standards. For years, Globovision has thrown legitimate concerns into its tumble dryer of sensationalist reports and rightist propaganda. If the new managers do end up trimming away the station's excesses, it will become harder for those legitimate concerns to be dismissed. An injection of credibility might even reverse Globovision's dwindling audience base.

In the meantime, it would be nice if the media and human rights organisations stopped basing their conclusions on rumour and speculation. Better still, they could stop blaming the government for the station's failures. For now, Globovision's future is unclear- especially with its broadcast license up for renewal in 2015. Yet the problems faced by the station in the short term aren't due to government restrictions or the fabled “state media empire”. A 4.29% audience share isn't the result of censorship; and in the end, the real threat to Globovision isn't the government, but Globovision itself.