Uneasy Standoff in Venezuela’s Media Wars

The controversy surrounding the media in Venezuela refuses to die. This is because the country is experimenting with a slow but steady anti-capitalist restructuring which the private media see as a threat to their existence. Part of this restructuring involves the support of community and public media and another involves media regulation.

The controversy surrounding the media in Venezuela refuses to die. This is because the country is experimenting with a slow but steady anti-capitalist restructuring which the private media see as a threat to their existence. At this juncture, after surviving a military coup, a 63-day oil stoppage-sabotage (the oil coup) and a presidential referendum–all backed by the private media– President Hugo Chavez is encouraging the formation of public and community media to counteract attacks on “the process” by the private media.

In Venezuela people are starting more community radio and TV stations. The state TV station, channel 8, has improved greatly in professional quality without losing its leftist perspective. And now for the rest of Latin America there is the public satellite channel, Telesur. Formed with funding from Venezuela (51%), Argentina (20%), Cuba (19%) and Uruguay (10%), Telesur is being hailed as a blow to cultural imperialism, and the private media are not pleased. Even the press, for which Telesur doesn’t represent any competition, is assailing the network for being funded by the oil money “which belongs to every Venezuelan” and excluding the right.

On the news stands there is a variety of anti-government newspapers and one pro-government daily which is celebrating its second anniversary: Diario Vea. It’s political editor, Jesús Moreno, gave me a tour and explained how Vea was born out of the phenomenon of small alternative newspapers which appeared to defend the process during the political crises which challenged the Chavez government; there were as many as 600 publications at one point. Some of the publishers got together to start Vea, first as a biweekly, and it has grown into a national daily with a circulation of 85,000. It survives solely on paid announcements by government institutions and sales of the paper.

The battle goes beyond Venezuela’s borders. The government has been trying to reign in the most egregious abuses by the private media, but the latter have their international defenders: there is constant intervention on their behalf by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights of the OAS represented by Eduardo Bertoni, Human Rights Watch represented by Jose Miguel Vivanco, and the Miami-based Inter American Press Association (IAPA), which a wag on channel 8 called the Imperialist Press Association. The Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists have also taken sides against Chavez.

One member of the IAPA, Venezuelan newspaper publisher Juan Carmona Perera, made waves this March in Panama when he claimed in a speech that the government was persecuting the media and trying to control the content of all private radio and TV programming. The media are being castrated, he said, summing up the problem this way: “Venezuela is living through a budding Marxist-inspired dictatorial regime.” Carmona Perera owns the provincial newspaper El Impulso, and represents the positions of the Venezuelan oligarchy as an IAPA regional vice president.

The office of the prosecutor general has filed over 50 complaints against journalists although not for practicing journalism. According to the executive editor of El Universal, Elides Rojas, all of these complaints were filed at the request of individuals claiming they had been slandered. The laws criminalizing defamation were in the penal code before Chavez took office and although they start out as criminal cases they are customarily resolved through a civil compromise. Many journalists claiming to be victims of persecution are also opposition activists who have used the media–apart from inciting to civil disorder and sabotage during the two coups–to attack public officials and military officers by making personal accusations based on confidential sources.

There has been an international outcry over the new Law of Social Responsibility for Radio and Television and also over changes to the penal code which criminalize the act of insulting or villifying government institutions. Bertoni and others say Venezuela is headed away from freedom of the press. While the situation is definitely not that dire, the laws are bad: sections 147, 148 and 149 provide up to 40 months for publicly insulting the president, 20 months for insulting other high officials and 15 days to 10 months for vilification. Section 225 sanctions the action of insulting an institution.

El Universal, Caracas

On July 28 the prosecutor general, Isaías Rodriguez, decided to try out the new laws: He requested an investigation of an editorial published by the opposition daily, El Universal, which was critical of the prosecutor general’s office and the courts. The investigation now seems to be centered on section 225.

I interviewed Elides Rojas about the investigation. He was critical of the new laws for going beyond the “private” area of defamation of an individual, in which the the injured party files the complaint, to the “public” area of insulting government institutions, where the state files the complaint. However, he was confident nothing would come of the investigation and that the laws wouldn’t be enforced due to the negative domestic and international reaction they have generated.

The president of the Venezuelan Press Bloc, David Natera Febres, spoke of “the zero credibility and audience of the numerous written and broadcast media which the regime has created or taken for its totalitarian ends.” Asked if he agreed with calling the Chavez administration a “totalitarian regime,” Rojas said,

“In reality what we have noted … is a tendency; several things which could imply totalitarianism. We observe the disappearance of the process of decentralization; we observe how the utilization of electoral majorities is to the detriment of the participation of the minorities; we observe how practically all of the decisions that belong to any one of the powers are made by the presidency of the republic; and we observe the creation of a judicial framework which gives legal bases to the presidency and the people in the government so they can make decisions–in conformity with the law, but a totally centralist and statist law–in which participation and the possibility of debate are practically nullified.”

Rojas acknowledges that part of the confrontation between the government and the media is due to the former’s advocacy of socialism and the latter’s defense of capitalism. Asked if his paper is opposed all of the changes happening in the country, he said,

“Not all of them. The ones having to do with nationalization, centralization and construction of an isolationist regime from the economic point of view, which are contrary to the very vision of a medium which depends on a healthy national economy, on a good private sector, autonomous, strong, because that’s where the independence of the medium emanates from. Because the independence of the medium has its roots, if it is private, in economic independence. If those factors don’t function–freedom of thought of the people, who are the readers, and society in general; a strong private sector, which is what feeds the private media from the market of the buying and selling of advertising–we lose our reason for being.”

Rojas, the Press Bloc and their international friends complain that Chavez has too much power, but when El Universal published a front-page editorial on April 12, 2002, it said that Chavez needed to be removed because he had weakened the presidency. Carmona assumed dictatorial powers for himself, something the paper headlined “A Step Forward.”

Inter American Press Association, Miami

The Inter American Press Association is an association of publishers and editors with 1,380 members, including some of the largest dailies in North and South America. It had a total revenue in 2004 of $1,074,134, receiving $548,662 of this from conventions, $149,000 from its Communications Project, and $283,847 from dues. The organization receives no government grants and from what I could understand the Communications Project receives private grants from groups such as the Knight Ridder Foundation and the McCormick Tribune Foundation (Chicago Tribune). Robert Brown of Editor & Publisher is the honorary president of the board of directors, Jack Fuller of Tribune Publishing in Chicago is vice president, and William Casey of Dow Jones in New York is also on the board.

The executive director of the IAPA, Julio Muñoz has been involved in the IAPA for 23 years. Of Chilean origin, he says he was a journalist during the Pinochet dictatorship. I interviewed Muñoz on August 4 at the IAPA building in Miami’s Little Havana section. I wanted to find out whether the organization had played a role in stirring up the hatred for Chavez expressed by the editors of leading U.S. newspapers–hatred which led many of them to write editorials on April 13 and April 14, 2002, supporting the coup. It turns out I was mistaken on that point. The worst editorial was in the Chicago Tribune (“A Strongman’s Overdue Exit,” April 14, 2002). It’s author, Steve Chapman, said in a phone interview that he didn’t know anything about Venezuela and that when he wrote the editorial he consulted clips from the L.A. Times, New York Times and the Washington Post, and also made calls to the State Department-funded organization, Freedom House. He did not consult the IAPA.

DB – I guess we could probably just start with the coup in Venezuela in 2002. That was supported, of course, by the media in Venezuela. I have also a New York Times editorial in favor of the coup; the Chicago Tribune praises the coup; El Universal praising the coup–this was under the headline, A STEP FORWARD in 1 _-inch letters, a smiling Pedro Carmona: “a Presidency, strong on style but so weak and little respected that only a radical change is in order to rescue it.” What is the position of the IAPA on the media support for the coup in Venezuela?

JM – Well, first of call, IAPA is composed of newspapers, and each newspaper have their own editorial position. We don’t interfere and we don’t question every editorial; every newspaper independently can take any position. The only thing that we join other newspapers is in our fight for freedom of the press. In the case of Venezuela we have been very closely following the situation there because it’s a situation where we feel on different issues that the freedom of the press is under attack, is under threat from the government. Now in terms of what the media and what the particular newspapers stand against the government of Venezuela, again that belongs to the independent editorial orientation, or independent editorial position of each newspaper and we don’t interfere with that; I mean, they are member of IAPA, but IAPA doesn’t interfere with the independent editorial position of each of the newspapers. As an organization we defend freedom of the press, and as an organization we denounce when there is attack against freedom of the press, as an organization, if there is an attack on a newspaper or is an attack against a journalist, we protest and we make our position because our position is to defend freedom of the press and we believe that in Venezuela, as in other countries, [there] has been substantial violence; substantial, I would say, pressure from the government against the media and against the reporters.

DB – On the other side of the coin, do you support freedom of the press to participate–in other words, publishers or TV journalists or owners of the media like Gustavo Cisneros and others–participate in plotting with the military in overthrowing a democratic government?

JM – Yes. Everybody can have their own position, but…

DB – I’m not talking about positions, I’m talking about plotting with the military to overthrow a democratic government.

JM – Well, yes, of course. I don’t see anything wrong with any particular person that can have opposition against a military government.

DB – Excuse me, I’m talking about plotting with the military to overthrow a democratically elected government.

JM – Can you reword your question because I don’t follow you…

DB – OK. For example, it’s very well known Gustavo Cisneros, Rafael Poleo and his daughter, Patricia Poleo, and other journalists, Napoleon Bravo, were actually involved in plotting the coup, together with the military, to overthrow a democratically elected government, and they were successful for 48 hours. What is your position on using the media and plotting with the military to overthrow a democratically elected government?

JM – We don’t use the media against anything.

DB – No, I’m not talking about you. What’s your position when the media use the media to overthrow a government?

JM – The IAPA again take the position that we don’t interfere with the media itself, which is one of the newspapers. The position that the newspapers take–the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, whatever newspaper–is independent from this organization. We cannot interfere with what they do. We have an agenda, we have a platform that is freedom of the press. That’s what we fight for, that’s what we are working for. But we don’t have anything–if a reporter or if an editor or if a publisher is making a statement or takes a position, we don’t have any–we are not a jury–we are not an institution that can censor somebody in…

DB – Excuse me, I’m talking about actions. Sedition. You understand? I’m not talking about expressing an opinion. I’m talking about plotting with the military and using the media to overthrow a government.

JM – Those are particular positions of different people that you mention. And we don’t have any right to interfere with those people’s position. Nothing at all. Because that is not our agenda. Our agenda is freedom of the press.

DB – Can freedom of the press exist in a military dictatorship?

JM – No, no…

DB – So then, you would be opposed to a military dictatorship that–for example, a president who dissolved the supreme court, closed down the media, dissolved the national assembly, abrogated the constitution–I mean where does the freedom of the press exist in this kind of a dictatorship?

JM – In a dictatorship like in Cuba…

DB – No, excuse me, I’m talking about Pedro Carmona.

JM – I don’t have anything to do with Mr. Carmona. I am talking about the position of IAPA. IAPA doesn’t have any interaction with leadership in different countries. We have the focus of freedom of the press. That is all our focus is. Not what Mr. Carmona did or what this gentleman did. Of course, in answering your question, we believe that there is no freedom of the press in a dictatorship. We believe that in a dictatorship or in a regime like Cuba, like Chile under Pinochet or any other dictatorship of course there is no freedom of the press, and we fight to open the window and to allow those people to have freedom of the press.

DB – When Mr. Carmona Perera made his statements in Panama in March they generated a lot of controversy. Mr. Carmona Perera was using statements such as “Marxist-inspired dictatorial regime” and “communist regime;” that the press was being “controlled” and “castrated,” etc., and in the responses that came out, one professor [Belgian information and communication sciences professor Armand Mattelart] said that the IAPA played a key role in the 1973 coup de etat against Salvador Allende.

JM – We never had any interaction in that. IAPA never had any particular interaction in any coup de etat. We have always been accused [by] different sources that IAPA has had, but nobody has proved and we have never had any interaction in any political coup, anything like that.

[Asked about Freedom House, Munoz said that the IAPA works with Leonard Sussman, who is a senior scholar at the New York office, as well as working with the Freedom Forum in Washington, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute.]

DB – Is freedom of the press an absolute right or do you consider that there should be limits on the way the media are used?

JM – I am a staff member here. I am the executive director, I am in charge of the organization, but I am not the one that I am making the policy of the organization. So I can give you my independent opinion about freedom of the press but I cannot be quoted as [if] my opinion is the opinion of the organization … I believe that, yes, the freedom of the press is a right to everybody and I believe that in order to have an open society and a democracy we need the freedom of the press in a country.

DB – For example, we know there are limits on freedom of expression. You can’t call out “Fire!” in a crowded theater because it’s dangerous. Does the same thing apply to the press? Should the press be allowed to call out “Fire!” and, for example, incite people to riot, incite people to civil disorder, incite violence?

JM – Again you are asking me questions on a very particular subject that I cannot answer as an organization because it’s very subjective for me to present a position of the organization this kind of answer. We are not an organization that, as you know, very much detailed to all of those questions…

DB – I was in Venezuela now, counting newspapers, counting TV stations … There are a lot of dailies. Every last one of the dailies is an opposition daily — never says a good positive thing about the government — except one very small daily. So there are maybe about five, six dailies to one that are anti-government compared to pro-government. There are also about five TV stations which are opposition TV stations — as you know, some of them participated in the coup de etat, plotting with the military — to the one state-owned TV station … The statements that are made internationally about there’s no freedom of the press in Venezuela, the press is being censored, just don’t seem to square with the reality there. The opposition press seems to be very robust and expressing itself very freely.

JM – You feel that there is full freedom of the press in Venezuela?

DB – From what I’ve seen, yes.

JM – How do you rate the freedom of the press in Venezuela? Everybody can write and everybody can express themselves?

DB – Well, there are laws, that actually predate President Chavez, on the books against defamation of character. These are laws that have always existed in Venezuela. In fact when I asked Mr. Rojas about them, he said, no, these laws have always been there. When somebody is defamed it’s a criminal offense but then it’s resolved through some kind of a civil fine. There are three very bad laws on the books. There is an investigation against El Universal to see if they committed the crime of vilification — this is a bad law. But considering what the media has done, all the plotting and all of the absolute inflammatory accusations and propaganda against the government, I think the government is under siege by the media rather than the contrary.

JM – In a democracy I believe the diversification of different points of view is democracy. I like to go to a country and I like to go to a news stand that can give me a position from this side, from this side, from all sides. I mean, that’s the good thing of democracy and I don’t see anything wrong. Now if you mention that most of the newspapers are against the government, I think there are enough supportive of the government. I know myself a lot of publications that are pro-government and now you have …

DB – Well, dailies. There’s one pro-government daily and it’s not a state paper, it’s a private paper, but it’s just one out of all the other dailies which are anti-government.

JM – Yeah, but that’s the rule of democracy. I think that …

DB – And there’s nothing wrong with that, but where’s the lack of freedom of the press there; I don’t any see any lack of freedom.

JM – I think the lack of freedom of the press in Venezuela is coming from the press laws that attack the right to inform appropriately and from the violence. I think there is a lot of violence, especially I have witnessed violence against reporters on the street. I have witnessed how the government tried to alert the people against the reporters, tried to motivate the people to attack the media, to attack the reporters, and I think when you are a reporter and you have to go to the street with an anti-bullet jacket because somebody can kill you, I don’t know if we can say that there’s full freedom of the press.

DB – Do the media bear any responsibility for the hostility of the people, considering that they participated and supported not only a military coup but a petroleum coup that cost the country between $10 and $15 billion?

JM – I think that question should be answered [by] the same people there; I don’t have any opinion on that.

* * *

[At this point Muñoz brought up Telesur]

DB – Has the IAPA made any statements regarding Telesur?

JM – No, no, nothing at all. Because it’s a new publication and we don’t have anything to say about that.

[This is true, although Danilo Arbilla, a former regional president of IAPA who was recently part of a commission which issued a report attacking Venezuela and Argentina, wrote an article in which he called the station “TeleChavez” and indirectly compared it to Goebbels’ propaganda apparatus. However he did so to make the point that the audience, not Washington, would be the judge of the channel’s value.]

DB – Regarding Mr. Perera Carmona, does the IAPA adopt his language as an IAPA statement? In other words, language using words like “incipient Marxist-inspired dictatorial regime,” things like that?

* * *

JM – Again, everybody has the right to speak out. We don’t necessarily agree with everybody in the organization but everybody has all the right to speak.

DB – So when Mr. Carmona Perera, I mean, he is a vice president for freedom of expression in Venezuela, when he makes his statements, which I got from your own website, is this the IAPA speaking or is this Mr. Carmona Perera speaking?

JM – His position, of course. Our publication and our position is the report on freedom of the press that is published on the website; that is the official position of the IAPA. We have members from different sides and this is an organization where everybody has the right to speak out and everybody has the right to say whatever they want because we believe in freedom and we believe in free flow of information, so everybody has all the right to mention any opinion they want. Our opinion and our official position is the reports that we approve in the general assembly, and this is the report and we stand on that.

* * *

Among the official positions of the IAPA on Venezuela which Mr. Muñoz gave me there was a press release from April 12, 2002, in which the president at the time, Robert J. Cox, praised the coup as a pro-democracy action: “this situation in Venezuela demonstrates once again that democracy and freedom of expression are indivisible and neither can exist without the other.”

“This is a classic example for the new government headed by Pedro Carmona, which hopefully will turn things around, respect freedom of the press and encourage the independence of the judiciary, and thus, ensure restoration of true democracy,” Cox added. The press release said the IAPA had been criticizing Chavez from the start of his administration for “his failure to respect and ensure press freedom in his country.” It also criticized Chavez for allegedly attempting to shut down RCTV, Venevision, Televen and Globovision in the hours in which they were collaborating with the generals to execute the coup.

Other IAPA reports I was given are highly interventionist as they criticize in great detail Venezuela’s supreme court, national assembly, the defense of its border with Colombia, relations with Cuba, the restructuring and deployment of the military and reserves, and Chavez’s alleged intention to eliminate private property. Much of it is an English translation of Carmona Perera’s Panama presentation.

Finally, although Muñoz was incapable of admitting any limits to the “freedom of the press” so thoroughly abused by the Venezuelan private media, in a January 5, 2004, interview in the Chilean Diario Llanquihue, he defended the right of the U.S. government to impose limits on the press during times of crisis:

[question] “How do you see the phenomenon of apparent greater censorship in the U.S. since the attack of September 11; do you agree with that observation?”

“I believe that evidently in special circumstances, freedom of expression is broad, free, and above all in a country as this, there is no law which can limit it because it is established in the First Amendment which is the constitution of this country. But all circumstances in life have special moments and at times of war, of crisis, it is necessary to respect certain kinds of security measures, more than censorship. This is not the case of many countries, especially Latin American, above all the dictatorships, where they really apply censorship for specific political reasons to control information.”

What the IAPA is saying in effect is that when Chavez attempted to pre-empt broadcasting to protect the government from a military takeover, he was applying censorship for political reasons. According to the U.S. world view, leftist governments have no right to protect themselves by any means, whether it is the purchase of weapons or the prosecution of opponents who are on the payroll of the U.S. Any defensive action will be met by charges of totalitarianism and violations of civil and human rights. Like the governments of Salvador Allende and the Sandinistas before it, the Venezuelan government can’t both defend itself adequately and win the approval of the State Department and reactionary organizations. The only action they will approve of is Chavez’s surrender.

Diana Barahona is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at [email protected]

Source: CounterPunch