In the Trenches of Venezuela’s Media War

According to Servando Garcia Ponce, Venezuela is dealing with a, “media that have put themselves at the orders of the oligarchy, of the financial sector, the transnationals. Garcia should know, as he is on the frontline of a media war. Garcia helped set up Diario Vea in September 2003 as the only daily pro-revolution newspaper.

Opening a newspaper or turning on the TV, it is not hard to understand why many Venezuelans talk about the ongoing “media war” in their country. If you believed everything the media said you would think the Venezuelan president was a crazy, half-baked, tin-pot dictator who was threatening to steal people’s homes in his forward march to totalitarian-style ‘‘communism’‘, rather that a president whose mandate has already been ratified seven times in as many years and who is leading a process aimed at empowering and improving the lives of Venezuela’s poor.

But according to Servando Garcia Ponce, this should come as no surprise, because Venezuela is dealing with “media that have put themselves at the orders of the oligarchy, of the financial sector, the transnationals. They are linked to them, they sustain them, they are helped … by the US government who gives them money.”

Garcia should know, as he is on the frontline of this media war. Together with his brother and a group of other journalists, Garcia helped set up Diario Vea in September 2003 as the only daily pro-revolution newspaper in Venezuela.

This move was vital, he told Green Left Weekly, because for “a bit over two years, the only available media carried disinformation. They manipulated information, both nationally and internationally, evading any real focus on the government of President [Hugo] Chavez and the Venezuelan political process, the revolutionary Bolivarian process”.

“They denied the achievements, they were denied completely by the media”, Garcia said. “They put themselves at the service of the coup in April 2002 [that attempted to overthrow the Chavez government], they fomented it, they proposed it, they protected the coup plotters, in all they collaborated and contributed to the development of the coup. The media, TV, radio and newspaper, all of them were part of the coup.

“Afterwards, they supported a political strike aimed at the overthrow of Chavez [in December 2002 January 2003], where there was a total absence of information for the Venezuelan people.”

In response, Garcia said, “bit by bit, alternative media began to form in the barrios [neighbourhoods], in the states, in the regions. But there was a need for a national paper that circulated across the country, which could give information of what was happening in the country. From there came the idea, as an effort by a group of journalists, to start Diario Vea. We understood that it was essential that this revolution had a voice.”

With that the newspaper was born — one which now has a daily circulation of 80,000, making it the second most read daily in Venezuela.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Garcia and his brother — Guillermo Garcia Ponce, the current director of the paper — took up this challenge. Neither are young Turks when it comes to the battlefield, sharing between them a remarkably long and rich history of struggle as revolutionary journalists. Garcia recounted how he fought in the armed struggle against the government of Romulo Betancourt, resisted against the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez, spent years in the underground or in jail, and at one stage was exiled to Mexico. Now, Garcia states, his work as a journalist is different, because “it is the first time we are in power”.

This is not to say, as much of the national and international media claim, that the government uses its power against the opposition media. “Here one looks at the TV and reads the newspaper and can see how they insult the president, how they foment conspiracies [against the government] and how they express themselves in all manners.

“But here there is no journalist in jail, whilst in the US a journalist is in prison for not revealing their source of information. There, there is no liberty of expression. In Iraq they have assassinated 78 journalists — more than 78 journalists dead as a result of the war pushed by the US government. By just visiting, anyone — a leader, a journalist from the US or any country — can see this. If Reporters Without Borders are sincere, they will realise there is no journalist in jail, no newspaper shut down, no TV or radio closed down [in Venezuela].”

That is why for Garcia, the foreign trenches in this media war are just as important as those at home, and the balance of forces has changed internationally. “Since Chavez was elected, there was a discreditation campaign abroad. Many people were wary of military figures; they did not have confidence in the military. But now many journalists — such as yourself, other journalists from the US, England, France — have come and they have realised what is happening here, and so the wheel is turning. Now it is seen [internationally] that the government of Chavez is a government that respects liberty of expression, which respects human rights, that is advancing a process in favour of the excluded masses.

“So we see how the people of Latin America, and Asia, Africa and Europe, receive President Chavez, they receive him as a leader, as a man that is leading progress.

“With the help of the left and democratic media, people internationally are spreading the truth of what is happening here. They are playing the same role as Diario Vea.”

That role is simple: reporting the truth. “It was necessary to accompany this revolutionary process with a voice that reflected the social missions. For example, Mission Barrio Adentro in collaboration with the Cuban doctors [which provided health care to the poor], the education missions … which contributed to students with little resources being able to receive education. Mission Robinson, which has benefited 1.5 million illiterate people …

“These achievements were denied [by the media] in front of the public and the international community. Diario Vea plays the important role of transmitting this information, spreading it around.”

This is not to say that Diario Vea is just a mouthpiece for the government. Within the pages of Diario Vea, one can find some of the most interesting debates on the weaknesses of the revolution, the challenges it faces and the internal problems the Bolivarian forces have to fight against.

“This is a young revolution, it has a series of problems”, explained Garcia, discussing why it is necessary to take up these issues. “Infiltrations, difficulties — there exists a bureaucracy that in good part belonged to the previous Fourth Republic [the period of rule by two parties of the elite that was ended by the 1998 election of Chavez]. So of course there is sabotage, infiltrations and confrontations inside the Bolivarian forces.

“The whole government is not marching forward, because there are bureaucratic sectors that are sabotaging the process. There is a culture of corruption from years and years ago that remains.” Garcia said jokingly: “When Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, well, within three or four years he was arrested and tried for corruption, so corruption has existed for 500 years.

“We need to struggle against this, and we are in this struggle.”

From Green Left Weekly, November 23, 2005.