Hugo Chávez, the Media and Everybody Else

Chávez has boldly demonstrated his personal courage, or perhaps imprudence, by staking out a renewed commitment to his Bolivarian Revolution and initiating his new presidency with a rash of socialist initiatives.

  • OAS Secretary General Insulza and Chávez both straying from their mandates
  • Nationalization leading to a mixed economy
  • RCTV yellow journalism at its finest
  • Venezuelan leader would be wise to slow down his revolutionary pace, putting his boundless energy into further institutionalizing yesterday’s reforms rather than piling new ones upon a nation hardly able to grapple with his tempo.
  • Chávez, the great anti-hero when it comes to astute public relations

“Dr Insulza is quite an idiot, a true idiot […] He’s playing the role of viceroy for the empire.” Echoing his inflammatory UN speech a few months back, in which he called President Bush the “devil” and on another occasion, “a donkey,” Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez lashed out at OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, after the latter clearly strained protocol by denouncing Caracas’ decision to not renew the transmitting license of a rabidly anti-Chávez TV broadcasting station last December.

Following his landslide victory in the presidential ballot on December 3, with 63 percent of the vote, Chávez is embarking on a series of new initiatives involving the firing of officials now out of favor, insulting foreign officials like the unfortunate Insulza, and attempting to fortify the essential principles embodied in his “Bolivarian Socialism” by ruling by decree in certain designated areas for the next 18 months.

A few hours before taking the oath of office on January 10 for his third term, he set the nation’s polemical tone by declaring his intention to nationalize the country’s “strategic sectors,” which include the country’s most publicly- traded company Compania Anónima Nacional Teléfonos de Venezuela (CANTV), the electricity and gas sectors, and four lucrative Orinoco basin oil drilling operations. This would allow for the four foreign owners to be minority share owners in each instance. Chávez’s dizzying spate of new plans has been received as dead weight by his various detractors, who accuse him of taking Venezuela back to the bad old days of mixed economy, before the Clinton and Bush administrations had discredited the amalgam of private and public corporations known as a mixed economy. Rather, Washington insisted on privatization and total market accessibility. However, what the latter peddled as pure gold in terms of benefits to Latin America more often than not turned out to be base lead. But at the same time, Chávez has boldly demonstrated his personal courage, or perhaps imprudence, by staking out a renewed commitment to his Bolivarian Revolution and initiating his new presidency with a rash of socialist initiatives.

Political Retribution

On December 28, 2006, during his annual “greeting” speech to the National Armed Forces (FAN), President Chávez boldly announced the government’s decision not to renew the broadcasting license of the privately-owned television station, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) when the matter comes up next March. For the opposition, as well as the outside world, Chávez’s controversial delouse of initiatives attracted a good deal of criticism because it would end 53 years of broadcasting by the nation’s most far-right TVchannel-one famous for its yellow journalism, total absence of professional standards, and its venomous and grossly unprofessional criticism of the current regime.

In Venezuela, as in most democracies, the nation’s broadcasting standards are specified and governmentally-regulated by the licensing process. When properly used, it can be relied upon to regulate the content of televised programs in order to serve the public and maintain high journalistic standards. It can also be mobilized to suppress rightful criticism of authoritarian actions by state officials by threatening retribution. In Venezuela, regulation has been accomplished by means of an independent regulatory body named the National Telecommunications Commission, which issues broadcasting permits.

Hunting down RCTV
After a series of warnings, Venezuelan officials reminded media organizations that state broadcasting licenses issued to privately owned media are subject to periodical revalidations, based upon, if need be, a popular survey conducted by the authorities. Marcel Granier, principal owner of RCTV, who for years had engaged in a host of deadly conspiracies against the government, argued that his channel’s employees should be allowed to continue working “without following the dictates of the regime’s propaganda.”

The temptation to strike down upon Granier proved irresistible for Chávez. His administration has insisted that its policy toward RCTV conforms to existing organic law, and its officials deny that they plan to “revoke or expropriate” the private channel. But decision to badger the unruly media facility has been widely seen by Venezuelan government’s detractors as a political sanction, as Chávez has accused RCTV of plotting against him.

Media Wars and Political Retaliation
Soon after his election in 1998, Chávez became the target of a fierce media barrage which eventually led to the staging of a short-lived coup against him on April 11, 2002. The failed coup attempt mainly involved anti-government protests in Caracas which left 13 dead and was followed by a military-enforced “resignation” of Chávez the next day. The nature of the media coverage during the coup attempt artfully created the impression that Chávez had willingly stepped down and that Pedro Carmona had been appointed interim leader, when in fact Chávez had been abducted and was acting under duress.

Immediately prior to the April coup, Venevisión, RCTV, Globovisión and Televen synchronized their responses by substituting their regular television programming with anti-Chávez speeches and propaganda calling for viewers to take to the streets in protest against his government. Some of the TV notices encouraged anti- Chávez protestors to prevent his return, with messages that proclaimed: “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 addition to airing over 700 pro-strike advertisements, the independent TV networks aggressively backed the coup-plotters by replacing its news programming with cartoons in order to sedulously avoid any mention or running any footage depicting the later rising up of pro- Chávez forces, and the military’s subsequent decision to restore him to power. By revealing their arch political bias and deliberately refusing to air as well as restore objective programming after the coup had demonstrably failed, several TV stations, led by RCTV, grossly and purposely misrepresented the facts, thereby nullifying the public’s right to have access to uncensored coverage. As underlined by Venezuela specialist Eva Golinger, “the private media not only played an active role in promoting, justifying and later executing the coup, but also intentionally kept breaking news and critical information concealed from the Venezuelan viewing public.” This was hardly an example of “All The News That’s Fit To Print,” the operating credo of the New York Times.

Venezuelan Media: a Powerful Oligarchy
Diversity of sources and public access to news and information have long been recognized as fundamental necessities to a truly functioning democracy. However, Venezuela is characterized by an unbalanced situation where the media monopoly creates “information” and then selects its audiences and levels of distribution. The media outlets overwhelmingly are owned by a wealthy elite, which has displayed a rare eagerness to repeatedly burlesque the Chávez’s achievements while ever-ready to destabilize the country in order to weaken this government’s ability to effectively rule and for the economy to thrive.

The private Venezuelan media anti-Chávez line-up landscape consists of five privately owned major television channels – Venevisión, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Globovisión, Televen and CMT –and nine out of the ten major national newspapers available to the public. These include El Universal, El Nacional, Tal Cual, El Impulso, El Nuevo País and El Mundo. The five private television networks control at least 90 percent of the market, with smaller private stations controlling another five percent. These media monopolies broadcast to more than four million television screens in Venezuela. As early as 1999, some 95 percent of the nation’s media was expressing its opposition to Chávez.

Walking the Plank
In addition to Venevisión (the largest station in the country) the billionaire Cisneros family, dubbed the Rupert Murdoch of Latin America, owns over 70 other media outlets in 39 countries. These include DirecTV Latin America, AOL Latin America, Caracol Television (Colombia), the Univisión Network in the U.S., Galavisión, and Playboy Latin America.

In the absence of a credible and united political opposition, ideologically-driven Venezuelan media conglomerates rapidly expanded in the public arena with their own, often heated agendas, giving up all pretenses at objectivity. As almost all of these media facilities belong to a privileged economic elite, it was likely that their interests would not coincide with the attitudes of the general public, nor would they necessarily represent the attitudes and values of the nation’s poor majority. At the time of the 2002 coup, when Chávez was pawned off by an unprincipled media blitz, disbelief was growing in the golpista explanation of his willing resignation. As rumors of funding from the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy and State Department’s AID surfaced, the underrepresented but pro-Chávez lower class took to the streets to call for the coup-plotters to set their president free.

Does Chávez Overstep His Bounds?
A number of NGO’s, including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, have voiced often unwarranted or slanted criticism of Chávez’s alleged violation of freedom of speech and press. The Paris-based reporters’ group, whose initiatives uncannily often are found to be congruent with U.S. policy goals, called Chávez’s free speech record a “serious attack on editorial pluralism” and urged the Venezuelan government to “reconsider its stance and guarantee an independent system of concessions and renewal of licenses.” “Reporters” main problem, however, was that they had little evidence to document their case, which was colored more by their distinct ideology than the facts on the ground. The Secretary General of OAS, for his part, strained his mandate of office as well by warning that the possible closing of RCTV and other anti-government TV networks by authorities could palpably damage democracy in Venezuela.

However, Secretary General Insulza might have taken note of the Principles on Freedom of Expression compiled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights which clearly states 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.”

By not recognizing the danger that may arise when a powerful oligarchy controls most of the media, which is clearly the case in Venezuela, Insulza joins the braying voices of the press establishment that ignore the issue of the professional responsibilities of the mainstream media, which were as clearly violated by Venezuela’s owners as by Chávez.

Building the Socialism of the 21st century
Although Chávez insists that his proposed path of nationalization is being purposely misunderstood by a number of western democracies, it should be seen as a component in a broader scheme. Chávez has ambitiously inaugurated a new phase called the “National Simón Bolivar Project of 2007-2021,” whose main objective is the building of the “Socialism of the 21st century.” This transformation will hinge on five main “motors” of the revolution: a special “enabling” law, further constitutional reform, popular education, reconstruction of the organs of state power, and an explosion of communal power.

As an ardent supporter of Fidel Castro, Chávez strongly believes that the state has to assume a leading role and pervasive authority over some “sectors of the means of production,” in order to make the Venezuelan revolutionary process irreversible. Newly appointed Telecommunications Minister, Jesse Chacón, justified CANTV’s proposed nationalization on the grounds that the company had attempted to block competitors, while at the same time controlling 83 percent of Venezuela’s Internet market. He later conveyed the government’s eagerness to equably extend IT coverage by including some of the more remote areas of the country. Singling out the proposed takeover of CANTV, he underlined that this step did not imply the nationalization of “all the telecommunication sector.”

Breaking Bridges: Chávez’s Fractious Path
Chávez also has declared his ambition to implement a constitutional amendment to strip the Central Bank of its autonomy. With his political allies solidly in control of the National Assembly, he is confident that he will obtain the authority to rule by presidential decree, which will help him enact a “set of revolutionary laws.”

Although there are some external justifications behind Chávez’s decision to consolidate his power – particularly regarding the unremitting propaganda and confrontational rhetoric generated by a coalition of rightist social and economic actors, his desire to modify the constitution to allow for indefinite presidential re-election should be seen as an act of excess on his part that is being artfully used by his detractors to increasingly describe him as a Fidel-like dictator.

Chávez’s worst enemy could be himself. Be they his rhetoric directed against José Miguel Insulza, or the vulgarity of his relationship with the outlandish president of Iran and other reprehensible Middle East ideologues, his actions have shown a lack of capacity for self-censorship and a recurrent inability to discipline himself. Chávez often goes far beyond his actual intentions, and these joshing extensions tend to cost him valuable alliances and the achievement of vital goals. A less radical, more disciplined approach involving a greater reliance upon both legal as well as providential procedures might have produced better results for his own professed goals including punishing broadcasters – such as the RCTV management – for that organization’s complete lack of integrity and its squalid abduction of the journalist profession.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Resarch Associate Nicki Mokhtari and COHA Director Larry Birns
January 19th, 2007