The explosion of Venezuela’s alternative and community media in the past year and half is owed to three related factors: the complete lack of balance with Venezuela’s private mainstream media, the successful overthrow of the April 2002 coup attempt, and the active legal support of the state for community media.
Before Hugo Chavez became president, Venezuela’s community media were a persecuted form of free speech, just as in most of Latin America. Homes and offices that housed community radio stations were regularly raided and their operators often had to fear for their lives. Running a community radio or television station was a truly clandestine activity. In the hopes of getting out of this situation, community media generally supported Chavez’ rise to power and, in return, when he became president, community media was allowed to operate freely, largely without broadcasting permits. As a result, gradually their numbers increased.
However, it was not until after the April 2002 coup attempt that community media in Venezuela came into their own. During the coup, the community media filled the gap which the private mainstream media left when it played an active role in the coup and refused to broadcast the military and popular resistance against the coup government. The coup organizers knew very well that for their coup to succeed, they would have to control the flow of information. While the mainstream media practiced a complete news blackout of all pro-Chavez activity in the country, it was thanks to the alternative media (and to cell phones) that people found out that there was an active resistance against the coup regime. Also, during the two days of the coup, the coup government raided community media radio and television stations throughout the country and confiscated their equipment. However, the community media were faster and got the message out before they were all closed down. The alternative media’s broadcasting of the resistance caused the resistance to snowball and to become increasingly active and eventually unstoppable. It is thus no exaggeration to say that the alternative media played a crucial role in the collapse of the two-day coup regime.
Prior to the coup the Chavez government did not pay much attention to the alternative media. It left it alone and while the community media generally supported the government, it did not receive any active support from the government. Only in those states and municipalities where the opposition was in power, did it still have to worry about being repressed. The Chavez government had relied entirely on the state media, Venezolana de Television and Radio Nacional de Venezuela to get its message across and past the oppositional private media.
The most important form of support which community media did receive from the government prior to the coup was the “Organic Telecommunications Law,” which was passed in June of 2000. This law specifically states that there will be three types of broadcast media in Venezuela: private, state, and community. As such, the law gives legal recognition to community broadcasting, thus also enabling it to receive special tax breaks. However, in order to qualify as a community broadcaster, the programming has to meet certain criteria. First, the station must be non-profit and dedicated to the community, meaning that at least 70% of its programming must be produced from within the community. Also, there must be a separation between the station and its programming. That is, the station itself may only produce a maximum of 15% of the programming, meaning that the rest is to be produced by community volunteers. Third, the station must provide training to members of the community, so that they may qualify themselves to produce programs. Other requirements stipulate that the directors of community media cannot be party officials, members of the military, or work for private mass media. These are just a few of the more important requirements.
Although the Chavez government began to take steps to legalize community media already in January 2002, it was not until immediately following the failed coup that the government realized just how important an ally the alternative media really is. That is, the government realized, first, that the state media by itself cannot be the only alternative to the private media because of its relatively low ratings and, second, the state media’s centralized nature makes it vulnerable in a coup situation (the state media were shut down for the entire duration of the coup).
A few months after the coup, the government thus sat down with community media representatives to figure out how it could strengthen the community media sector. At that time, many community broadcasters still had no legal permits to operate and one of the top priorities was to legalize these. At least 14 were legalized since the coup, bringing the total legal community television and radio broadcasters to 30, with about one quarter being television stations and the rest radio stations. Most of these operate in the capital region and in western Venezuela. The vast majority of community broadcasters, mostly radio stations, still do not have permits.
Over the past year or so, community media have been proliferating, especially now that the central government is actively promoting their creation. Opposition leaders and the oppositional private media claim the Chavez government is financing them, but there is no evidence to support such claims. Rather, the government is providing logistical help, ranging from training to advice on how to apply for broadcast permits. Also, the government has sponsored two Latin American conferences on community media, where community media representatives came from all of Latin America to exchange ideas and experiences. At the last conference, held towards the end of October of this year, President Chavez announced that the Venezuelan government would fund a community media news agency, which networks the community media via satellite. In his speech Chavez proposed the possibility of having an “international neighborhood news broadcast” with the help of this news agency.
Venezuelan community media feel themselves to be in an odd position. On the one hand they are condemned by the mainstream media for supposedly operating illegally and for supposedly receiving illegal funding from the government. On the other hand, the government is very slow in providing them with permits and they have barely enough finances to keep their stations operating. Also, in cases where the local government is in the hands of the opposition, the community media often have to deal with repression from those governments. The recent closure of Catia TVe by the mayor of Greater Caracas, who belongs to the opposition, is just a more prominent recent example (see sidebar).
If the opposition should win the upcoming recall referendum, which might take place in April 2004, Venezuela’s community media believe they have a good idea of what to expect, based on the brief coup regime. The community media will thus play an important role in the upcoming recall referendum, especially since they will feel that their future will be at stake.
 “Organic” meaning that it a law required by and derived from the constitution.
 For a report on that conference, see: http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1049