The Presidential Palace is in our hands; why don’t you show that?’ Chávez’s supporters shouted to the journalists… instead, RCTV was broadcasting Looney Tunes cartoons.
Venezuela takes an important step towards democratizing its media on 28 May when a billion dollar media corporation loses its television broadcast license to ‘those who almost never have a voice,’ in President Hugo Chávez’s words.
Radio Caracas Television — RCTV — and its multi-millionaire owner, Marcel Granier, who are about to lose their unceasing political war against Chávez and Venezuela’s Bolívarian revolution, are claiming that ‘independent media are being closed down,’ that Chávez is a dictator intent on ‘restricting freedom of expression and democratic rights.’
Reporters without Borders declares that RCTV losing its license is ‘a serious attack on editorial pluralism’, while editorials in US newspapers have predictably misrepresented the controversy, claiming Chávez is retaliating against his critics in the opposition media who ‘disagree’ with the Bolívarian revolution.
The reality is rather different. As Reporters without Borders doesn’t mention, perhaps understandably so, given its financing by the US State Department’s National Endowment for Democracy — which also finances rightist opposition political parties in Venezuela — RCTV was an active participant in the violent coup d’etat that deposed President Chávez for almost 48 hours in 2002.
On the day of the coup, RCTV abandoned all pretense to report news impartially, calling opposition supporters to illegally demonstrate at the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas while showing the constant on screen message ‘Ni un paso atras’: ‘Not one step back.’
It deliberately showed film from one angle to falsely claim that Chávez supporters were firing on opposition demonstrators, when another camera angle would have shown that Chávez supporters were defending themselves from sniper attacks — no opposition demonstrators were in sight. The constant repeated broadcasting of this film was then used as justification for some military officers to declare their ‘disobedience’ to the president, and these declarations were faithfully broadcast to attempt to legitimize a military takeover.
The American editorial writers who fail to mention all this, also fail to comment on the Venezuelan media’s support for the subsequent fascist junta that took control in Caracas and proceeded to dismiss the entire Supreme Court and the Congress, suspend the constitution, arrest the democratically elected president and then sent armed police onto the streets to suppress any resistance.
A junta member, Admiral Victor Ramírez Pérez, thanked journalists on live TV the day after the coup, saying that the organizers ‘had a weapon — the media — let me congratulate you,’ and the businessman the junta chose to be ‘president’, Pedro Carmona, summoned media executives to Miraflores to ensure that opposition to the coup was not reported.
RCTV’s boss, Granier, denied he ever met Carmona during the coup, despite film showing his presence at Miraflores, and while Granier still refers to the junta leader as ‘President Carmona’, RCTV’s subsequent actions demonstrated that no instructions were necessary to keep it on message.
As Venezuelans took to the streets to demand the return of President Chávez, fighting the police and demonstrating at Miraflores in their thousands against the coup, RCTV, contrary to the constant coverage it awarded the opposition demonstration that led to the coup, intentionally blacked out this breaking news, and as RCTV production manager at the time, Andrés Izarra, later related, Granier himself ordered journalists ‘not to broadcast information on Chávez, his supporters or anyone connected to him.’
The Chávez demonstrators coming down from the poor shanty towns on the mountains above Caracas encouraged soldiers loyal to the president to take back Miraflores and arrest the junta. Helicopters were sent to the Caribbean island where the president had been kept prisoner, and barely 48 hours after the right had attempted to take Venezuela back to the military dictatorship of the Fifties, the coup had failed and Chávez had returned to an ecstatic welcome.
However, none of the resistance to the coup, the junta’s arrest or Chavez’s return could be seen on television screens. Amid the coup’s complete collapse, and on probably the most dramatic day in Venezuela’s recent history, RCTV was showing Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons.
Other opposition media followed its lead. No rightist newspapers were printed or distributed the following day, but the leftist Últimas Noticias in Caracas told Venezuela what had happened, and the Chávista Panorama newspaper published four editions in 20 hours as its journalists reported on the coup’s stunning defeat.
It is not difficult to imagine that had CNN or the New York Times acted in the United States as RCTV had done in Venezuela, their executives would now be in Guantánamo, but President Chávez responded with restraint, imploring the media to think about the fascist nature of the junta it had supported: ‘Reflect a little, for God’s sake! It’s your country too!’
No journalists or media executives were jailed or persecuted after the coup, and once the opposition dominated Supreme Court declared that, in their opinion, ‘no coup had taken place,’ Pedro Carmona and other putchists were released, and the right once again went on the offensive against Chávez’s Bolívarian revolution.
Marcel Granier’s RCTV had abandoned any pretense at professional journalism, concerning itself with the political impact of its propagandistic ‘news’ broadcasts, rather than adhering to anything that resembled journalistic ethics. In all, five private television stations, reaching 90% of Venezuela’s viewers, and nine of the ten national newspapers, support the opposition.
Despite US newspaper editorialists claiming that the state is restricting criticism of President Chávez, it is clear to anyone who reads these newspapers or watches Venezuela TV, that the vast majority are implacably hostile to the revolution and critical of the president. There is no censorship, as there is in US client states such as Saudi Arabia, and journalists are not intimidated or assassinated as in México and Colombia.
US President Bush’s recent inaccurate claim that Venezuela has ‘repressive laws’ that ‘severely restrict the liberty of the press,’ hardly stands up to scrutiny, especially when, as Venezuelan Vice-President Jorge Rodríquez pointed out, ‘the only television channel closed down for political reasons during this Bolívarian administration was the pro-Chávez Canal 8 in 2002. It was taken off the air on the first night of the coup by Pedro Carmona’s fascist junta.’
The disproportionate criticisms have more to do with Chávez’s challenge to the unaccountable elite that clearly limits ‘editorial pluralism’ by using its ownership and control of the media to present its own privileged interests as those of all Venezuelans. Accustomed to operating their lucrative commercial television channels for decades without democratic oversight, this elite has come to believe this privileged position is their ‘right.’
Chávez has pointed out that broadcasting licenses are concessions, and are not granted in perpetuity. In fact, Venezuelan law and the Bolívarian Constitution confer certain responsibilities, such as ensuring the public receives ‘true and accurate information,’ on the media corporations that are granted these concessions, as does the respective media laws in the United States and most other countries.
RCTV’s concession to broadcast on Venezuela’s terrestrial Canal 2 frequency expires on 28 May. The government has decided not to renew RCTV’s concession, citing, among other crimes such as not paying taxes, the station’s failure to provide ‘true and accurate information’ during the 2002 coup, when its executives intentionally refused to report breaking news and critical information to the public and imposed its ‘cartoon blackout.’
‘This decision is an irreversible fact,’ William Lara, Venezuela’s Communications and Information Minister declared, ‘the Constitutional, legal and regulatory basis for the decision is solidly incontrovertible.’ For the first time in Venezuela, the privileged media elite has come up against a government that cannot be bought, bribed or intimidated.
Moreover, the Bolívarian revolution’s originality doesn’t stop with challenging elite interests. A new television service, Televisora Venezolana Social (Venezuelan Social TV or TEVES), will take over the Canal 2 frequency, Chávez has announced. It will be run by an independent foundation and have independent, community and alternative programming and participation, promoting Venezuelan film and program production.
Although the new TEVES station will initially receive government financing, which the British state financed BBC rather ironically claimed ‘might affect its independence’, it will not be required to broadcast government programmes such as Chávez’s ¡Alo, Presidente!, and it will be able to take commercial advertising to eventually allow it to be self financing.
Corporate media in almost all countries is often unresponsive, unaccountable and inaccessible, permitting virtually no popular participation in film production and programming. Venezuela’s attempt to start to democratize the broadcast media has been met with predictable criticism from that corporate media, who continue to insist that a tiny, wealthy elite — and not a democratic government elected time and time again with a massive popular vote — should have the right to control what is seen and heard on the airwaves.
As for Granier and RCTV, some in the opposition believe it is no loss to have the station lose its license. ‘RCTV wasn’t even good at propaganda,’ wrote one anti-Chávez columnist citing Chávez’s return after the coup and massive election win in 2006, ‘the point of giving up journalism is to increase the political effectiveness of what is broadcast, and on that score RCTV has certifiably failed.’
But all is not lost for the anti-Chávez opposition — RCTV can still broadcast on cable and satellite, and should there be news it doesn’t like, it will be free to black it out with as many Looney Tunes cartoons as it likes.
La no renovación de la concesión a RCTV es irreversible, Agencia Bolívariana de Noticias report in Aporrea.org, Caracas, 2 de enero de 2007
Bush critica restricciones a la libertad de expressión, headline report in El Nacional, Caracas, 4 de mayo de 2007
Publicados en Gaceta Oficial estatutos de Televisora Venezolana Social, Radio Nacional de Venezuela report, Caracas, 15 de mayo de 2007
El periodismo de Venezuela en 2002, Eleazar Díaz Rangel, Últimas Noticias report in BBC Mundo, Caracas, 4 de abril de 2007
Venezuela, National Endowment for Democracy report at grants/Venezuela, United States, 2005
RCTV: Censorship or broadcaster responsibility, PR Watch report, Center for Media and Democracy, United States, 19 January 2007
Not about free speech, George Ciccariello, Caracas report in Counterpunch, United States, 12 January 2007
The 47 hour coup that changed everything, Gregory Wilpert, Venezuela Analisis, United States, 13 April 2007
Chávez/RCTV: ¿censura o decisión legítima? Salim Lamrani, Progreso, United States, 7 February 2007
¿Una revancha política? article in El Espectador, Bogotá, 13 de mayo de 2007
Hugo Chávez, the media, and everybody else, Nicki Mokhtari and Larry Birns, Council on Hemispheric Affairs report, United States, 19 January 2007
US papers hail Venezuelan coup as pro-democracy move, report in Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), United States, 18 April 2002
Lara: Granier patea los derechos de los usarios, Prensa Ministro de Comunicación e Información statement on Aporrea.org, Caracas, 6 de enero de 2007
Media accused in failed coup, David Adams and Phil Gunson, St. Petersburg Times, United States, 18 April 2002
Las perlas de un fascista mediático, Lubriorama Stereo film, director: Luigino Bracci Roa, Venezuela, released: May 2007
Venezuela investiga el ‘Carmonazo,’ Carlos Chirinos, BBC Mundo, Caracas, 5 de octubre de 2004
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Bórd Scannán na hÉireann film, directors: Bartley and O’Briain, Eire, released: September 2003
Venezuela’s press power, Maurice Lemoine, Le Monde Diplomatique, París, August 2002.