“If communication is a social and an individual right, people must be able to practice it.”

Minister Chacon discusses why the private mass media is opposed to the Chavez government, what the government is trying to do to improve its international image, and how it is supporting the emergence of independent community media.

For part 1 of this interview, go to: Venezuela is one of the few countries where the right of communities to provide themselves with media is a reality”

VA: In your opinion, why has the private national media assumed this attitude of permanent confrontation with the Government of the President Chávez?

JC: In our specific case the cause is based on the fact that those who always were in control of the great national networks of communication also had the political and economic power.

We must say that in our country, during the past 40 years, presidents represented great economic groups that also had communicational platforms. When President Hugo Chávez came to power, these groups, even though initially they tried to get close to him, lost the quota of political power to which they were used to.

We could mention for example Mr. Gustavo Cisneros,[1] who at the beginning tried approach the President, but this apparent friendship was abruptly interrupted when President Chávez did not accept to put as CONATEL director a person he proposed. The good relations then broke down.

It is necessary clarify that the concept of Venezuelan media is forged on the North American model rather than the European one. And this had not helped us. In most European countries telecommunications were born as a public service, television and radio networks belonged to the State or to communities, and only lately some of them were privatized as some new private channels and networks were created. On the contrary, in the United States, from the beginning, there was a totally mercantilist model. Unfortunately the second model was the one that prevailed in Venezuela.

In Venezuela the owners of media believed that if they had the “Media Power,” they should also retain political power. When, with President Chávez, they lost it, they tried to regain it by any means. They started a ferocious campaign against the Presidentin order to overthrow him, using of course, their powerful media platforms,sponsoring and impelling a Coup d’Etat.

To reach this aim, with the support of some international advisers, they formulated a big communications strategy. They thought that they could recover political power without popular support, as it happened in Chile in the 1973. They made a big mistake. I believe that what happened in Venezuela has become a case worthy of profound study and of very serious evaluation. A study realized here demonstrates that, after this enormous media campaign that the private mass media unfolded against this administration, the sector of society that has been most influenced by it, was precisely the one with the higher educational level. This makes you wonder if this was not done on purpose.

In our Country there are people with very high academic levels and even with master degrees who affirm everything they see on TV and listen to in the radio must be the abslute truth, simply because the media say and show it. On the other hand, the poorer and less educated sector of the population did not succumb so easily to this. It is clear that it is urgent to redefine an educational system that protects people from the dangers of becoming victims to the mass media’s manipulation, which converts news into propaganda.

Nowadays there should be no-one in the world who blindly believes that everything that is shown on television and said on radio must necessarily be true. Even though there are many good intentions on the part of journalists, for providing the most objective news possible, reality cannot be reduced to a TV screen or a radio speaker. But this is not yet understood in our country. In some European countries this subject is treated in the educational system, to generate citizens with a critical sense at the moment of evaluating the mass media’s messages.

Here the owners of the big mass media found a population here that is not willing to play along, perhaps because for the first time in the history of this country the way politics is done has changed. And this, I believe, it is another contribution that Venezuela is providing to the new currents that are being generated in the world. The direct boundary and contact with people cannot replace the mass media.

In Latin America, in the United States and in a large part of Europe, politicians have become products fabricated by the mass media. The media make them but they cannot walk on their own. President Chávez broke with this scheme.  In Venezuela, at present time, someone who has the aspiration to aim for political power, has to necessarily enter into direct contact with the people. Furthermore, I would say that people must feel that the person is one of them. I am sure that the failure of the coup d’etat of April of 2002 was mainly the result of this new reality.

The private mass media thought that they could apply the same formula used in United States, where they make and unmake images, and they did not realize that there is a different reality here. And Venezuela is not the only case now. We should say that in Venezuela the despair of the owners of media to regain the lost political power caused them to eliminate all of the subtleties and formalities that are generally used. This caused the great majority of the population to reject them.

All over the world similar cases have come to light. This makes us wonder about democracy. The right of common citizens to freely choose their representatives becomes extremely questionable. When media make candidates, one is no longer free to choose. Under these conditions a true democracy cannot exist.

I believe that in our country we are already in a phase of overcoming this reality, but it must also be discussed very seriously outside of Venezuela. I am much more worried about other countries, where people do not even begin to realize this.

VA: The private Venezuelan media, through the international networks of which they are a part, always provide a unilateral vision of national reality. Which strategies are you going to implement in order to spread the other version internationally?

JC: The problem of how Venezuela is seen internationally has two faces: the first one is that we, as Government, have not been able to create an international communicational strategy that really projects all the things that we are doing. Now we are at the point of creating an office that would bring information about the national reality to each region outside the Venezuela. It would be, in the short term, a solution to this part of the problem.

However the second aspect of the problem is much more complex and more difficult to solve because of globalization itself, as a business, as a market. It so happens that many of the media that exist here are part of international networks and frequently are controlled from the outside. The globalization of communication has indeed been one of the most important tools to sell the one thought.[2] We need a structure that allows us to reach the outside word with our information, but we are quite aware that we will find in large international sectors the same slant that we have nationally. We are completely conscious of this.

There are some Venezuelan owners of private television channels, great opponents of this Government, who also are co-owners of television networks in Mexico, in the Southern States of USA, in Chile, of satellite networks etc. Then the big question is what, even when you are able produce the best information, will happen when these networks simply decide to boycott it? It would be completely useless. This is happening, we know, and all this is part of a discussion that I firmly believe the entire world must face sooner or later.

Actually, many international groups exist that have begun to put pressure to change this reality and the results will start to become visible at the same moment that politicians and governments will feel that the pressure coming from these groups and movements is more powerful than the money that exists on the other side. If we want a mature society, logically society should impose the agenda to media and not vice versa. Nevertheless, so far, the roles are reversed.

VA: In Venezuela a very unique phenomenon occurred during these past two years: there was a boom of independent, popular and alternative media, print as well as broadcast. How do you explain this?  And what is the government’s position and plans in this matter?

JC: According to the social model that is forged through our Constitution, the idea is that society itself be entitled to decide what it really wants to become. And this society will never be able do this if it does not have the mass media under its control to promote the social model that it has conceptualized.

Our Constitution privileges the right to free and plural communication. From this, a model that has had an enormous success emerges: the one of community radio and television, of the alternative press, and of course of the Internet.

We are totally convinced that the model that is taking shape in Venezuela in matters of alternative communication is going to spread in the medium term to other countries of the world. If communication is a social and an individual right, people must be able to practice it. We are absolutely convinced that this right is limited and denied in many countries. People cannot be represented by private interests as is the case in the North American model. To be able to have access to media you have to have great economic resources. Now, if a community wants access, it should have the same possibility.

We must privilege the right of communities over private interest. The private media are exerting their right to make a profit, while the organized communities use it as a mechanism for social development. And, because our Constitution privileges social development over individual interest, far more than simply accepting them, this government sponsors communitarian and alternative media by many means.

This year we will not only legalize and enable approximately 200 more communitarian radios and televisions with equipment, but will also promote them; making a reality of the communicational rights guaranteed in our Constitution.

It is very important to mention: the Venezuelan State does not interfere in the conception of these media. It is a risk, but we assumed it. There are good communitarian media, regular ones, and others that are as bad as commercial ones. Nevertheless, this will depend exclusively on the consciousness level of the communities. I believe that even though we had some bad experiences, they will be overcome as people realize that in other places of the country there are other communities doing things much better than they are.

This is one of the most important projects within the new process that is going on in Venezuela, which has already overcome its initial stages, to enter into a phase of results this year.

VA: A very controversial topic has been the “Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television,” called by the opposition a “Muzzle Law” that is awaiting its second reading in the National Assembly. How important do you consider this law, and why do you think there are some national sectors that are strongly against it?

JC: This law intends to replace the only legal instrument that tried in some way to regulate the media a little bit since 1940. There is no country in the world that has such an anachronistic and antiquated legal framework in this matter as we do. In most European countries the laws regulating the mass media have been made during the decade of the 90’s and some even during 2000 and 2001.

First of all, the law aims to modernize the sector and to take it to the level of the most modern experiences in this field internationally. Second, it tries to even the rights of those who use communications as a business with the legitimate rights of all citizens. Finally, it wants the media to be used for the good of all Venezuelans, as an instrument of growth; as much individual as for the whole society as a whole, within a clearly defined framework.

The new citizen, according to the concepts of the Bolivarian Constitution, would not be possible, if we do not have a legal tool that would oblige the mass media to show him as he was conceived of in the Constitution.

There are three laws that are fundamental in order to obtain this new society that we want so much and to which we always make reference: the “Law of Social Responsibility in the Radio and Television,” the “Law of Culture,” and the “Law of Education”. These are the mechanisms needed to create and to push for a new society. Without them, we are destined to have citizens who do not respond to the new parameters that we wanted to put in practice. For this reason these three laws are vital for the definition of the new Venezuelan who is shaped in the Constitution.

Who is against it and why? The same groups that have been against media’s regulation during the past 60 years, because their proposal is that, “the best regulation is the one than does not exist,” because they have in mind a mere mercantilist concept of communications; because they believe that the “market fixes everything by itself.” But in this case it does not fix these concepts. This is our position. I believe that states and societies must prevail over markets.

VA: In October the Government created the “Venezuelan Corporation of Telecommunications” COVETEL. What is the function of this new organisation?

JC: The reason for creating COVETEL has been the new state cultural channel, Vive TV’s birth. It is a corporation that is very broad in its definition, due to the convergence mentioned before. Until now it does not have any other project but the cultural channel.  However it does not mean that it would have others in the future. Its future projects could be of a different nature, but always framed within the same philosophy by which the corporation was created, which is to promote, sponsor and spread our values, history and traditions and all these realities that conform the Venezuelan identity. We want to meet again among ourselves independently and regardless of the international tendencies, we do not ignore them. But above all we have accept that we have our own idiosyncrasies and our own culture.

VA: During the last month of November there was a big controversy that reached international proportions when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) “almost ordered” the Venezuelan Government to return microwave equipment, property of a private television channel (Globovisión), which had been seized by the State because they were operating illegally. As result of this you went to Washington to present the Government’s position to the Court. Why do you think that the IACHR assumed such a position without first asking the Venezuelan Government about the reasons for the seizure? What is the status of this case now?

JC: Since the plan for the coup d’etat of April 2002 has been under process, the court had been working closely with the same Venezuelans who had been members of it in the past. It is worth knowing that Venezuelan lawyers like Asdrúbal Aguiar, Carlos Ayala Corao and other important representatives of Venezuelan “Golpismo” (coupists) had been members of the court and still have their relations and nexuses there.

The court did not make any statement about the Venezuelan coup d’etat of April 2002, and did not pronounced itself in the over 60 deaths and the closing of TV stations by the Government of Sanchez de Lozada during Bolivia’s popular rise last October 2003. However, in less than an hour, it did manage to make a pronouncement because in Venezuela the government seized same microwave transmitters of a private TV channel, because they were using the radioelectric spectrum without permission.

We went to Washington to explain the situation to the court. First, we expressed our preoccupation because it seemed that this international organ acts very efficiently in some cases and ignores others that are much more serious in our opinion. We asked why it does not always react with the same diligence. And, second, we demonstrated that these microwave transmitters were indeed being used illegally.

The court then emitted a second official statement recognizing that CONATEL acted in accordance with the law and at the same time urged the Venezuelan state to grant the television station the right to defend themselves; something that, by the way, was never denied to them.

The actual situation of this case is that state still maintains the seizure measure. The TV station owners have appealed to the Supreme Court of Justice and the case is taking its normal course.

VA: Among a large sector of the population there is a general feeling, that began circulating recently, to call for a consultative referendum in order to cancel some private TV and Radio station’s concessions for using the radio-electric spectrum because it has been widely demonstrated that they manipulate the news, use subliminal propaganda, and take a very explicitly political position. What do you think about this possibility?

JC: If in February 2003 a minority of the society tried to collect signatures to petition for a consultative referendum about the President staying in power,[3] then I believe that it is completely legitimate and within the framework of our Constitution to do the same thing with the media, unless somebody demonstrates to me the contrary. This is what real democracy is like.

In addition, we are talking about the usage of the radio-electric spectrum, a public good and property of all Venezuelans. It is thus correct that all Venezuelans should have the right to decide what they really want to do with it.

VA: Thank you very much Minister. Finally, do you want to add something else for the readers of Venezuelanalysis.com?

JC: Generally speaking, I would say that independently of the political point of view that people of other countries could possibly have, what is going on here is something that is extremely interesting. Our social and political process is something very different. This Government invites all the people who are interested to see what is happening in Venezuela to come and appreciate it with their own eyes. There is no better information than by first hand.

Those who have come to Venezuela have realized that a very interesting process with a broad popular participation of the people who have been excluded from political and civil life for many years is happening here and who now feel that they also have rights. I firmly believe that is the most important aspect of this process that we are living through. Anyone who comes here can move freely without any type of restriction or limitation by the State. I hope many people from abroad will come and see and speak with our communities and our people.

[1] Venezuelan media tycoon who owns many national and international companies, among them several media outlets, such as Direct TV Latin America, Univision and Venevision, channel 4, in Venezuela.

[2] Pensee unique, as it is known in French, is the Washington Consensus of neo-liberal capitalism.

[3] It is relevant to explain that on that occasion the signature collection was illegal because it was not done under the rules and the control of the CNE (National Electoral Council), since all electoral processes must be done in accordance with Venezuelan law. Second, the supposed consultative referendum was not consultative, but actually it tried to be a recall referendum on President Chávez.