What is the Venezuelan News Media Actually Like?

A careful and sober account of Venezuelan media that
focuses on the most basic and uncontroversial facts of what constitutes
the Venezuelan media today has been non-existent in mainstream U.S.
media. Such reporting
could present a more accurate picture of the actual situation of
freedom of expression in Venezuela.

By Andrew Kennis - Narco News
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What is the Venezuelan News Media Actually Like?

Listening
to accounts by the U.S. news media and to the public postures taken by
the Bush administration, one would think that there is no freedom of
expression in Venezuela. The impression most U.S. citizens have is that
the media is virtually under direct state control. Independent
reporting, free from the government’s fiery rhetoric, has been
noticeably absent. A careful and sober account of Venezuelan media that
focuses on the most basic and uncontroversial facts of what constitutes
the Venezuelan media today has been non-existent in mainstream U.S.
media (and even in many independent sources as well). Such reporting
could present a more accurate picture of the actual situation of
freedom of expression in Venezuela.

“Totalitarian censorship”

In
light of characterizations by the Bush administration of the Venezuelan
media that are too often unquestionably reported and frequently
parroted by the U.S. news media, serious concerns of media independence
from President Bush’s foreign policy line arise; a comparison between
the two goes far to illustrate the serious problem of the lack of media
independence.

Public officials in Washington – never great friends
of President Chávez – have always seen the media as a key battleground.
U.S. legislation has launched and financed significant news propaganda
incursions into the Venezuelan media. Representative Connie Mack IV (R-FL) successfully pushed through an amendment in 2005
to a Foreign Relations Reauthorization Bill that provided for 30
minutes of programming every day from the Broadcasting Board of
Governors (the same government agency that runs Radio Free Europe) to
be transmitted over Venezuelan airwaves. Mack remarked at the time, “in
Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela there is no free press – just state controlled
anti-American propaganda.”

Other initiatives have followed,
including a 2007 measure that brought $10 million in financial support
for Voice of the America to expand its broadcasts in Venezuela. Mack
once again railed against the Venezuelan media: “Freedom of the press
died in Venezuela on May 27, 2007, when Chavez shut down Radio Caracas
Television” (Miami Herald, 06/22/07).

This stance is a
familiar one, coming both from Congress and the White House. In a
speech to the Organization of American States after the Venezuelan
government refused to renew
private network Radio Caracas Television’s (RCTV’s) broadcast license
last May, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: “Freedom of speech,
freedom of association and freedom of conscience are not a thorn in the
side of government … Disagreeing with your government is not
unpatriotic and most certainly should not be a crime in any country,
especially a democracy.”

The U.S. news media have
overwhelmingly parroted such claims from the government. Many of these
news accounts came after the controversial RCTV
decision, but such coverage has long existed and has been well
documented by the media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in
Reporting.

Typical of opinions on the RCTV decision was that of syndicated columnist Miguel Perez, in an op-ed published in the Chicago Sun-Times
and other papers. Perez called the license denial “totalitarian
censorship” and a clear example of “censoring the opposition in the
media” (01/09/07). A Washington Times staff editorial wrote that Chavez’s RCTV decision should be marked as nothing less than “the return of the authoritarian left” (06/08/07).

The coverage revealed confusion about some of the basic issues in the RCTV license non-renewal. The Washington Post,
one of the most influential dailies in the U.S., irresponsibly included
quotes about non-existent legal reforms in the leading paragraphs of
one article. “The government is trying to change the laws and
indoctrinate the population,” read a quote from a protesting college
student and Venezuelan expatriate (06/16/07). However, no law was
changed by not renewing the network’s license. Legal Reforms in the
early 1990s bestowed this responsibility on the Venezuelan executive
branch (a fact rarely cited in mainstream accounts).

News
reports published in the U.S. sometimes contradicted themselves with
conflicting facts and unquestioned characterizations. In an analysis
from the Houston Chronicle, one of the longer and more comprehensive think-pieces on the RCTV
issue, Chávez’s actions were described as a “frontal assault on freedom
of the press.” In the same piece, it was interestingly admitted toward
the end of the article that, “RCTV and other stations … are owned by
some of Venezuela’s wealthiest families [and] began playing an overt
political role” following Chavez’s initial landside electoral victory
in 1998. Further noted, was the fact that “the Chavez government has
the legal right not to renew RCTV’s
license,” characterizations that would seemingly clash with the
unquestionably reported “frontal assault” description that led the
article (Houston Chronicle, 05/27/07).

Polls supposedly
revealing deep opposition and “widespread disagreement” to Chavez’s
decision were routinely cited out of context (Romero, NYT,
05/27/07), often without any reference to the fact that most, “viewers
in [at least one oft-cited] survey expressed little concern about
losing access to RCTV’s anti-Chavez news
programs … [and] instead … complained about missing the station’s soap
operas and game shows – like the Venezuelan version of ‘Who Wants to Be
a Millionaire.’” This latter piece of information, however, was a
buried item in and of itself and appeared toward the end of the article
(Houston Chronicle, 5/27/07).

To be sure, the RCTV “closure”
is a complex one, and there are many different perspectives that should
be presented. But the issue never received the subtle and careful
treatment it deserved in U.S. media coverage (see FAIR, for excellent coverage for more on this point, 11-12/06a, and related issues on U.S. press coverage of Venezuela: 05/25/07; 01-02/08; 11-12/06b; 04/07; 01-02/07.) More importantly, the obsessive focus on the RCTV
issue effectively shut out any substantial attention to a key question
that would have gone far in settling many of the points of disagreement
in that debate.

Analyses Found in Independent News Media

Far different depictions, noticeably absent in mainstream coverage, were found in independent news sources.

Writing for the Nation,
Mark Weisbrot, who is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy
Research, characterized Venezuela as having “the most anti-government
media in the hemisphere” (12/06/06). Eva Golinger, a
Venezuelan-American lawyer and prominent critic of U.S. foreign policy,
wrote that, “You turn on any of the channels here and you’ll see that
there’s more freedom of expression enjoyed in Venezuela than probably
anywhere else in the world. It’s the only place where they can go on
television and talk about killing the president, or saying the most
derogatory and offensive things on a news hour” (interview on Z-Net, 2005). PR Watch refers to the “... former AP correspondent in Venezuela Bart Jones, [who] dismisses the criticism of the RCTV non-renewal as the result of a ‘web of misinformation,’” and instead maintains that RCTV “should
not be seen as free-speech martyrs. Radio, TV and newspapers remain
uncensored, unfettered and unthreatened by the government. Most
Venezuelan media are still controlled by the old oligarchy and are
staunchly anti-Chavez.”

Contrasting points and analyses such
as these beg the question: what is the actual composition of the
Venezuelan media in terms of its ownership and editorial positioning
toward the Chávez administration? Indeed, some characterizations in the
U.S. news media described RCTV as being: “one of [only] two [broadcast networks] that presented opposing views of President Hugo Chavez’s rule” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 10/23/07). However, the facts show otherwise.

Ownership Structure and Editorial Leanings of the Venezuelan News Media

A Venezuelan Congressional leader protested to the New York Times
in a June 2007 letter to the editor that: “broadcasters like
Venezuela’s Radio Caracas Television use a limited public good – the
broadcast spectrum – and must abide by long-accepted public-interest
standard,” adding that the overwhelming majority of ownership “is in
private hands, much of it owned by huge conglomerates.”

Starting
with the television media, the favored new source of most Venezuelans,
there are at least five nationally broadcasted television stations that
transmit via “free-over-the-air” and publicly allotted signals (other
accounts put the total as high as eleven, depending on different
definitions of what is considered “national”). Even using the
conservative estimate, previous to the RCTV
closing, three of these five stations were privately owned and
commercially operated. These included Venevisión (established in 1961,
formerly owned by Mexico’s Televisa, but now controlled by Grupo
Cisneros), whose television programs are picked up by a television
source familiar to U.S. citizens, Univision; Televisión de Venezuela
(Televen; established in 1988); and lastly, RCTV.

All three of these broadcast networks were overwhelmingly favorable to the two-day-long 2002 military coup that temporarily unseated President Chávez. The government’s claim that RCTV
actively participated in the coup is well documented. So there is
little controversy about the autonomy and independence of these
corporate-run stations. Venevision and Televen both maintain that they
do not want to be involved in political conflicts and strive to
maintain “objective” positions. No prominent analyst has seriously
contended, however, that either of these stations are “pro-Chávez.”

The other national channels on the limited electromagnetic spectrum are public and state-controlled. Before RCTV,
there were only two, but now there are three: Venezolana de Televisión
(VTV, established in 1964); Visión Venezuela (ViVe TV, established in
2003); and Televisora Venezolana Social (TVes, established in 2007 as RCTV’s
replacement). By the most conservative of estimates then, 3 out of 5
national channels are funded by the state. And according to other
accounts that give a higher total number of national stations, seven of
the eleven stations are private and corporate controlled. None of these
seven maintain in any meaningful way “pro-Chávez” stances.

By
broadening the picture to include regional stations, as well as cable
and satellite stations, we see an even greater presence of private and
corporate media. Both Globovisión and CNN en
Español have attracted the ire of Willian Lara, the Venezuelan
communications minister, for their sharp criticism of Chávez and their
alleged anti-government messages (Romero, NYT, 05/29/07). In an interview with this author, CNN
en Español president Christopher Cromwell proudly remarked that Chávez
may not like the programming on his network, but this meant CNN was doing it job correctly.

Globovisión
is one channel somewhere between regional and national, as it is widely
broadcast in the major metropolitan areas of Caracas, Carabobo and
Zulia, and also via satellite on the DirectTV network. It is also one
of the most resolutely anti-Chávez stations in its editorial stance.

There
is even a major regional network that is neither state-run nor
commercially oriented. Valores Educativos Televisión (Vale TV) has been
on the air since 1998 and is run by Asociación Civil, which is managed
by the Catholic Church. Vale TV is indeed one of the reasons why the
Venezuelan news media is arguably much more diverse and free than U.S.
news media are depicting.

Despite their nearly national reach,
the U.S. commercial media rarely mention these networks. However, even
the most conservative estimates put private commercial ownership at no
less than 75% of the television news media. Other estimates that
include more outlets are as high as 95%.

Looking at
Venezuela’s print media paints an even greater opposition presence than
television, with publications deeply critical of the Chávez
administration, commercially oriented and corporate-owned. The
D.C.-based think-tank Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) described
the issue in blunt terms: “nine out of ten newspapers, including [the
most prestigious daily] El Nacional and [the business-oriented] El Universal,
are staunchly anti-Chávez” (Council of Hemispheric Affairs, August 21,
2005). Opposition to Chávez, given the commercial character of daily
newspapers in Venezuela, is especially rampant in print; not even one
major daily newspaper is controlled or funded by the state.

There
are twenty-one daily newspapers in Venezuela’s largest city and
capital, Caracas, eleven of which are considered to be of significant
influence and eight of which that are also distributed nationally. This
pales in comparison to the situation in the U.S., where the largest
city has only four major dailies (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Daily News),
at least two of which are significantly sympathetic to the Bush
administration’s policies. Further, only two of these four papers (New York Times and Wall Street Journal) double as a nationally distributed daily newspaper – the U.S. only has four nationally distributed daily papers (the USA Today and Washington Post comprising the other two).

Venezuela
thus has at least as varied a print sector as the U.S. does – and in
some ways, it is more diverse. Indisputably, Venezuela has a wider
array of print choices and a larger amount of nationally distributed
publications. But this is not the only democratic aspect of Venezuelan
media. An often overlooked but widespread movement has also come to
bear in a country full of social and political change.

Community Media

Community-oriented,
non-profit, non-commercial, citizen and volunteer run media has long
been a part of the changes that have swept Venezuela.

Next
year will mark the first decade of community media’s constitutional
existence in the country. Indeed, community media’s origins date back
to the Venezuelan Constitution
that was adopted in a 1999 referendum, with over 90% of the vote in its
favor. More importantly, however, is the tremendous growth of this new
form of media since 2002.

The failed 2002 military coup
against President Chávez is widely seen as one of the prime triggers
for the furious growth of community media in Venezuela. In 2002, there
were seven community radio and two community television stations
operating in Caracas. Since then community media has grown markedly.
The successful staying of the short-lived 2002 military coup was, in
part, the result of the efforts of community media activists
counteracting the huge show of support for the coup by private media
companies. In fact, during the coup’s two-day run, the opposition
reportedly forced the closure of community media outlets such as Catia
TV. After the failure of the coup, however, the popular resistance that
had toppled it inspired the creation of dozens of community media
collectives, ballooning its presence across the country.

Eighteen months after the coup, leading political analyst Greg Wilpert was already writing
about, “the explosion of Venezuela’s alternative and community media,”
which he argued was a consequence of 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” (Venezuelanalysis.com,
11/14/2003). By 2005, over thirteen times as many community radio
stations appeared on the scene, the total increasing from 13 to 170.
Community television stations are also sprinkled across the country and
have a considerable presence in Venezuela.

Another vital part of the community media movement has been an online-based news agency Aporrea.org.
Operating on a shoestring budget and a staff of six to eight full-time
activists – supported by hundreds more contributors – the cutting edge
reporting and analysis published on its web site has garnered
tremendous hit counts, sometimes numbering in the millions (see
extensive interview conducted by former Narco News editor, Luis Gomez: Part I, Part II).

The collaborators and members that are part of Aporrea.org
read like a cross section of the type of Venezuelans most attracted to
community media in general: “members of popular, cultural and community
work groups of the Caracas neighborhoods, communicators from the
Community Radio stations, union activists from the Bolivarian Workers
Force, members of neighborhood organizations and of Bolivarian Circles,
people from the popular and progressive networks that live in the
Venezuelan capital,” as Aporrea’s most involved activists told to
Gomez. As a result of these inclinations, it is fair to say that
community media is not a resource to those who would identify
themselves with the opposition to the government. Instead, however, it
has opened up a huge channel to voice the viewpoints of sectors of the
Venezuelan society that simply do not have a significant presence in
the mainstream media.

Given the popular support that President
Chávez commands , there are enough elements in community media to
support a healthy stream of criticism that is undertaken in order to
“deepen the revolution,” to borrow the words of one of the founders of
Aporrea, or to simply uncover abuses of authority and corruption in the
government. More than anything else, however, Venezuelan community
media acts as a buffer against the plethora of uncovered stories and
overlooked facts in the corporate dominated mass media in Venezuela.
Despite the important roles that community media in Venezuela fulfills,
even its most active participants are under no illusions about the
challenges that remain ahead, as they often describe their status as
“marginalized” forcing them to act amongst merely “small nuclei and
groups.” Nevertheless, in light of the numbers generated by impressive
online hit counts, the diffusion of television and radio broadcasts and
the ever-growing number of stations connected to them, the facts that
millions of Venezuelans read, listen to, watch and/or directly involve
themselves in community media.

It is once clear that the media
in Venezuela do not suffer from direct state control or censorship.
Conversely, the key question for the future is not how little freedom
of expression is present in Venezuela, but how much expression and
influence will be achieved directly by citizen-run and community
oriented media.

Andrew Kennis is a freelance journalist, a PhD candidate in
Political Communication and an adjunct professor. He has written from
many locations, including Chiapas, Guatemala, Israel, Taiwan, Mexico
City, Quebec and Palestine. Andrew lived and taught in Mexico City from
2002 to 2005, during which time he wrote dozens of on-the-scene
articles from around the country. Originally from New York City, Andrew
returns in the summers to manage a Spanish-speaking high school
baseball team in the Bronx. Last year, Andrew took a research
appointment and reported from Venezuela, where he traveled to five
cities and interviewed dozens of people about how the political changes
in Venezuela have impacted their lives.