Venezuela’s Media Quake

International media defends network giant Globovisión as a victim of political censorship. This has obscured the key debate of private versus public rights on the airwaves and the limits of uncritically framing the issue as a violation of "free speech."

In 1812, one of the most devastating
earthquakes of the nineteenth century hit Caracas and the coastal port
of La Guaira. An estimated 10,000 people died and most of Caracas was
buried in rubble. The quake also marked a major setback in the
then-ongoing war of independence as religious and royalist authorities
heralded the disaster as a sign of God’s wrath on the fledgling

Almost 200 years later another seismic event became an opportunity
for political rouse. This time the quake was mild in its impact,
causing little physical damage. Yet, it has triggered a maelstrom of
international media defending network giant Globovisión as a victim of
political censorship. The resulting frenzy has obscured the key debate
of private versus public rights on the airwaves and the limits of
uncritically framing the issue as a violation of "free speech."

Shortly after the first tremors were felt on May 4 at 4:40 a.m.,
Alberto Federico Ravell, director of Globovisión, claims he performed
the necessary duty of personally delivering a “message of calm” to the
station’s viewers. During the broadcast, he announced on the air
several times that government aid and information was unavailable
despite numerous attempts from government officials to distribute
information to the station. According to Ravell’s broadcast, the only
available news on the quake was through the U.S. Geological Survey, a
Virginia-based government agency monitoring seismic events.

What Ravell omitted from his report was that Venezuela’s National Seismological Institute, known as Funvisis
was closely following the geological movements. Funvivis operates a
24-7, state-of-the-art facility and provides virtually live data
updates on its website and via email alerts.

In a recent interview, Bruce Presgrave, a geophysicist who
supervises the USGS division that records and reports earthquakes
globally, verified to me that the data his agency received on the
morning of May 4 originated from geological stations in Venezuela
monitored by Funvisis. Presgrave adds that the Venezuelan agency
provided information “very quickly and has a well-run facility and
monitoring system.”

Globo’s coverage of the quake incensed government supporters and
prompted the National Telecommunications Commission, Conatel, to launch
a formal investigation. At issue is whether Globovisión violated the
public's right to access critical information in a time of crisis.

Cilia Flores, the president of the National Assembly, argues the issue could not be
ignored since Ravell’s actions unnecessarily “instigated panic” and
promoted an “unwarranted mistrust in government services.” Flores
charges that Ravell “assumed the role of officiator in a state of
emergency, and did not allow national agencies to deliver the
information in a responsible and accurate way.”

"In a critical moment, he impulsively and irresponsibly exploited
the situation to further his personal political agenda,” she adds.

Ravell claims the government is simply trying to “shut him up” as a
way of eliminating opposing political opinion. Human Rights Watch and
two delegates from the United Nations, Frank La Rue and Cecilia Botero,
have joined Ravell in claiming that pressure from the Conatel
investigation has more to do with Ravell’s role as a Chávez critic,
than any legal infractions resulting from his broadcast.

Conatel’s investigation will be the third separate proceeding
against Globovisión within a year. The first took place during the
November 2008 regional elections when the station broadcast the victory
speech of a candidate before the official election results had been
reported. The second investigation was sparked when a guest commentator
on the channel insinuated that Chávez should be assassinated.
Violations could lead to temporary administrative sanctions or the
eventual withdrawal of the channel's broadcasting license.

What is particularly at stake in the case of the recent earthquake
is how international coverage of the issue has ignored a nuanced
analysis of how Conatel and other officiating bodies have attempted to
parse the differences between criticism and harm to the public good. By
framing the story as an issue of whether Venezuela enjoys "free
speech," international media – whether advertently or not – become the
choir of an ongoing political strategy by opposition parties to
discredit the Chávez government.

In response to criticism of the government's case against the
channel, Venezuela’s Ambassador to the Organization of American States
(OAS) Roy Chaderton Matos contends,“If any other channel in another
part of the world made the same abuse of the airwaves, they would be
off the air.” He continues, “Globovisión has produced a permanent state
of disinformation, including participation in the 2002 coup, a practice
that has sought to destabilize and block the process of participatory

Chaderton says the activities of opposition media in Venezuela
amount to “media terrorism.” (For more about media in Venezuela and
about claims of state "censorship" see: "What is the Venezuelan News Media Actually Like?")

“We’ve grown accustomed to it,” explains a local resident at a café
in a small town outside of Caracas. “Everyone already knows who is who
and what to expect from each channel.” In 2007, the government's
decision to not renew the broadcasting license of the television
channel RCTV generated heated public debate about the fate of the
station and the future of public and private media in the country.

President Hugo Chávez recently jumped in the fray, inviting his
critics (and allies) to a public debate, with each side representing
their viewpoints: "I say this very seriously… If there is no freedom
of expression here, we are inviting them to an open debate." As Latin
America's most prominent conservative leaders converged for a
right-wing summit in Caracas, Chávez offered, "How great it would be to
have a special Aló Presidente; invite the Right and the socialists, and
I will sit among the public audience and leave you all to debate."

Members of the summit ultimately rejected the invitation to a public intellectual debate.

Angela Marino Segura is a PhD candidate at New York University.