A Case Study of Media Concentration and Power in Venezuela

Public access to media and diversity of voices have been usurped by private media moguls in Venezuela propagating their own political and economic aims. A review of U.S. media regulation and recent Venezuelan media history.

By Eva Golinger - Venezuelanalysis.com
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I. Propaganda

Setting: Venevisión, one of
5 major private television channels in Venezuela, December 20, 2002.
The following is a transcription of a television advertisement played
on a Venezuelan private media channel during the December 2002
managerial stoppage. The commercial that follows was interspersed
amongst 10 back-to-back similar propagandas paid for by the Venezuelan
opposition movement. The ads were played during breaks from 24-hour
news coverage of opposition marches, speeches and interviews. During
the 64-day stoppage, approximately 700 similar, yet varied, ads were
broadcast daily.

A big "NO" appears in red letters. Smaller letters state "Don't be
deceived" and a male voice narrates the same. The same voice continues,
as the written words appear, "In this country, our country, there is
only one person responsible for so much abuse, impunity, anarchy and
lack of governance." [A fast paced music builds in the background]; A
women's voice narrates, as the written words appear over an image of
thousands of opposition marchers in the streets, "Venezuela, don't be
deceived." Return to male narrator, "The only one responsible for the
violation of the Constitution" [words pasted over scenes of national
guard repression and violence]; Return to female voice, "of financing
the circles of terror created in the shadow of his government" [scenes
of violence amongst people in the streets, tear gas in the air, people
running, members of Bolivarian Circles speaking and gesturing]; male
narrator, "to give away our petroleum" [image of PDVSA, the State-owned
oil company], woman's voice, "of the taking of our Marine Merchants by
mercenaries" [scenes of armed individuals mounting oil tankers]; male
voice, "of the torture of PDVSA" [image of violence in the streets,
tear gas, people screaming, running]; cut to woman's voice, "for
politicizing our armed forces" [image of armed forces in the streets,
violence]; cut to male voice, "disrespecting our institutions" [image
of armed forces firing teargas on civilians, chaos in the streets]; cut
to woman's voice, "for the stoppage in the nation" [scene of marches in
the streets, armed with sticks and rocks, yelling, fighting one
another]; cut to male voice, " for the division of Venezuela" [violent
street protestors yelling, fighting]; cut to female voice, " for the
hate amongst brothers" [continue fighting in the streets, violence
chaos]; cut to male voice, "Venezuela, don't be deceived" [image of a
giant Venezuelan flag held by opposition marchers]; cut to female
voice, "in this country, our country, there is only one person
responsible for so much horror" [image of opposition marchers in the
background yelling and signaling ‘get out']; male voice "for so much
sadness" [image of Venezuelans carrying a coffin through a crowd];
female voice "for so much terror" [image of individual captured for
firing at opposition protestors, bloodied and half naked, carried by
police]; male voice, "for so much violence" [image in background of man
with a stick, swinging it violently in the street]; female voice, "for
so much intransigence" [scene of armed guards and police in the
streets, harassing civilians]; cut to male voice, "for so much
insensibility" [same scene of armed forces in the streets]; cut to
female voice, "You, who have been judged in five elections in two
years, what is the fear of being judged again?" [background image of
polling machines, voters voting, elections volunteers with ballots];
cut to image of animated map of Venezuela with a big "HERE" written on
it; male voice, "Here, there is only one responsible..."; cut to yellow
screen, the words appear as they are yelled by a chorus of angry
people, "Not one step back, OUT, GET OUT NOW." Ends with the Democratic
Coordinator logo.

The twenty-first century has
begun with the first media war in world history. Although tools of
propaganda and use of the mass media to further political aims have
been characteristic of previous conflicts, wars and political
strategies, the case of Venezuela evidences the first time that the
media, as a powerful, private actor, has waged war against the people
in order to advance its own agenda. Public access to media and
diversity of voices have been usurped by private media moguls in
Venezuela propagating their own political and economic aims. Precisely
those goals a democratic society and media seek to promote have been
turned upside down in Venezuela. In order to fully contextualize the
current media war in Venezuela, it is necessary to understand the
importance of the history and standards of media regulation, freedom of
expression and public access to media in U.S. law and in international
instruments of human rights law.

II. Public Access to Media and Diversity in U.S. Law

Diversity and public access
to media have been fundamental necessities of a true democracy
throughout the history of the United States. In 1927, the Radio Act
authorized an independent regulatory commission to decide who should
receive broadcast licenses and authorized programming regulation, yet
prohibited the government from censoring radio. The Radio Act of 1927
ensured that broadcast stations would be predominantly owned and
operated by private citizens rather than the government and established
the airwaves as a public resource that no person or business could
claim ownership of or claim rights of permanent usage. The Act also
required radio broadcasters to provide equal time to political
candidates, yet a provision to "permit equal opportunity for
presentation of both sides of public questions" was not included in the
final version of the Act.

The obligation of
broadcasters to air diverse views on public issues was declared a
policy of the newly established Federal Radio Commission ("FRC") in
1929, in Great Lakes Broadcasting. The FRC, which predated the
Federal Communications Commission, reasoned that because broadcast
frequencies were limited, broadcasters were subject to a standard of
"public interest, convenience and necessity" based on a duty to the
listening public. Great Lakes involved New York and Chicago
radio stations owned by labor organizations that had applied for
increases in power but were turned down by the FRC on the ground that
the stations had been used almost exclusively as propaganda outlets for
labor interests. The FRC stated that "the public interest requires
ample play for the free and fair competition of opposing views...[T]his
principle applies...to all discussion of importance to the public."
Furthermore, in KFKB Broadcasting Association v. FRC, a federal
appeals court ruled that the FRC could refuse to renew a broadcast
station's license if its programming did not serve the public interest.

A few years later, Congress
passed the Communications Act of 1934, which replaced the Radio Act.
Section 315 of the Communications Act required equal access to
broadcast outlets by candidates for public office and Section 312(a)(7)
created a right of reasonable access to facilities for federal
candidates. Yet neither of these equal opportunities provisions
incorporated language mandating citizen access to media. It took the
Commission almost two decades to fully develop a fairness principle
that would ensure public access to media and a diversity of opinions
portrayed in broadcasting.

In Mayflower Broadcasting
(1941), the Commission ruled that a license renewal could only be
granted to a licensee that agrees not to editorialize and further
stated that, "radio can serve as an instrument of democracy only when
devoted to the communication of information and exchange of ideas
fairly and objectively presented." Yet this doctrine only lasted for
eight years, and soon commercial television began to challenge the
dominance of radio. A Federal Communications Commission ("FCC") report
in 1949 reversed the Commission's previous position and permitted
licensees to editorialize, with the exception that the editorials must
be "fair" and that programming in general must be "balanced." Moreover,
this report required broadcasters to "devote a reasonable amount of
broadcasting time to the discussion of public issues of interest in the
community served by their stations."

Therefore, after nearly two
decades of confusion about the application of the developing fairness
principle, in 1949, the FCC established the twofold duty of
broadcasters that became known as the Fairness Doctrine. The FCC
explained that, "the needs and interest of the general public for new
and diverse opinions could only be satisfied by making available to the
public varying and conflicting views held by responsible members of the
community." As part of the Fairness Doctrine, the FCC required
broadcasters (1) to devote a reasonable percentage of airtime to the
discussion of public issues and (2) to present contrasting views in the
case of controversial issues of public importance.

The Fairness Doctrine,
widely applauded by media reformists, judges and scholars yet highly
criticized by broadcasters and First Amendment purists, imposed a
general obligation on broadcasters to ensure that diverse ideas were
presented. Broadcasters reserved the right to determine which views or
issues were to be presented and by whom, yet they had to ensure a
balanced account was aired. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in
Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, that key provisions of the Fairness Doctrine were constitutional.

Red Lion
involved the broadcast of a personal attack by right-wing preacher
Billy James Hargis to author Fred J. Cook, who had written a book
critical of Republic presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. WGCB radio
station, in Red Lion, Pennsylvania, aired the attack on their station.
The station refused to grant Mr. Cook's request to reply to the attack,
unless he found a paying sponsor. Subsequently, Cook filed a complaint
with the FCC, which held that WGCB's failure to grant Cook's right to
reply was in violation of the personal attack provision of the Fairness
Doctrine. Red Lion Broadcasting, the owner of the station, challenged
the "right to reply" requirement as an unconstitutional infringement on
the radio station's First Amendment right to Freedom of expression.
Upon appeal, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality
of the Fairness Doctrine. In that landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme
Court held that the Fairness Doctrine served to enhance, rather than
abridge the freedoms of speech and press protected by the First
Amendment. They further proclaimed that, "It is the right of the
viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is
paramount." This language has characterized the foundations of the
media reform movement today, which seeks a more diversified, accessible
communications media.

Four years later, in CBS v. Democratic National Committee,
the Supreme Court refrained from expanding the public right of access
designated in the Fairness Doctrine by holding that the First Amendment
does not require broadcast licensees to provide airtime to specific
individuals or groups who want to present a point of view on public
issues. This decision combined two cases: one involving the Business
Executives' Move for Vietnam Peace (BEM), an organization of business
people opposed to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam who wished to
purchase airtime to express their opposition to the Vietnam War; and
another involved a petition by the Democratic National Committee (DNC)
to the FCC to declare that no broadcaster could refuse to run paid
editorial advertisements. In the original decisions brought before the
FCC, the Commission had ruled that broadcasters could refuse to sell
time for comment on public issues, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for
the D.C. Circuit reversed the commission. The Court said a flat ban on
paid public issue announcements was a violation of the First Amendment
right of the public to receive information. However, in CBS v. DNC, the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court and supported the FCC's original decision, in a five-four split decision.

In 1987, after a series of
federal cases slowly chipped away at the Fairness Doctrine, the
Reagan-era FCC implemented its deregulatory philosophy by striking down
key provisions, claiming they conflicted with the public interest and
the First Amendment. Specifically, the Commission argued that its
intrusion into the editorial judgments of broadcasters was no longer
necessary to ensure the airing of diverse views on important public
issues because there had been an "explosive growth" in the number and
variety of information outlets since Red Lion upheld the Fairness Doctrine in 1969. Although the Commission recognized the validity of Red Lion,
it nevertheless stated: "Were the balance ours alone to strike, the
Fairness Doctrine would thus fall short of promoting those interests
necessary to uphold its constitutionality."

Yet the Supreme Court of the United States has not ventured to overturn its landmark decision in Red Lion,
which remains good law today. Additionally, the FCC has maintained
Fairness Doctrine-related policies, including the personal attack and
political editorializing rules, and the Zapple Rule, which
holds that supporters of opposing candidates must be given the same
amount of airtime during election campaigns. These policies echo the
general view that operations of broadcasters should be carried out in
the public interest. Furthermore, the FCC sets strict regulations
governing children's programming and viewing hours, as well as
guidelines for the broadcasts of political viewpoints and issues. This
class of regulations intends to prevent the mass media from
broadcasting just one viewpoint and becoming a concentrated political
power, such as in the case of Venezuela.

Principles of balance,
access, diversity and fairness still reign in the courts and federal
regulations with respect to telecommunications in the United States and
internationally. In addition to the historical development and demise
of the Fairness Doctrine, those inclined towards democratizing the
media in the United States have continued to rely on the First
Amendment as the fundamental source of these rights. The ultimate role
of the First Amendment's declaration that "Congress shall make no
law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press" is to secure the
diversity of information and viewpoints necessary for the people's
self-governance. In Associated Press v. U.S., the Court
recognized the role of the First Amendment in securing the diversity
necessary to a democratic system, by declaring:

First] Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible
dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is
essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a
condition of a free society. Surely a command that the government
itself shall not impede the free flow of ideas does not afford
non-governmental combinations a refuge if they impose restraints upon
constitutionally guaranteed freedom. Freedom to publish means freedom
for all and not for some. Freedom to publish is guaranteed by the
Constitution, but freedom to combine to keep others from publishing is
not. Freedom of the press from governmental interference under the
First Amendment does not sanction repression of that freedom by private

Furthermore, in 1994, the Court's decision in Turner Broadcasting Sys., Inc. v. FCC reinforced the critical notion of regulation as a tool of promoting wider access and diversity:

First Amendment's command that government not impede the freedom of
speech does not disable the government from taking steps to ensure that
private interests not restrict, through physical control of a critical
pathway of communication, the free flow of information and ideas.

Therefore, despite the FCC's
deregulatory actions that repealed the Fairness Doctrine in the late
1980s, the Courts have continued to uphold concepts of fairness,
balance and access in broadcasting. At the same time, the United States
has not ventured to incorporate rights of public access and to a
diverse, objective and balanced media as extensively as those set forth
in international instruments of human rights, despite the unprecedented
growth of media conglomerates and monopolies and the ever-decreasing
spectrum of voices represented on U.S. media. However, the media
concentration in the U.S. has not yet reached the point of exclusive
control, as the case in Venezuela. It is therefore critical to analyze
the situation of media concentration in Venezuela as precisely the
outcome that proponents of media reform seek to avoid.

III. International Instruments of Law

Before addressing in detail
the media war in Venezuela, it is necessary to set forth international
standards of public access to media and diversity of opinions in order
to demonstrate the unlawful and unbalanced situation created by the
media monopoly on information in Venezuela. International human rights
instruments and modern concepts of freedom of expression generally
state that freedom of expression is guaranteed under a nation's
Constitution or laws. Article 13 (1) of The American Convention on
Human Rights declares, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds..." (emphasis added). The American Convention, Article 13 (3) further states, "The right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private
controls over newsprint, radio broadcasting frequencies or equipment
used in the dissemination of information, or by any other means tending
to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions."
(emphasis added).

Additionally, several
articles in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
("ICCPR") guarantee the right to freedom of thought, the right to hold
opinions without interference and the prohibition of war propaganda.
The General Comments to Article 19 of the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights reinforce the notion that "...little
attention has been given to the fact that, because of the development
of modern mass media, effective measures are necessary to prevent such
control of the media as would interfere with the right of everyone to
freedom of expression...
" As such, the Covenant is recognizing the
potential of media conglomerates to infringe on the rights and freedoms
of expression and access to information of citizens guaranteed by U.S.
courts and international law.

The Declaration of
Principles on Freedom of Expression by the Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights during its 108th Regular Session stated that, "Freedom of expression in all its forms and manifestations is a fundamental and inalienable right of all individuals," (emphasis added) and that "All
people should be afforded equal opportunities to receive, seek and
impart information by any means of communication without discrimination
for reasons of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other
opinions, national or social origin, economic status, birth or any
other social condition
." Furthermore, The Principles on Freedom of
Expression by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have
clearly stated that monopolies or oligopolies in the ownership and
control of communications media "...conspire against democracy by
limiting the plurality and diversity which ensure the full exercise of
people's right to information

Therefore, it is evident
that international instruments of human rights plainly recognize the
threat of media concentration to freedom of expression and public
access to media. But, at what point do the rights of the media to a
free press conflict with the rights of individuals to freedom of
expression and access, and whose rights are more valued? The General
Comments to Article 19 of the ICCPR put forth that "...little
attention has been given to the fact that, because of the development
of modern mass media, effective measures are necessary to prevent such
control of the media as would interfere with the right of everyone to
freedom of expression...
" Particularly in a society where mass media
is privatized and owned by multinational corporations with economic
interests and motives other than providing "true and accurate
information", it is essential to have laws ensuring the democratization
of the media that protect the rights of citizens. Without such laws and
regulations, media conglomerates threaten democracy by maintaining
control over access to information and the capacity to advance
political agendas through propaganda campaigns and thought control. The
recent developments in Venezuela are evidence to the point and
constitute the most extreme case of media exercise of power in history.

IV. Case Study - Venezuela

The first media coup d'etat ever occurred on April 11, 2002 in Venezuela against a democratically elected and popular president.

flashing negative imagery, fear and stress induction techniques,
quasi-hypnotic suggestion, excessive repetition and falsification and
forgery are just but a few of the mindshock techniques deliberately
being used, not just in overtly political spots but also in regular
programming...Numbing repetition, relentless slandering and demonizing of
Chávez supporters. Exaggeration, negative spinning and saturation
coverage of any minor fact or event that can remotely make the Chávez
government look bad. Loud, rapid-fire, invariably negative interviews.
Excessive use of panic-inducing words ("Castro-Communism" is a favorite
of Venevisión, along with "mobs", routinely used to describe Chávez
supporters). Deliberate use of loaded terms like "crimes against
humanity" or "genocide" in the wrong contexts, to describe current
events in Venezuela. Exploitation of children in interviews to stir up
anti-Chávez sentiment...Venezuelans are being subject to a massive
Chávez-aversion therapy program, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,
month after month, ad nauseam. People wake up and go to sleep with it

In Venezuela, five major
private television networks control at least 90% of the market and
smaller private stations control another 5%. This 95% of the broadcast
market began to outwardly express its opposition to President Chávez's
administration as early as 1999, soon after Chávez began his first term
in office. After President Chávez came to power in 1998, the five main
privately owned television channels - Venevisión, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Globovisión,
Televen and CMT - and nine out of the ten major national newspapers,
including El Universal, El Nacional, Tal Cual, El Impulso, El Nuevo
PaÌs and El Mundo, took over the role of the traditional political
parties, Acción Demcrática (AD) and COPEI, which had lost power
after Chávez won the presidential election. The investigations,
interviews, reports and commentaries of these mass media have all
pursued the same objective for the past four years: to undermine the
legitimacy of the government and to severely damage the president's
popular support.

Brief History

President Hugo Chávez FrÌas
won the election in 1998 by an overwhelming majority of votes. It was
the first time in Venezuela's young democracy that a candidate outside
the two traditional political parties, AD and COPEI, had won the
presidency, and by a landslide. Part of his virtue was his capacity to
relate to the average citizen, his master communication skills, and his
background; mixed Indian-Black Venezuelan and working class. Once in
office, Chávez immediately began implementing his primary campaign
platforms, including the rewriting of the Venezuelan Constitution of
1961 to include a more diverse spectrum of social, economic, cultural,
political and civil rights, and to integrate the armed forces into the
economic and social life of the country through a program titled "Plan
Bolivar 2000". In an unprecedented move, a popular referendum was held
to elect qualified citizens to comprise a Constituent Assembly, which
would draft the new constitution. Subsequently, the draft constitution
was ratified in another popular referendum, receiving 71% of voter

The 1999 Constitution of the
Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela contained articles granting new rights
to Venezuelans, such as indigenous rights, education rights, health
care rights, job and salary rights, political participation rights and
many others that have made the new Venezuelan Constitution one of the
most progressive in the world in the area of human rights. Articles 57
and 58 of the Constitution guarantee the right to true and objective
information, incorporating international standards of freedom of
expression and public access to a diverse, democratic media. Article 58
of the Venezuelan Constitution specifically states, "Communication
is free and plural and must adhere to the obligations and
responsibilities under the law. Every person has the right to
objective, true and impartial information, without censorship..."
Article 108 of the Constitution clarifies that all communications
media, public and private, must contribute to the social development of
citizens. This same article guarantees public access to radio,
television, library networks and information networks, in order to
permit universal access to information. Public access channels and
community-based media were new rights ensured under this Constitution.

The Constitution
additionally required the restructuring of Venezuela's oil industry,
the fourth largest in the world, in order to provide a more equal
distribution of resources and wealth to the Venezuelan people. The
implementation of these rights and policies through Congressional
legislation was not well received by those economic and political
forces that had traditionally held power in Venezuela. The private
media were resistant to the growth of independent and community media
outlets. As a result of the collapse of the traditional political
parties, the private media became the leading voice of opposition to
the Chávez administration, because its ownership rests in the hands of
Venezuela's most powerful businessmen and corporations.

The Players

A small group of businessmen
own fifteen television stations in Venezuela. Only six of these
stations are national, and the rest are local channels. Three of the
local stations, Televisora Andina de Mérida, Canal de los Niños
Cantores del Zulia and Vale TV belong to the Catholic Church. There is
only one public television station with a national broadcasting
frequency, Venezolana de Televisión (or Channel 8), and growing
community media stations, such as Catia TVe and Bocon have an extremely
limited range. During several decades, commercial television in
Venezuela has belonged to an oligopoly of two families, the Cisneros,
who own Venevisión, and the Bottome & Granier Group, which owns
Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) and Radio Caracas Radio. Against the
determined opposition of these two families, Televen, Globovisión, CMT
and La Tele were able to enter the private media market, although the
latter two only have VHF frequency, with limited reach.

This same small group of
media owners are not just the proprietors of broadcast circuits but
also own advertising and public relations agencies that operate for the
benefit of the stations, as well as record labels and other cultural
industries that produce material to be promoted, released and broadcast
on the stations. Furthermore, the Cisneros family also owns, in
addition to Venevisión, the largest station in Venezuela, over 70 media
outlets in 39 countries, including DirecTV Latin America, AOL Latin
America, Caracol Television (Colombia), the Univisión Network in the
U.S., Galavisión, and Playboy Latin America, as well as beverage and
food product distribution (Coca Cola bottling, Regional Beer, Pizza Hut
in Venezuela, etc.) and cultural entities such as Los Leones Baseball
team of Caracas and the Miss Venezuela Pageant. These are precisely the
types of monopolies that developed nations seek to prohibit. These
media monopolies broadcast to more than four million television screens
in Venezuela, reaching millions upon millions of ordinary Venezuelans.
Statistics show that Venezuelan children watch an average of five hours
per day of television.

Print media are similarly
concentrated in the hands of just a few wealthy families. For example,
the six largest dailies are owned by specific family groups. There are
two hundred magazines and fifty daily papers circulating in Venezuela.
Owners of tabloids are also proprietors of magazines, dailies and
public relations agencies. One of the original opposition leaders
against President Chávez, Teodoro Petkoff, was the editor of El Mundo,
an evening newspaper published by the Capriles group that became the
first print medium to take an outspoken position against Chávez.
Petkoff utilized El Mundo to propagate his own political position against Chávez and later founded the daily Tal Cual, another print mechanism of opposition propaganda that has played a key role in the media war against Chávez.

The Media Coup

In response to a change by
the Chávez administration in the executive board of Petroleros de
Venezuela (PDVSA) in early 2002, the State-owned oil company, the
opposition convened a march to the PDVSA headquarters in Caracas, on
April 11, 2002. The march was promoted and summoned via print media,
radio and television. On April 11th, The Daily Journal, an English-language daily newspaper in Caracas, headlined "State of Agony Stunts Government", on its front page. Another national daily paper, El Nacional, released a special edition that day, headlining, "The Final Battle Will Be in Miraflores." Before any incidents had occurred, the media was fully briefed of the outcome.

In the days before the April
11, 2002 coup, Venevisión, RCTV, Globovisión and Televen replaced
regular television programming with anti-Chávez speeches and propaganda
calling for viewers to take to the streets. Some of the ads clamored "Ni un paso atr·s!" ("Not one step backwards") or "Venezuelans,
take to the streets on Thursday, April 11 at 10am. Bring your flags.
For freedom and democracy. Venezuela will not surrender. No one will
defeat us
." In fact, the propaganda on the private television
channels became so threatening and clearly intending to instigate
violence and an overthrow of the Chávez administration, that the
government applied Article 192 of the telecommunications law on more
than thirty occasions during the days proceeding and on the day of the
coup. This provision requires the government be allotted 15-20 minutes
of airtime to broadcast its views and position. However, even though
the stations were forced to comply with this regulation, they
circumvented it by dividing the television screen in half and
continuing to broadcast opposition propaganda and violent images on one
half of the screen while the President spoke on the other half.

On April 10, 2002, the
private media broadcast a dissident general, Nestor Gonzalez Gonzalez,
claiming that the high military command demanded President Chávez step
down, or they would rebel and force him to resign. The journalists
present asked the General if he was planning a coup, to which he
responded only with a malicious smirk. It was later revealed on
Venevisión, the day after the coup, that this interview with General
Gonzalez Gonzalez was an integral part of the coup plot and was aired
to prevent Chávez from flying out that same day to an Organization of
American States General Assembly meeting in Costa Rica. The coup plan
required that Chávez remain in Venezuela, and the General's statements
were made with that purpose. The private media effectuated this part of
the plan by broadcasting the General's statements over and over again.
Chávez never went to Costa Rica.

On April 11, 2002, although
the opposition march had been directed towards the PDVSA headquarters,
the leaders, Carlos Ortega of the Central de Trabajadores de Venezuela
and Pedro Carmona of FEDECAMARAS called for a change in route: to
Miraflores, the presidential palace, despite the lack of a legal permit
to take that direction. Immediately, the private media stations
broadcast the calls "To Miraflores" and superimposed them over the
government's appeals to not seek a confrontation with pro-government
supporters rallying outside Miraflores that same day. The private
channels were strategically positioned near the Chávez supporters when
the gunfire rang out and the pro-government protesters began to fall.
The shots were hitting them in the head and frenzied demonstrators were
ducking down, trying to find cover from the deadly bullets. They were
being shot at by snipers and Metropolitan Police officers, who support
the opposition.

Soon after, the private
stations began broadcasting a video showing Chávez supporters firing
from a bridge near the presidential palace, Puente Llaguno, at an
unseen recipient. The video included a voiceover that stated, "Look at
that Chávez supporter...see how he unloads his gun at the peaceful
opposition march below..." What the video didn't show viewers, was how it
manipulated the setting and failed to include the wider angle of the
scene, which evidenced an empty street below and Metropolitan Police
hiding behind vehicles and buildings, taking shots at the Chávez
supporters on the bridge. The opposition march had never taken the
route that would have led them to Puente Llaguno. The video was a

The author of the video,
Luis Alfonso Fernández of Venevisión, who won the top journalism prize
in Spain (Premio Rey 2003) for that same news video, later admitted to
the newspaper Panorama (8-31-2003) that "in reality, that day
he did not see the Chávez supporters firing at the opposition march."
Furthermore, journalist Ricardo Márquez of Últimas Noticias
wrote that Luis Alfonso Fern·ndez stated he could not see whom the
Chávez supporters were firing at and that the voiceover on the video
was added after the events. Also, another journalist from a private
channel, Del Valle Canelón of Globovisión, initially affirmed that in
the video, the group of civilians were seen firing, but against the
Metropolitan Police.

However, during those
tumultuous moments, the truth about the video remained hidden, and the
world was witness to the makings of the first media coup d'etat in
history. The private channels attributed the violence to Chávez
supporters and hence, the Chávez government, claiming the government
had armed the aggressors. They failed to reveal that the majority of
fallen victims were, in fact, pro-government protestors and refused to
admit the two groups had never clashed at Puente Llaguno. After the
nonstop airing of the Puente Llaguno video, private channels broadcast
in unison another carefully prepared image: A group of dissident
generals declaring that due to the deaths caused by the government,
they would no longer recognize Chávez as the legitimate president of

Sometime after the failed
coup, the truth about this video also surfaced. CNN correspondent Otto
Neustaldt, participating in a forum entitled "Journalism in Times of
Crisis" at the Bicentennial University of Aragua in Venezuela, revealed
that "On the 10th at night they called me on the telephone and said,
Otto, tomorrow the 11th there will be a video of Chávez, the march will
go towards the presidential palace, there will be deaths and then 20
military officials of high rank will appear and pronounce themselves
against the government of Chávez, and will request his resignation.
They told me this on the 10th at night." Once again, the evidence
demonstrated the media's pivotal role in the events that unfolded on
the days of April 10-14. The media's involvement in the coup had
clearly been premeditated. It was no longer curious as to why the print
media had prophetic headlines predicting the "Final Battle" at the
presidential palace or the government's "Agony" before anything had
even occurred. The video of the dissident generals, broadcast as
planned on April 11th, after the Chávez supporters had been shot by
snipers, facilitated the final goal: declaration and justification of
the kidnapping of Chávez and the coup d'etat.

The day after the coup, the
private media provided detailed insight into their involvement in the
events of the preceding day. On the morning of April 12th, a Venevisión
program with television personality Napoleon Bravo hosted some of the
military and civilian coup leaders. During this extraordinary
television moment, the guests thanked the private media channels for
their integral role in making the coup happen and explained in detail
the plans leading up to the coup. They specifically underlined the key
role of the private media in broadcasting the images that would justify
the coup. Furthermore, on that same program, in an interview with
Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo and Victor Manuel Garcia, director of the
Institute of Statistics, television presenter Napoleón Bravo of
Venevisión confessed to having facilitated in his own house the
recording of a call to military rebellion by General González González
on April 10th.

magazine further revealed that coup leaders Pedro Carmona from
Fedec·maras (who later became the de facto president) and others had
utilized the Venevisión offices as a "bunker" and were seen coming from
the station offices as they headed towards the presidential palace to
take control. All the private media owners were present in the palace
cheering on as the coup leaders assumed power and dissembled
Venezuela's democratic institutions. Furthermore, the media owners had
expressed their wish to recommend the names of individuals who would
assume control of the communications sector in the de facto government.
The front page of one of the two largest national daily newspapers, El Universal, headlined, "A Step in the Right Direction!" on the days after the coup. The media were clearly in complicity with the illegal usurpation of government power.

The print media and the
broadcast stations reiterated over and over again that Chávez
supporters were responsible for the violence, the death and the
injured, despite knowledge to the contrary. It is apt to note that on
the evening of April 11th, as the coup leaders were surrounding the
presidential palace with tanks, threatening to bomb the building should
the Chávez government officials and Chávez himself remain on the
premises, the state-run Channel 8 was cut. The only access
pro-government supporters and officials had to broadcast their version
of events was eliminated. The private media now had the absolute
monopoly on information.

The private media not only
played an active role in promoting, justifying and executing the coup,
but also intentionally kept breaking news and critical information
concealed from the Venezuelan viewing public. On April 12th, after the
coup leaders had taken power, Chávez's Attorney General gave a press
conference prior in which he had made the private stations believe he
was going to announce his resignation, when in fact, he began to
condemn the coup and reveal that Chávez had not resigned, only to be
abruptly taken off the air. AndrÈs Izarra, former Managing Producer of
"El Observador" a news program on the private station RCTV, testified
to the Venezuelan National Assembly and others that he received clear
instructions from the station owner at RCTV on the day of the coup and
the following day to air: "No information on Chávez, his followers, his ministers, and all others that could in anyway be related to him."
Furthermore, Izarra confirmed that on the day of the coup, RCTV had a
report from a U.S. affiliate that Chávez had not resigned, but had been
kidnapped and jailed, yet the station refused to report the story. In
fact, all the private channels disseminated the news that President
Chávez had resigned, despite their knowledge to the contrary. This was
an intentional distortion of news and censorship of the truth about a
situation of critical importance to Venezuelan citizens and the
international community.

The immediate days after the
coup, the blackout on information intensified. On April 13th, as Chávez
supporters poured into the streets to demand the return of their
elected president, the private channels broadcast old movies and
cartoons. Even as the presidential guard retook the palace and the
Chávez cabinet members returned, the private media refused to report
these facts to the Venezuelan public. Journalist Luis Britto Garcia
characterizes the media's power in Venezuela as the capacity to create
a reality or make an existent reality disappear: "As the private
channels made a reality that did not exist appear - they inflated
opposition demonstrations, converted a partial bosses' strike into a
general strike, invented the resignation of a President who never
resigned - they also made an existent reality disappear." Robert
McChesney and John Nichols framed the censorship as a news stoppage:
"As the protests grew, the media simply stopped covering the news.
Newspapers ceased to publish, the state television station was pulled
off the air, and privately owned stations started showing a steady
stream of soap operas. Only when the protestors took over the state
television station did Venezuelans begin to receive news of what was
happening in their country."

As the majority of the world
condemned the coup and refused to recognize the de facto government in
Venezuela, the private media only reported on the support expressed by
the United States, Spain and Colombia. Furthermore, they went so far as
to broadcast a news anchor interviewing de facto president Pedro
Carmona about the normalization of events, claiming he was still in
control of the palace, even after the Chávez presidential guard and
cabinet members had retaken the grounds and Carmona had been removed
from power. Only after the Chávez government regained control of
Channel 8 was the Venezuelan public made aware of the true development
of events. Even after Chávez was rescued from his kidnappers and
returned to power, the state-run channel was the only station to
broadcast live his arrival at the palace. The intentional censorship of
information was a clear attempt to deny Venezuelan citizens access to
true, objective and timely information, violating their constitutional
rights and those rights garnered to them under international human
rights instruments.

U.S. media was also complacent in the media disinformation campaign surrounding the events of the April 2002 coup. The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Washington Post
all ran editorials in favor of the coup and accepted the opposition's
version of events as accurate. Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting
issued a Media Advisory on April 18, 2002 entitled, "U.S. Papers Hail
Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move", explaining that papers such as The New York
Times triumphantly declared that "Chávez's ‘resignation' meant that
‘Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.'"
The New York Times went so far as to blindly write that Chávez
‘stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a
respected business leader.' After Chávez was returned to power on April
13-14, The New York Times ran a second editorial on April 16,
2002, seemingly apologizing for their April 13th celebratory tone,
which stated: ""In his three years in office, Mr. Chavez has been such
a divisive and demagogic leader that his forced departure last week
drew applause at home and in Washington. That reaction, which we
shared, overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed.
Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly
he has performed, is never something to cheer."

Due to the misinformation
provided by U.S. media, much of which was fed from Venezuelan private
stations, the international community remained unaware of the actual
occurrences during the April 2002 coup, as did many Venezuelan citizens
whose only source of information was Venezuelan television. In fact, it
wasn't until the release of the documentary film, "The Revolution Will
Not Be Televised" in April 2003, one year after the coup, that the true
facts were revealed. The documentary, filmed by Irish directors Kim
Bartley and Donnacha O'Brian, contains on-scene footage of the Puente
Llaguno firefight, the takeover of the presidential palace, the
people's rebellion, Chávez's return to power and the massive media
distortion of events. It is a testimony of the media war occurring in
Venezuela, in which often, an outsider's eyes are the only ones able to
reveal the truth.

The Strike

The success of the media
coup in April 2002 gave the private media stations in Venezuela a
renewed sense of power. Despite the condemnation of their lack of
objectivity and accuracy in reporting by international watchdog groups
such as Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and
Amnesty International, the private media continued to engage in an
information war against the Venezuelan people. In December 2002, they
unleashed an all-out attack against the Chávez administration. As the
opposition declared a "general" strike, the media ensured its
implementation. Despite the fact that the strike was a lockout,
originating and imposed by bosses, owners and managers, rather than
workers, the private channels portrayed it as a massive general
worker's strike. This news was picked up around the world, and
perceived, although mistakenly, as an oil industry worker's strike,
supported by laborers and business owners throughout the nation. In
reality, high level managers and executives in the oil industry
sabotaged equipment, changed access codes and locked workers out of
computer information systems, halting production. Workers were forced
off jobs, business closed. The sabotage in the oil industry led to the
most severe gas shortage in Venezuelan history, crippling the economy
and destabilizing the nation for more than two months.

As millions of Venezuelans
were unable to work and had no gas to travel, they were forced to
remain at home and engage in the one free-of-cost activity still
available to them, watching television. The private media snatched up
the opportunity to launch the most massive information war ever
experienced in modern times. The four primary stations suspended all
regular programming throughout the duration of the 64-day strike: no
product commercials, no soap operas, no movies, no cartoons, no
sitcoms. They broadcast an average of 700 pro-opposition advertisements
each day, paid for by the stations themselves and by the opposition
umbrella group, Democratic Coordinator. Luis Britto Garcia reports
that, "No less than four television channels (to not bring in radio and
print media) joined together 24 hours a day in December 2002 and
January 2003, and broadcast 17,600 propaganda announcements against the
government, dedicating all of their programming, without a second of
rest, to denigrate the government through yellow journalism, to cause
all classes of alarm and rumors to invoke terror, precisely."

The situation was so severe
during those 64 days that Venezuelan citizens did not know which
information source to rely on; the private channels, or the government.
On the state-run Channel 8, the Minister of Education would state in a
press conference that all public universities and schools were open and
functioning normally, while the private media would broadcast
announcements claiming all public universities and schools were on
strike and closed down. In the end, Venezuelans were left with a
government denied access to media and a private media functioning as a
de facto government.

Perhaps most damaging was
the broadcast of violent images and opposition propaganda by all the
private stations during children's viewing hours, in explicit violation
of Venezuelan law. One Venezuelan testified how dramatically the media
war had affected his child: "Last night I made the mistake of not
checking if my six-year old was watching TV. He woke up in the middle
of the night in a cold sweat, hyperventilating, unable to breath. He
pleaded to be allowed to sleep with his mother and me. He was afraid
the "Chavistas" would come in the middle of the night and kill him."
This testimony is just one amongst thousands who fell victim to the
media's aggressive campaign to incite a climate of violence that would
induce either the resignation or ouster of President Chávez. Yet, the
media war in Venezuela may be directed against the government, but its
victims all along have been innocent citizens and children whose rights
to a socially responsible, accurate and objective media have been
consistently denied by the privately owned channels.

The Media Reform Movement and The Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television: A Solution?

After the fallout, where
does Venezuela go from here? As the media war wages on in Venezuela,
the government is struggling to find democratic solutions.
Interestingly, Venezuela's current media battle contains striking
parallels to the current media reform movement in the United States,
which claims ever-expanding corporate media conglomerates are
threatening democratic order. Venezuela could precisely be the
worst-case scenario of this media reform movement; the case in point of
what can happen when media monopolies control all information sources
and impose their own agendas on the public.

Proponents of media reform
claim that the current media system operating in the U.S. fails to
provide basic support for citizens and fails to protect or promulgate
the public interest. Scholars such as Noam Chomsky theorize that the
media today serve and propagandize on behalf of powerful societal
interests that control and finance them. Chomsky explains this
phenomenon by viewing major media as corporations "selling" privileged
audiences to other business. The picture of the world presented by the
media reflects the perspectives and interests of the sellers, buyers
and the product. The structure of media in the U.S. is dominated by
about ten transnational corporations including, Disney, AOL Time
Warner, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi Universal, Sony, Liberty,
Bertelsmann, AT&T-Comcast and General Electric (NBC). Similar to
the situation in Venezuela, many of these media outlets also have
holdings in numerous other media-related sectors outside
telecommunications, including film production, recorded music,
television production, book publishing, magazine publishing and
Internet service provision.

In the United States, as
Noam Chomsky articulates, concentration of ownership of the media is
high and increasing, and often those in managerial positions in the
media belong to the same privileged elites as the corporate owners.
Their attitudes and objectives are often the same, and journalists
entering the system are forced to conform to these ideological
pressures or be excluded from the commercial media industry. In
Venezuela, media owners, managers and journalists all tend to be on the
same side, projecting the same voice, even at the expense of journalism
ethics, objectivity and balance. The orders may come down from above,
but the journalists are willing to execute them, despite the explicit
abandonment of their own professional codes.

Media reformists call for
tighter regulatory standards and more public access to media in order
to avoid this corporate control on information and wayward journalism.
In essence, a return to the Fairness Doctrine or parallel standard that
promulgates balance, diversity and public interest in media. U.S.
journalist Bill Moyers warns that, "It's a reality: democracy can't
exist without an informed public...So I say without qualification that
it's not simply the cause of journalism that's at stake today, but the
cause of American liberty itself." These words ring true in Venezuela
today. While the Venezuelan public has lost all confidence, credibility
and trust in journalists, even worse has been the loss of liberty and
basic rights that have been denied to Venezuelans during the media coup
and ongoing media war.

Venezuela's response to the
media war has been the creation of its own version of the Fairness
Doctrine. The Venezuelan National Assembly is presently debating the
enactment of the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television
("LSRRT"), which proposes to guarantee public access to media and
ensure broadcasting during children's viewing hours abides by socially
responsible guidelines. The LSRRT was already approved by the National
Assembly Commission on Science, Technology and Social Communications
Media in May 2003 and should enter into final debate for passage by
Venezuela's general National Assembly before the end of the 2004 term.

Despite its objective of
balance and diversity in media, the LSRRT has come under heightened
scrutiny and attack by international journalism organizations,
including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without
Borders and watchdog groups such as Human Rights Watch, who have been
quick to declare the proposed law jeopardizes the vast freedom of
expression enjoyed by Venezuelan journalists and citizens alike by
attempting to regulate content. Yet the LSRRT does not contain any
provisions that endeavor to control the content of programming on
private media stations, rather, it proposes to enforce regulations
concerning appropriate broadcasts during children's viewing hours and
to support independent media outlets, democratization of radio and
television and public access to and participation in communications

Despite the outcry by
private media outlets in Venezuela and groups such as Human Rights
Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, many of the provisions
and basic ideas behind the LSRRT are familiar to proponents of media
reform and those aware of the legal history of communications law in
the United States. Venezuela's current debate over the LSRRT is decades
old in the United States. While the FCC has recently leaned toward
deregulation, these underlying concepts of fairness, public access and
equal airtime continue to prevail in U.S. policy and lawmaking, as
evidenced in Section II of this paper.

Today, it is the broadcast
media that serve to disseminate ideas to the populace. With the growth
of media conglomerates owned by the influential and profit-oriented,
these broadcasters influence the public in a manner inconceivable to
the authors of the U.S. Constitution. Nowadays, instead of promoting a
diversity of viewpoints, broadcast media merely perpetuate a monopoly
of ideas from the political and sociological mainstream. As has been
demonstrated in the case of Venezuela, media is used to advance
political agendas, often at the expense of ethics and constitutional
order. In order to put an end to the media war in Venezuela and prevent
such similar information wars in the U.S. and other nations struggling
against ever-expanding media conglomerates, it is necessary to open a
space for people's voices in the media. To create a media that serves
the public and advances the goals of democratic nations, self-governed
by the people and for the people.

Eduardo Galeano cleverly
proposes, "Do people watch the game or do they play it? When a
democracy is real, shouldn't people be on the field? Is democracy
exercised only every four, five or six years, when you cast your vote?
Or is it exercised every day of every year?" The people's defense in
Venezuela and the U.S. against media conglomerates is to stop watching
and start playing - to be given voice, to be seen and heard. Only then
will true democracy prevail.