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Venezuela: Chávez’s war on independent media

By Index on Censorship / 25 June, 2009

globovision10Steps taken by the government to remove Globovisión’s free-to-air licence poses a fresh threat to the country’s independent media. Daniel Duquenal reports

In a move that signals a renewed attack on Venezuela’s independent media, President Hugo Chávez’s government fined the broadcaster Globovisión the equivalent of $4.1 million on 5 June for tax avoidance and broadcasting on unauthorised airwaves.

Globovisión transmits free-to-air over three states and the capital Caracas, as well as being available nationally through cable television. In its attempts to silence the network, the government employs two strategies. The first is to bankrupt Globovisión. This is pursued by harassing its directors and accusing them of the most ridiculous crimes, for example, the ecological “crime” of possessing old animal hunting trophies. Along the way, ridiculous fines have been levied on Globovisión and old lawsuits have been revived. But this approach is backfiring. On 13 and 14 June, ordinary Venezuelans, in their droves, donated money to public collection centres set up by Globovisión to bail out the beleaguered broadcaster. It seems the fines will be paid by the audience of Globovisión.

The government is also trying to close down Globovisión via the courts, or at the very least to change its licence to cable-only status. President Chávez is leading this attack himself by demanding all the powers of the state, including the High Court, condemn Globovisión. All obliged and took measures against Globovisión in the days that followed.

From almost the beginning of Chávez’s rule in 1999 to his re-election in 2006 we have witnessed a consistent increase in pressure on the free media. “Free media” here denotes media that is not afraid to criticise government actions, mildly or otherwise. At one point or another all have come under attack. For example, in the troubled years of 2002-2004, critical journalists were accused of being mercenaries and became fair game for pro-Chávez mobs. Many journalists have been killed, injured and sent to trial, actions that have now been duly condemned by all sorts of major international organisations.

But Venezuelan journalists showed their mettle. Donning bulletproof vests and helmets, they kept reporting. A second measure of control — the law on “Social Responsibility in Radio and Television” — became necessary. That law restricted the type of information that could be broadcast according to the perceived audience, with disproportionate penalties distributed accordingly. For example, coverage of violence, strikes and the like could only be shown after 11pm. The overall objective was to try to generate self-censorship. The government also reserved the right to emit — free of charge — a certain number of “institutional” messages, which most of the time were mere propaganda.

However, Chávez’s biggest weapon is the cadena, the simultaneous mandatory broadcast of official messages on all TV and all radio stations. The cadena was originally introduced as a way of announcing national disasters or glories, and has been transformed by Chávez into his main propaganda platform. Some weeks he will give almost one cadena a day, each lasting from one to three hours (some have gone past the five-hour mark). There are only two ways to escape a cadena: turn off your TV or radio, or subscribe to cable TV and watch a foreign channel.

Yet all of this was not enough to ensure Chávez dominated the airwaves. The second period of Chávez’s onslaught was designed to obtain a majority presence in state media. It started in a modest manner — by making the state media (VTV and RNV) purely Chávez propaganda outlets. But soon new networks were added, both radio and TV. The government pursued its goal, announced by information minister Andres Izarra in 2007, of a “communications hegemony” — the state as the sole source of information.

The culmination of this phase was the year 2007, when Chávez decided to close RCTV under the flimsy pretext of not renewing its free-to-air concession. The real reason was that RCTV had the largest coverage in Venezuela and usually its largest audience. RCTV was also very critical of the Chávez regime. By transferring the RCTV broadcasting system to a new “public service” system named Tves, the government killed two birds with one stone: silencing its main critic and reaching areas where before RCTV had been the sole free-to-air broadcaster. The strategy backfired badly and contributed greatly to the loss of a constitutional reform referendum in December 2007, denying Chávez the increased powers he sought. Since then the government was forced to review its communications strategy and that is why we are now seeing a renewed attack.

Since May 2007, when RCTV was closed, Venezuela has seen an extraordinary increase in cable TV subscription, driven not only by the incessant stream of cadenas but also because RCTV had the best soap operas. A 14 June article in El Universal claimed that now at least 16 million Venezuelans, more than half the population, have access to cable TV. This number is probably significantly higher, as the illegal pirate market for cable connections is acknowledged as large and difficult to measure. The cable market has expanded enough that now RCTV enjoys decent ratings.

The relatively unfavourable results of the regional elections of 2008 convinced the government that the opposition was still reaching voters, in particular in the key cities — richest in votes — of Caracas and Valencia. These two constituencies are also some of the few places where Globovisión broadcasts free-to-air.

The current strategy is to silence Globovisión and control the cable TV system. The latter will be subject to a new law limiting the presence of foreign media and also forcing the transmission of “institutional” messages. The excuse for these restrictions — according to Representative Luis Tascon, creator of the Tascon List, which published the names of people who had signed an anti-Chávez petition — is that the foreign media makes “fraudulent offerings”. One example is National Geographic’s transmission of political programmes unfavourable to Venezuela. Then again, we should expect these types of excuses from a government that banned the Simpsons from our TV sets.

Silencing news channel Globovisión will be more difficult, but this is not stopping Chávez — even he must be aware that whatever is left of his reputation as a democrat will disappear once he accomplishes it. Whether the closure of Globovisión is successful is far from settled, as even the reticent US State Department is starting to speak out against some Latin American governments’ attacks on the press. Indeed, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is having his own disputes with TeleAmazonas. The stakes are high but unfortunately Chávez has too many things to hide: after ten years of rule, fatigue has set in, incompetence has become obvious and corruption flares up everywhere. An autocrat is of course tempted to shoot any messenger.

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