Eat the Press


Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s recent battle with Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) has received substantial media coverage around the world.

On 1 June, Simon Romero wrote in The New York Times that ‘on Sunday, the [Chávez] Government closed the dissident station’. In The Australian on 21 May, Christian Oliver from Reuters presented the general line about developments in Caracas, stating:

During the failed 2002 coup against Mr Chávez, which was led by business and military leaders, opposition channels showed cartoons and films while massive crowds of Mr Chávez’s supporters mobilised for a counter-attack.

Since then, Chávez has accused private television channels of manipulating the news. But that goes both ways: this week, while opposition channel Globovisión showed tens of thousands of protesters swelling the streets, Venezuelan State television showed empty roads and groups of five or 10 protesters walking to the march.

In fact, the Caracas Administration has not closed down RCTV but instead chosen not to renew the station’s broadcasting licence, which was up for reassessment this year. According to the Government, RCTV is responsible for over 652 infractions of communications codes, and has refused to pay numerous fines. Of 400 other media outlets whose licences were up for renewal on May 27, only RCTV was rejected.

In most democratic countries, the process of reviewing broadcasting licences is quite normal. The current procedure in Venezuela with RCTV is based on a law established in 1987 — nearly a decade before Globovisión came to power. And RCTV and its two radio stations are still able to broadcast through cable and the internet.

RCTV and other private channels such as Globovisión played a significant role in the April 2002 coup d’état. Roughly 60 people were left dead, hundreds were wounded and the country’s democratically elected President was kidnapped.

Harshly criticising a government one dislikes is one thing; telling lies to rally others around your criticisms of the incumbent leader is another. But publicly calling for a government’s violent overthrow, succeeding and then boasting about it is in an entire universe of its own.

Chávez was restored to power by the actions of poor Venezuelans who took to the streets, and he was physically rescued by loyal forces within the military. He wasn’t executed only because soldiers assigned to the task refused their orders. The events of the April 2002 coup still stir up bitter memories for the country.

This is particularly the case with the role played by opposition media RCTV (owned by Venezuela ‘s wealthy Phelps family) and Globovisión, which belongs to one of Latin America’s wealthiest men, Gustavo Cisneros, whose fortune is estimated at roughly $US4 billion.

In 2002, the award-winning documentary ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ showed the world how poorly many in Venezuela’s private media behaved during the coup. The film shows that RCTV manipulated footage to make viewers believe that Chávez supporters had fired on unarmed Opposition demonstrators on 11 April. This was then repeatedly used as a justification for a coup.

The film also shows some of the key coup organisers boasting about a meeting where they planned a media montage for the coup. Both Globovisión and RCTV were specifically thanked live on air by the golpistas (coup plotters) for their role in Chávez’s overthrow.

Venezuelan observer James Jordan recently pointed out, that RCTV broadcast calls for the Opposition to march on the Presidential palace at the height of tensions under the guise of reclaiming democracy. It also hosted golpistas on its programs after Chávez was kidnapped. Jordan writes:

There is no doubt, and no dispute, that RCTV and the three other largest corporate television stations (Globovisión, Venevision, and Televen) aided and abetted the ensuing coup throughout the three day period it was being carried out.

Furthermore, according to Jordan, Andres Izarra an ex-producer with RCTV who now works with TeleSur has been quite candid about the machinations of RCTV in terms of the footage they were told to black out. Jordan notes that when asked about what should happen with RCTV due to its past actions, Izarra replied, ‘I think their licenses should be revoked.’

Five years after the coup, the Caracas Administration did just that.

Was there another solution to this matter? Well, perhaps. One argument is that the Chávez Government should have taken RCTV and Globovisión to court after April 2002. This position sounds reasonable except for one thing: the lack of independence of the Venezuelan judiciary shortly after the coup. Four months after the coup d’état the golpistas were acquitted by Venezuela’s judicial system in a decision which defied all evidence and logic.

Having escaped justice, most of these military leaders continued their calls to violently overthrow the President. Only when new judges were inaugurated and the military was purged of golpistas did the coup leaders become worried, eventually fleeing to Colombia and Miami.

If this is the treatment the coup participants received under Venezuela’s old courts, what could one expect them to do to a few managers and journalists who also had their hands dirty?

After April 2002, the embattled Government attempted to reconcile with the Opposition. Pursuing RCTV, Globovisión and Televen for their actions during the coup would hardly have been proof of Chávez’s sincerity. To make matters worse, towards the end of 2002 and into 2003, much of Venezuela was paralysed by a crippling strike – a managers’ lockout to be precise – and the Administration in Caracas was again under siege by these stations.

So, should the Venezuelan Government have renewed RCTV’s broadcasting licence in 2007? My answer is yes.

While only a cursory look at the actions by RCTV’s managers and journalists would have them in prison for decades in most democracies, there is the question of why an entire network should pay the price for the actions of some of the people working there. Were the silicon telenovela actresses, technicians and coffee boys of RCTV in constant contact with the coup plotters as well? Surely not.

Though not allowing RCTV to renew its licence is hardly evidence that freedom of the press no longer exists in Venezuela — there are over 118 newspaper companies still active — it is a poor political move by Chávez and approximately 70 per cent of Venezuelans did not agree with the Government’s decision.

Although Chávez’s Government is overwhelmingly popular and working for the poor unlike almost every administration before it, his supporters do the Venezuelan people no favours by uncritically cheering every move of the flamboyant Head of State.

When the current affairs program ‘Dossier,’ by outstanding journalist Walter Martínez, a nine-time winner of Venezuela ‘s version of the Pulitzer Prize, was taken off air in September 2005, the silence from Chávez’s international supporters was deafening.

Showered with praise and awards by the Government for his sharp analysis and criticism of, among others, the Bush Administration, Martínez believed he should apply the same journalistic standards to the Chávez Government on the issue of corruption.

Unfortunately, Martínez was given an ultimatum by Government officials: retract your statements or say goodbye to your program on State television. Martínez chose the latter.

Though it is hard to shed tears for the likes of RCTV, it is also unhealthy to have a man with his own TV program (Aló Presidente!) talking for four, five and even six hours on air at a time.

Popular street media is flourishing in Venezuela, some of it quite creative and high quality. Importantly, most Afro-Indian Venezuelans – over 80 per cent of the population – can now, for a change, see themselves on television.

However, these new outlets are also strongly pro-Chávez. The treatment issued to Martínez should give Venezuelans and Chávez’s international supporters food for thought.

If one day in the land of Simón Bolívar the only views one hears are pro-Chávez, the revolution will certainly have turned somewhat stale.

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