Venezuela and Chavez

When it comes to Venezuela, it’s impossible to understand today’s media landscape without thinking about Hugo Chavez. The controversial Venezuelan president is one of the most media savvy politicians in the Americas. Alo Presidente, Chavez weekly radio/television show, is an unscripted, populist stage, but it serves Chavez well. His countrymen see him as the populist hero, who sings, rides around in tractors, or horses, and explains his hopes, ambitions, dreams, and plans to the average Venezuelan.

Venezuela is technically a free media market. The commercial sector has a long history in the country, and what Chavez has done is curtail their influence. He did not renew the license for Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), a media company that supported the 2002 failed coup against Chavez. He has also openly criticized and ridiculed any media outlets that dare speak against him. But it doesn’t stop there, as journalists can probably live with ridicule. Censorship, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. With a new law governing media content, Venezuelan media cannot broadcast anything that can be deemed against national security, they cannot “disrespect” the president or other government officials, and cannot broadcast information that could cause civil unrest, which is a direct jab at the media’s role in the 2002 Coup (Diehl, 2005). RCTV, Venevision, and Globovision strongly supported the coup. However, Chavez only shut down RCTV, surprisingly waiting five years to do so.

Moreover, Chavez’s controversial closing of RCTV is still felt. The station, no longer free to broadcast over the air, made the move to cable and was still available there. However, in late January of 2010, cable companies dropped RCTV and 6 other stations. The reason? they failed to broadcast Chavez’s speeches, and were thus deemed in violation of Venezuelan telecommunications law (Bright, 2010). In 2003, a new statute required all Venezuelan broadcasters to broadcast government announcements in matters including, but not limited to, development policies, education, conservation, and democratic participation. The speeches, probably, fall under any of those rubrics.

Duffy and Everton, in their chapter  in, Global Communications: Toward a Transcultural Political Economy, try to explain the government’s position. To them the measures introduced in the Media Law passed in 2003 are very similar to statutes in place in Canada, Europe, and the United States. They include a ratings system, to protect children, and “prioritize social and cultural objectives above the commercial imperatives of owners” (Duffy & Everton, 2008, p. 137). The authors, who from the tone of their writing, are very much in favor of the Chavez communication policies — in terms of promoting community access to broadcasting, the government has, in fact opened up spaces for marginalized groups — have to rationalize the need for reform. While they admit that “open ended language in these clauses could open the door to authoritarian abuses in the future” (p. 137), they wax optimistically about the Venezuelan experience:

These measures suggest both an innovative model of the state as facilitator of relatively autonomous participatory democratic initiative and also the possibility of a post-neoliberal communicative order based on a radical reconceptualization of democratic communication rights. While history unfortunately offers no guarantees, and Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution is a complex political phenomenon with its own potential internal contradictions, it is nonetheless possible that this trajectory of structural media reform could indeed play an important role in the construction of a democratic “socialism for the twenty-first century” (Duffy & Everton, 2008, p. 139)

I do agree that developing a stronger community media fosters greater democratic participation. However, I fail to see how quashing dissent can be liberating to anyone. In fact, I also fail to see how the closing of RCTV can be construed as anything other than censorship. In 2007, as the closing was announced, Reuters suggested that the big beneficiary from the closing would be Venevision, another one of Venezuela’s top media companies. Gustavo Cisneros, the owner of Venevision, is also part-owner of Univision. He met with Chavez, according to Reuters, and agreed to stop criticizing the government. In return, Venevision had its license renewed, while RCTV, who became even more virulent, lost its license (Reuters, 2007). I don’t know how these events fit into Duffy and Everton’s rosy views of the Venezuelan media landscape.

Isn’t that interesting?

According to Human Rights Watch, the media laws in Venezuela promote self-censorship. The government can use the legal system to persecute the opposition, which has left the Venezuelan public airwaves practically deprived of opposing viewpoints. Globovision is the only television station left that is still openly critical of the president. In July of 2009, 32 radio stations lost their licenses for the same reason (Human Rights Watch, 2009).

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References

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