Posted on Mon, Jan. 29, 2007
Hugo Chávez's government has steadily expanded its reach into the country's media, while curbing private outlets.
BY STEVEN DUDLEY
CARACAS - On a typical night on Venezolana de Televisión, the government's principal TV channel, viewers can catch interviews of a Cabinet minister and a pro-government community leader as well as a late-night talkshow host taking rhetorical jabs at the opposition. In between, there's a constant barrage of pro-government ads, one of which proclaims VTV is ``the channel of all Venezuelans.''
For many Venezuelans, VTV, as it's known, is the preferred alternative to private channels they consider poisoned by political and business interests whose sole aim is to topple President Hugo Chávez. For others, VTV is propaganda, more befitting of the old Soviet Union than modern Latin America. For all, VTV may be the future.
Since 2002, Chávez's government has steadily expanded its reach into the country's media, all the while curbing private outlets via stricter laws on programming, tightening controls on government-issued licenses and even brokering backroom deals with media moguls to silence them.
Today, in addition to VTV, the government runs three other television channels, one major and nearly 150 community radio stations, one news agency, one daily and more than 70 community newspapers and 24 websites.
ON THE DECLINE
Meanwhile, the private media is shrinking. A recent government decision to not renew the broadcast license of Venezuela's top rated private station, RCTV, has provoked widespread condemnation in Venezuela and abroad. From the Organization of American States to Reporters Without Borders, critics have said the government's decision is an attempt to silence its opposition.
RCTV President Marcel Granier Thursday insisted the station's license runs until 2022 and said the government plan to lift it this year ``is violating, in a flagrant manner, not only the country's constitution but also international agreements.''
Chávez has been rough on his enemies, often via VTV, which carries all his speeches and public appearances. The former army lieutenant colonel who participated in a failed 1992 coup before winning presidential elections in 1998, has called President Bush the ''devil'' and once took sexist and racist jabs at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Chávez also has not hidden his disdain for RCTV. Even though it hasn't been charged with breaking any laws, Chávez repeatedly accused the station of ''coup mongering,'' a reference to RCTV President Granier's alleged participation in a brief coup against the president in 2002 and his open support of a crippling national strike later that year.
Granier denies the accusation about the coup plot. But RCTV and other private TV stations gave broad coverage to the coup, then switched to cartoons and movies when loyal military officers and Chávez supporters dramatically retook the palace to restore Chávez to power two days later.
It was that coup that persuaded Chávez he needed a stronger voice in the media, VTV President Jesús Romero Anselmi told The Miami Herald.
''The government didn't know how to defend itself against the television screen,'' said Romero. ``And the government said, `We've got to do something about this.'''
Chávez allies in the legislature approved a 2004 law that tightened restrictions on the time slots when all TV and radio stations could talk about certain subjects -- sex and violence -- and threatened to shut down stations if they criticized government officials. The law has led to widespread self-censorship from once critical outlets.
The most blatant example has been Venevisión. With the help of former President Jimmy Carter, Chávez secretly met with Gustavo Cisneros, the owner of Venevisión, during which the two agreed to halt their feud because, as Minister of Communications Willian Lara told one journalist, ``Cisneros understood that his [business] was business, not politics.''
Venevisión is now known popularly as the ''Disney Channel'' for avoiding controversy in its news programs and showing cartoons during much of the rest of its airtime.
''Venevisión is on its knees,'' said Teodoro Petkoff, the editor of TalCual newspaper and a critic of the Chávez regime.
At the same time, the government put close to $40 million into VTV, upgrading equipment, buying vehicles and satellites, and doubling the staff.
What it lacks in sophistication, the station makes up for with a dogmatic approach that energizes its followers by repeatedly reminding them that the opposition media, politicians and the Bush administration are ready to pounce if they let their guard down.
The most extreme VTV program is its late night talkshow ''The Razor,'' in which host Mario Silva rips into opposition politicians and journalists with an often vulgar insensibility much like that of Chávez himself. In one program, Silva tore into a journalist who had recently lost his son to a brain tumor, making a veiled reference to the child.
Silva does not hide his pro-Chávez and ''revolutionary'' stance. He wears Chávez T-shirts, Che Guevara hats and has a huge photo of Fidel Castro behind him. He is also under investigation by the National Electoral Council for breaking laws governing how much pro-Chávez propaganda he put on his show during the presidential campaign last year.
VTV President Romero said he understands that ''The Razor'' pushes the limits, but he also attacks the private media for what he calls its ''venomous'' and ''racist'' attacks on Chávez and his supporters. He defends his programming and adds that the station's slogan, ''the channel for all the Venezuelans,'' is not just rhetoric.
''The Ministry of Communications never pressures me,'' he said of his programming choices before adding, ``Sure, they call me once in a while. But it's their right. It's their station. They just give me commentary.''
VTV is but one station of what has become a media empire for Chávez. The government has put millions of dollars more into creating and developing Telesur, a 24-hour news station, that is housed in the floor above VTV and has small bits of financing from Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba and Bolivia.
It has started ANTV, to cover the actions of a Chávez-dominated legislature, and ViveTV, to have a more youth-oriented station.
''The struggle is falling into the ideological camp that is a battle of ideas for the hearts and minds of the people,'' former Communications Minister and current Telesur President Andrés Izarra told El Nacional newspaper earlier this month. The government also has said it will take over Channel 2 -- the channel that RCTV controls until its license lapses on May 28.
Communications Minister Lara told The Miami Herald that it will not be a clone of VTV and will be independent, something critics of the government have a hard time believing.
''This is the first government that understands the importance of the media and is using it as a means of indoctrination,'' said Antonio Pasquali, a professor and observer of the media in Venezuela for four decades. ``And their fundamental intention is to eliminate any voices of dissent.''
GAINING CONTROL OF MASS MEDIA
Since 2002, President Hugo Chávez has made a concerted effort to gain control of Venezuela's mass media. The following is a list of government-controlled media:
• VTV -- covers government speeches, and hosts officials and pro-government activists on numerous talk shows.
• ANTV -- covers legislative assembly.
• ViveTV -- youth-oriented network.
• Telesur -- 24-hour news station, mostly controlled by the Venezuelan government; Argentine, Bolivian and Cuban governments own minority stake.
• Channel 2 -- A channel the government will take over in May from private RCTV. It's not known what the station will do, but the government says it will maintain control.
Radio Nacional de Venezuela covers official events and gives official point of view.
146 low-power community stations.
• Bolivarian News Agency -- state news agency.
• Vea -- daily newspaper.
• A Plena Voz -- cultural magazine.
72 community newspapers.
24 government websites.
66 sites that proclaim some affinity to the ``Bolivarian Alternative.''
Sources: Ministry of Communications, Miami Herald research, Venezuelan media researcher Antonio Pasquali