Copyright 2007 The Weekly Standard
The Weekly Standard
March 5, 2007 Monday ARTICLES Vol. 12 No. 24
Hugo Chávez consolidates his hold on Venezuela's media.
BY: Blanquita Cullum, The Weekly Standard
Caracas. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez proclaims he is building a new sort of socialism, a "21st-century" variety. But the socialism emerging in Venezuela resembles all too closely the old-fashioned kind of state-run economy that Eastern Europeans rejected the first chance they got, and that now persists only in decrepit police states like Cuba, Zimbabwe, and North Korea.
As he begins his third--and, if he has his way, by no means last--presidential term, Chávez has announced he is nationalizing Venezuela's telecommunications and electricity companies. A supine parliament has voted Chávez the power to rule by decree for the next 18 months, which means he can nationalize away by just declaring a business or an industry nationalized. And he has wasted no time doing so. His latest target for nationalization--following the imposition of price controls on food--is the country's supermarkets. And once he has control of all food distribution, Chávez has suggested he will move on with what he calls the "socialization of all national production."
Not surprisingly, 21st-century socialism has its critics, and in dealing with them, Chávez is also following a well-worn path. Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, is Venezuela's oldest private television station and has the largest audience share in the country. In January, Chávez announced that RCTV--the equivalent of, say, NBC in the United States--would cease broadcasting after its license expires on May 27. He accused the station of spreading disinformation and broadcasting programs that violate Venezuela's 2004 media law, which subjects broadcasters to heavy fines or the loss of their licenses for disseminating information "contrary to national security"--a judgment Chávez himself can make. He has also accused RCTV's general manager, Marcel Granier, of involvement in the 2002 coup that briefly removed Chávez from power.
Chávez's decision not to renew RCTV's license was clearly political. Venezuela's Roman Catholic Church and the Organization of American States condemned the move. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders warned in an open letter to Chávez that the decision would severely limit "editorial pluralism." The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was alarmed about the decision's "lack of transparency." Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, told the Chicago Tribune that it was "hard to imagine a more obvious case of censorship."
RCTV has maintained its regular lineup of news and entertainment programs--including game shows and soap operas--and has not gone on the offensive against Chávez. It has already survived a 2003 bombing and the arrival of army reservists outside its headquarters carrying machine guns. But time is definitely running out.
The move against RCTV is just one of many that the Chávez government has taken against Venezuela's independent media. The country's 2005 penal code mandates prison sentences for anyone who "offends with his words or in writing or in any other way disrespects the President of the Republic or whoever is fulfilling his duties," who makes comments that "expose another person to contempt or public hatred," or who "causes public panic or anxiety" with reports deemed inaccurate.
In conversations with independent Venezuelan journalists and media owners during a visit to Caracas early this year, I was told that the Chávez government is gradually silencing critical media. The government imposes punitive taxes and fines, arbitrarily applies laws and regulations, and brings charges of criminal defamation. The government, they said, delayed renewing licenses for various stations until after last December's presidential election as a way to hold networks "over the precipice" and thereby force them to exercise self-censorship. They said that by refusing to renew the license of RCTV, Chávez is sending a message to all other media that he has the power to do what he wants with Venezuela's radio and TV stations.
Journalists from privately owned independent media do not have access to cover government hearings, I was told. Chávez does not give interviews and will not allow local journalists to attend and cover events at the presidential palace. Only the government's broadcast network, Venezolana de Televisión, has access. The government does not allow other officials to be interviewed. And the government requires independent media to broadcast five hours' worth of programming every week chosen by the Ministry of Communication.
At the same time, Chávez rewards newspapers and stations that favor his policies by placing full-page ads and purchasing airtime. Such government-generated revenue streams are becoming more important for broadcast media, since stations are forced to go to live transmissions of the president's speeches on a whim, usually during prime time. This results in large losses of ad revenues because Chávez's speeches, like those once given by his now-ailing mentor in Havana, can last up to five hours. Every weekend he hosts a lengthy television show called "Halo Presidente"--which is now moving to Thursday night primetime, with radio rebroadcasts Fridays, Mondays, and Wednesdays. Chávez promises to fill the old Sunday television slot with "surprises."
Meanwhile, government and pro-government media continue to churn out propaganda aimed at portraying private media as political actors seeking to destabilize and overthrow the government. Mario Silva García, the engaging, populist-style moderator of VTV's program La Hojilla (The Razor), regularly attacks opposition media like RCTV from a set adorned with huge pictures of Chávez, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and other revolutionaries.
The independent Venezuelan journalists and media owners with whom I met told me they believe that the Chávez government, if left unchecked, will likely eliminate all of the country's independent media over the next five years. But they also said that Chávez is very concerned about his image, manufactured by Venezuela's government and pro-government media, as a democratic leader. This means, they stressed, that international media have a pivotal role to play in focusing attention on Chávez's crippling of Venezuela's independent press.
Blanquita Cullum, a radio talk show host, is chairwoman of the Talk Radio First Amendment Committee and a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S international broadcasting.