VENEZUELA: Revolution extends free speech

February 16, 2005

Stuart Munckton

In an editorial on January 14 attacking the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the Washington Post wrote, "Mr. Chavez has pushed through a new law that allows the government to fine or shut down private media for vaguely defined offenses against 'public order'."

That this is not true has not stopped repeated claims in the US media that the "authoritarian" Chavez is attempting to "silence critics". Such claims have become a standard feature of US media articles about Venezuela.

The law referred to by the Washington Post is the Law on the Responsibility of Radio and Television passed by the National Assembly in November. It does not allow for the silencing of dissent, but merely introduces the same type of regulation of content that exists in most countries in the world. The law regulates when sexual and violent content can be shown, prevents slander against public officials and private citizens and seeks to guarantee space in the media market for independent media. The law does provide for fines and the suspension of broadcasting for 48 hours for repeated violations, but the law is not administered by the government, but by an independent body.

To understand why the Venezuelan government has felt it necessary to introduce this law, it is important to understand the role of the private media in Venezuela since Chavez came to power six years ago. The overwhelming majority of private TV, radio and print media have not only made no pretense at impartiality — they have led the campaign to overthrow the legitimately elected Chavez government.

In a comment piece posted at Venezuela Analysis on September 25, Eva Golinger argues that the two traditional parties that had governed Venezuela for four decades were so discredited because of their support for neoliberal policies that the private media stepped in to fill the role of political opposition to the pro-poor policies of Chavez.

The five main private TV channels and nine out of 10 national newspapers campaign against Chavez. Golinger reported that the five major TV stations control at least 90% of the market. Demonstrations by opposition supporters have received blanket coverage, while much larger pro-government demonstrations have been ignored.

A media coup

If this opposition was simply biased coverage, the government may simply have been able to develop alternatives. However, the private media played a crucial role in the military coup of April 11, 2002, that overthrew Chavez and installed the head of the Chamber of Commerce in power — before a popular uprising of the poor restored Chavez as president. The private media gave blanket coverage to calls for opposition demonstrations on the day of the coup.

When government supporters on the streets returned fire against unknown snipers, the private media distorted footage to make it appear as though they were firing on unarmed opposition supporters. This footage became the key justification for the coup. After Chavez was overthrown, coup leaders appeared on TV thanking the media for their assistance. When the uprising by the poor began, the private TV channels refused to broadcast it, showing soap operas and cartoons instead.

In December 2002 — when the bosses locked workers out to try to defeat them, especially in the oil industry — the private media repeated this role. Golinger wrote, "The four primary [TV] stations suspended all regular programming throughout the duration [of the lockout]. They broadcast an average of 700 pro-opposition advertisements each day, paid for by the stations themselves and by the opposition umbrella group, Democratic Coordinator."

The problem goes deeper than simply the question of percentages in support of a particular president. The majority of the population — the urban and rural working people — are excluded from access to the media, in the same way that they have always been excluded from the political process.

Freedom of speech has been a formal right in Venezuela for decades. But while the media is so monopolised, it cannot become a reality. Golinger points out that for "several decades, commercial television in Venezuela has belonged to an oligopoly of two families, the Cisneros, who own Venevision, and the Bottome & Granier Group, which owns Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) and Radio Caracas Radio."

The Cisneros family also own more than 70 media outlets in 39 countries, as well as Coca Cola bottling, Regional beer and Pizza Hut inside Venezuela. It is only to be expected that with such economic interests, it would be hostile to the anti-capitalist policies of the Chavez government.

The Bolivarian process is helping to break this media domination down and start to spread freedom of speech around. Faced with a hostile private media, supporters of Chavez in the poor neighbourhoods have begun to organise their own media. As the working people have begun organising themselves to win political power, there has been an accompanying explosion in media run by and for the poor communities. This has involved newspapers, TV programs and especially radio stations.

Community radio stations have been crucial to informing the poor and helping organise them to defend their interests. While the growth of community media is largely a grassroots movement, the Chavez government has both encouraged and helped facilitate it.

The new constitution adopted by popular vote in 1999 legalised a number of what had until then been illegal "pirate" radio stations and guaranteed access to community-based media as a right. The government has made funds available to help finance the growth of community media.

For all the accusations that the Chavez government is curtailing freedom of speech, it has not shut down a single media outlet — or given itself the power to do so. By protecting the right to community media, it has actually extended free speech, giving media access to those who have never had it. This process, which is still developing, is aiming at democratising the media, thus making freedom of speech not simply a formality but a living reality.

In an interview with Justin Podour on the ZNet website on September 13 last year, Blanca Eekhout, director of the new national community based TV channel Vive, which receives government support, commented "[Vive's] intention is to make visible the population that has been excluded to date — the majority — afro-descendent, campesino, indigenous, who were erased from the possibility of appearing in the media until now."

Jeroen Kuiper, in a November 30 Venezuela Analysis article about a trip to the poor neighbourhood of Pinto Salenas in Western Caracas, interviewed Carlos Lujo, the director of the community radio station operating there, Radio Negro Primero 92.5 FM, which was named after an indigenous freedom fighter. Lujo told Kuiper that the station was used by "students, housewives, unemployed people, members of community organisations, politicians". Although the station is not run by the government, Lujo estimated that 80% of the neighbourhood voted for Chavez. The station is one of more than 300 "free media" radio stations that now exist across the country.

Latin American TV channel

The push to extend free speech has not stopped at Venezuela's borders. The Chavez government has launched an ambitious project to develop a Latin America-wide media outlet. At the moment, the only Latin America-wide TV channel is Spanish-language CNN. Unsurprisingly, this channel repeats the bias of the rest of the US media — the Venezuelan government has sent a formal letter of complaint about distorted coverage of recent events in Venezuela.

A Venezuela Analysis article from January 25 reported that the Venezuelan government had formally launched its planned Latin America wide TV channel, known as Telesur, which is scheduled to start broadcasting in March. Although the Venezuelan government was the only shareholder when Telesur was originally launched, the aim is to convince as many other Latin American governments to sign on, with Argentina already agreeing to join the project. The Venezuelan government hopes that the TV channel will be able to empower the people of the continent and counter the domination of pro-US media monopolies.

It is clear that despite the standard line pushed by the US media about Chavez's alleged attacks on freedom of speech, the process led by the Chavez government is moving in the opposite direction — helping bring free speech to the previously excluded majority not just in Venezuela but across the continent.

From Green Left Weekly, February 16, 2005.
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