Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ run-ins with the press have been well documented, but how do actual freedoms here match up with those in the region?
In 2007 some journalists’ rights groups criticized the decision of the Venezuelan government not to renew the public broadcast license of RCTV, a popular and powerful channel which had participated in a coup and repeatedly and purposefully violated broadcast laws. Despite the fact that RCTV was simply moved to a different channel on cable and even the most critical media groups affirmed that the channel would have lost its license to broadcast in the USA or Europe,[i] the English-language international press was able to establish an almost universally accepted myth that there is no freedom of expression in Venezuela, or at the least, that there is massive censorship.
But in reality there is a uniquely impressive level of freedom of expression and diversity of opinion, especially compared to Colombia, the country in the region which is the closest ally of the U.S. and receives almost no criticism in this respect, or for many other human-rights abuses.
The closure of RCTV did carry a political backlash in Venezuela, mostly because its soap operas were popular and the channel which replaced it, avoiding politics completely and focusing on entertainment, turned out to be kind of boring. But the issue here is not if Mr. Chávez is perfect, but rather the comparative situation of the countries in the region, especially those which recently had a serious diplomatic crisis between them.
The Daily Journal, the English-language international newspaper in Caracas, Venezuela, commissioned a study of freedom of expression, especially the status of the media, in Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. It consisted of analyzing the media in each country, interviewing journalists and the portions of the public at large who have tried to stay as informed as possible.
The results are unsurprising for workers in Venezuela but would be near-impossible to present in the major English-language media. That is, Venezuela is a country with some of the most critical media in the hemisphere despite the fact that Chávez currently 66.5%[ii] of popular support currently. In Colombia, there are almost no opposition voices in the major media, voicing openly critical opinions can actually get you killed, and sectors loyal to right-wing president Alvaro Uribe have just taken complete control of the Television Comission.[iii] In Ecuador, relatively fresh left-leaning president Rafael Correa experienced similar opposition to his political project from the private media in his country, but they tended to come behind him on the issue of protesting the fact that Colombia had recently bombed his country.
Despite movements by Chávez to counterbalance the media situation in the country in 2002—when every private television channel openly supported a coup and were able to physically take the only public channel off the air in order to claim universally that Chávez had resigned rather than been taken kidnapped by the military—it is still easier to find out the opposition viewpoint on any issue in the country than the viewpoint of the government.
Of the major daily newspapers, only one is not explicitly anti-Chávez. It is neutral and carries out more or less unbiased analysis and criticisms of the real failures of the government. The other two consist mainly of open attacks on officialism.[iv] In television the government has gained a little more ground as some of the private channels moderated their position slightly to bring it in line with what they realized was public opinion. But Globovisión, openly committed to unseating the government, remains the best-funded and most professional of the terrestrial stations, maintaining a large share of the market. Some Chavistas called for its closure recently, claiming a systematic agenda and manipulation of information, but Chávez turned this down, saying they’d fight the media wars with the weapons they had. But the point is, media wars are going on here. And RCTV continues to operate, on a different channel, with the same editorial viewpoints.
In Colombia there is no opposition television channel and there is no major opposition newspaper. There are small papers without influence, such as the Communist Party newsletter, but it’s tough for citizens to get a hold of the full story. Almost no one I interviewed had heard one of the most important details about the root of the diplomatic crisis with Ecuador and Venezuela, namely that the man killed on Ecuadorian soil, FARC guerrilla rebel Raul Reyes, was the point-man for planned liberations of hostages and was indeed only located by the Colombian army because he was in contact with the French government to do so. Chávez and Correa believed he was killed to stop the releases and the possibility that the FARC would look more human—this is part of why they responded with such anger to the action.
In any case, journalists have to be careful in Colombia. It one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters to operate.[v] Bogotá is a beautiful city and when I expressed a desire a couple times a desire to spend some time there, journalists and civilians alike said it would be impossible for me to do there what I do here, that is, write about Andean politics in a way which does not demonize Hugo Chávez. "One way or another, they will shut you up," said one professor of law and political science.
The media might seek to avoid controversy because a number of ugly things are happening in the country. The day that it was announced there had been a paramilitary massacre of a civilian village in the countryside, including of women and children, that story took a backseat in the media to the important headline expressing disgust at the discovery that one time the FARC leader Raul Reyes had a birthday party.
And as a result of Plan Colombia, through which the Colombian government has received 6 billion, members of the Colombian military are under intense pressure to register combat kills. Human rights groups report that as a result, there are one thousand known cases of civilians who have been killed and then had their bodies dressed up like guerrillas. [vi]
President Bush recently put a free trade agreement with Colombia before congress for approval. It is being held up by Democratic discomfort with the high and growing number of union leaders who are assassinated in Colombia. But labor organizing and oppositional journalism aren’t the only rights which are formally protected but which might get you hunted down and murdered afterwards. On March 6, there was a massive march against paramilitary violence and state crimes. Shortly afterwards four of the organizers were promptly assassinated.[vii]
The actual Colombian army is responsible for the deaths of the disguised bodies, but in the cases of assassinations of union leaders, journalists, and protest organizers, the culprits are usually right-wing paramilitary groups whose ties to the government are only fairly well-documented. But in the cases of the recent deaths of march organizers and union leaders, advisors close to Uribe have been implicated in informing the paramilitary groups of potential targets.[viii] None of the above happens in Venezuela, and hearing about it was more than a bit frightening.
In Ecuador, left-leaning president Correa has faced opposition from private media, leading to problems in the past. In cases that call to mind incidents in Bolivia and Venezuela, the opposition and the media decided take the perverse position that submitting a constitutional reform to national referendum was somehow undemocratic.
At one point Correa lashed out at the media as incompetent and abusive and said he would no longer give press conferences. He has backed down, and the situation has cooled down as he received support from his population and media for his response to Colombia’s bombing of his territory.
It is likely the trade deal with Colombia will either be rejected or highly modified as a result of concerns over union killings. But this is only one of many serious restrictions on freedoms in that country. And yet no U.S. president would even consider a preferential trade deal with Venezuela. Obama received criticism for saying he would even speak with Chavez, even while claiming he was an "enemy." And all presidential candidates took the side of Colombia and criticized Ecuador when Correa became upset his country was bombed. Almost every country in the hemisphere but the U.S. criticized the action as a violation of national sovereignty.
The public of the English-language press is convinced that Chavez is evil and freedom of expression here is nonexistent. It makes sense why the local private media in Venezuela and Ecuador would oppose its presidents and Uribe would be able to count on his. Uribe is openly an ally of the business interests which own the media, and Chavez and Correa have projects which frighten them. And despite problems in Colombia, it is understandable why the Bush administration would stand behind Uribe—he is the last close ally of the current White House on the continent. But why should the English-language media do the same, concentrating on every struggle or supposed violation in one country, but almost completely ignoring much more serious problems in another? In the end this raises more questions about the legitimacy of the major English-language media than about the situation in Venezuela.
[iii] Revista Semana. Todopoderoso, 03/20/2008 http://www.semana.com/wf_InfoArticulo.aspx?IdArt=110389
[iv]The most balanced paper is Ultimas Noticias. El Universal and El Nacional are the major anti-government papers. Tal Cual is a particularly nasty anti-Chavez daily. They all have portions available online.