The international corporate media have long displayed a peculiar creativity with the facts in their Venezuela reporting, to the point that coverage of the nation’s crisis has become perhaps the world’s most lucrative fictional genre. Ciara Nugent’s recent piece for Time (4/16/19), headlined “‘Venezuelans Are Starving for Information’: The Battle to Get News in a Country in Chaos,” distinguished itself as a veritable masterpiece of this literary fad.
The article’s slant should come as no surprise, given Time’s (and Nugent’s) enthusiastic endorsement (2/1/19) of the ongoing coup led by self-proclaimed “interim president” Juan Guaidó. Time’s report is based on a trope oft-repeated by corporate journalists for over a decade (Extra!, 11–12/06), namely that Venezuela’s elected Chavista government is an “authoritarian” regime that brutally suppresses freedom of expression. Corporate outlets frequently speak of “Chávez’s clampdown on press freedom” (New York Times, 4/30/19), “a country where critical newspapers and broadcast media already have been muzzled” and “much of Venezuela’s independent press has disappeared” (NBC, 2/3/19, 5/16/19), or the Maduro “regime” controlling “almost all the television and radio stations” (Bloomberg, 1/29/19).
However, the Time journalist’s nightmarish narrative of Orwellian state censorship flies in the face of basic empirical facts that are readily apparent to anyone who has spent any time in Venezuela. While Nugent claims that, for Venezuelans, “finding out what’s going on around them has become a struggle,” it’s in fact quite common to witness informed political debates in bars, shops and public plazas. The idea Nugent tries to sell that it takes some photogenic gimmick of someone standing on a bus with a cardboard “television” to inform the public is ridiculous.
“Most television is state-run, and authorities ban the few independent TV and radio stations from covering Venezuela’s crisis as it unfolds,” Nugent assures readers. It is unclear whether Nugent has ever watched television in Venezuela, because few statements could be farther from the truth. In fact, Venezuela has three major private television stations (Venevision, Televen and Globovisión), each with millions of viewers.
As of 2013, when the last audience study was conducted by AGB Nielsen, billionaire media mogul Gustavo Cisneros’ Venevision dominated the national news market, with 36 percent of the total viewing public. Venevision was followed by state-run VTV, at 25 percent, with Televen and Globovision coming in third and fourth at 22 percent and 15 percent, respectively. While no new studies have been conducted since, evidence suggests private media’s dominance has strengthened, not weakened, over the last six years.
First, while coming in way behind Venevision and Televen in terms of overall ratings, for years VTV undoubtedly had its news viewership buoyed by the charismatic presence of the late President Hugo Chávez, who even had his own highly popular weekly talkshow, Aló Presidente, on the network. It’s a reasonable bet that VTV’s news ratings have taken a significant dip in the six years since Chávez’s death, with the gradual onset of a deep economic and political crisis that has sapped vital resources and political morale from the state channel.
Secondly, data from Venezuela’s telecommunications watchdog, CONATEL, shows a steady increase in private television subscribers, which rose from 17 percent in 2000 to a peak of 68 percent in 2015. As of last year, over 60 percent of Venezuelan households paid for a private cable or satellite subscription.
Subscriptions are highly affordable, with top satellite provider Direct TV offering packages beginning at the equivalent of just 70 cents per month on the parallel market rate, or about the price of a cold beer.
In the case of Direct TV, which controls 44 percent of the paid subscription market, plans include a host of international news channels, including Fox News, CNN, BBC and Univisión—none of which could be mistaken for pro-Chavista mouthpieces.
Contrary to Nugent’s story of a state-run media monopoly, the available data suggests that under Chavismo, Venezuelans have progressively expanded their access to private international news channels, most of which display a decidedly right-wing, anti-government slant in their coverage.
Even aside from US-based networks like Fox and CNN, Venezuela’s private TV news spectrum is dominated by pro-opposition perspectives. The only exception is Globovisión, which a 2015 American University study found to have “no significant bias in favor of the government or the opposition”—contrary to claims by the New York Times (2/21/19) that the private network “changed its editorial line to support Mr. Maduro” following its ownership change.
Despite opposition allegations that Venevision has likewise become a “pro-regime” outlet, the channel frequently interviews leaders of opposition parties; for example, it recently ran a sympathetic, 12-minute interview (5/2/19) with Sergio Vergara G., leader in the National Assembly of Guaidó’s ultra-militant right-wing Popular Will party. Needless to say, spotlighting the views of a party actively engaged in trying to overthrow the government is not a hallmark of “state-run” television.
Nugent’s claim is also false with regards to radio, with numerous opposition-aligned stations filling the airwaves, including most notably Radio Caracas Radio, while Union Radio is popular nationwide for its independent, even-handed coverage.
Nugent matter-of-factly talks about newspapers and magazines having “all but disappeared,” as if amidst a severe economic downturn, Venezuela was expected to buck the worldwide trend of declining print media.
Nonetheless, Venezuela does still have a number of national circulation papers, which Nugent could confirm with a visit to any Venezuelan newspaper kiosk. Moreover, as in other countries, newspapers that no longer circulate in print have continued their operations on digital platforms and social media.
Today, Venezuela has five nationwide dailies still in print, the majority of which are anti-government. While Últimas Noticias and of course state-run Correo del Orinoco take a pro-government line, any cursory glance at El Universal, Diario 2001 and La Voz will find them all to be staunchly anti-Chavista.
El Universal has a weekday circulation of 35,000, which relative to population is comparable to the Washington Post. Considered the voice of the so-called “moderate” opposition, the paper has been grossly misrepresented by the New York Times’ Nick Casey (1/16/16), among others, as “toe[ing] a largely pro-government line.”
On February 17, the newspaper published an op-ed by one of its frequent contributors, Datanalisis pollster Luis Vicente León, who nonchalantly weighs the pros and cons of a military coup, a negotiated transition “pressured” by criminal US sanctions and military threats, and an outright invasion. Leon regards that last scenario favorably, so long as it takes the form of a “Panama-style intervention” that topples Maduro “without greater consequences” (translation: collateral damage limited to poor brown people, as in El Chorrillo).
More recently in the same paper, columnist Pedro Piñate (4/4/19) argues that Venezuela needs to be rid of “Castro-communist” ideas, Francisco Olivares (4/27/19) claims Maduro’s ouster is “vital for the Western democratic world,” while Antonio Herrera (4/25/19) sounds alarm bells about the presence of “Cubans, Russians, Iranians, Middle Eastern terrorists and guerrillas from Colombia.”
Not only do Venezuela’s anti-government newspapers exercise unfettered freedom to publish, including opinion articles explicitly calling for military coups, they have a long history of publishing explicitly racist cartoons caricaturing Chavez and other Chavista leaders that would scandalize liberals in any Western country.
Nugent’s allegations of draconian government censorship extend to the digital realm as well, as she writes:
Venezuela’s Internet freedom has been weakening for several years, with the country finally dropping from “partly free” to “not free” in annual reports by global democracy monitor Freedom House in 2017.
The Time reporter fails to disclose that Freedom House is almost entirely funded by the US government, which is currently spearheading a coup d’etat in Venezuela. Bracketing that minor detail, it must be asked, is the internet really any less free in Venezuela than in the Global North?
It is true that Venezuela’s state phone and internet provider, CANTV, does block some Venezuelan anti-government news sites, including El Nacional, La Patilla and El Universal, which can only be accessed via VPN, cable or cellular data.
While such a policy is indefensible and perhaps self-defeating, it must be placed in context. Would any Western government tolerate news outlets that openly serve as mouthpieces for a violent, foreign-backed opposition that is currently in the middle of its sixth major coup attempt (the 2002 Carmona coup, the 2002–o3 oil lockout, the 2013 post-election opposition violence, the 2014 and 2017 street blockades having failed) in the past 20 years?
Although Venezuela is hardly immune from state censorship, it is a gross distortion to claim the country is “now subject to frequent information blackouts.” In addition to having a decisive, if not dominant, presence in television and print media, Venezuela’s right-wing opposition exerts considerable influence in social media, which has even allowed it to circulate fake news among the public. While Nugent disingenuously writes that “it’s not clear who is behind the false stories,” it is very obvious who stands to gain from baseless rumors of “the military conscripting minors” or “Russian troops arriving in Venezuela.”
Furthermore, an extensive independent investigation revealed the rampant use of “automation, coordinated inauthentic behavior and cyborgs” to position anti-government hashtags on Twitter, with some accounts tweeting hundreds of thousands of times per day and generating billions of daily impressions. The Venezuelan opposition has consistently looked to fire up social media ahead of potential flashpoints, while, on the other hand, official or pro-government accounts have routinely been shut down by Western social media giants, including seven Venezuelan government accounts being suspended by Twitter just recently.
A recent example of Washington and its opposition clients’ capacity to shape the corporate media narrative via social media is the February 23 “humanitarian aid showdown” on the Venezuelan/Colombian border (FAIR.org, 2/9/19). Following a controversial incident involving a USAID truck catching fire, top US officials and opposition leaders immediately took to Twitter to blame the Maduro government. The claim was repeated by corporate outlets, despite the existence of readily available evidence, which the New York Times only reported two weeks later, proving a Molotov cocktail–wielding opposition militant set fire to the truck. The Times’ (largely ignored) retraction notwithstanding, February 23 was a clear cut case of US/opposition social media dominance allowing a false narrative to be put in place unquestioned.
Press freedom via coup d’etat?
The narrative of a Venezuelan government crackdown on press freedom is by no means a recent invention, harkening back to the Chavez government’s 2007 decision not to renew RCTV’s (Radio Caracas Televisión) broadcasting concession. RCTV had played a crucial role in the 2002 coup, when the opposition removed Chávez from power for 47 hours—unleashing a wave of terror—and later in the 2002–03 oil lockout. RCTV was merely removed from the public spectrum, and continued broadcasting via cable and satellite.
Nevertheless, the episode opened the way for a fresh wave of anti-government protests, led by a new generation of middle-class right-wing student leaders, funded and trained by Washington. Among the new opposition cohort was George Washington University–educated Juan Guaidó, himself a veteran of the violent 2014 opposition street protests known as “the Exit,” which left 43 people dead.
The myth of a sustained assault on media freedom in Venezuela forms the ideological touchstone of Venezuela’s anti-Chavista opposition, for whom “freedom of expression” stands for unfettered private control over mass media. Given their own privileged position in a global media sphere monopolized by a tiny handful of conglomerates, corporate journalists like Nugent instinctively defend this viewpoint to absurd degrees.
The Time correspondent writes, “Venezuelan authorities regularly detain journalists, claiming that they have entered the country illegally or breached ‘security zones.” There are currently over 50 foreign news agencies with correspondents on the ground in Venezuela, where they need to get a special visa to report. As in the US, one cannot sneak around restricted security areas near Miraflores Presidential Palace in the middle of the night without proper identification and accreditation. The outrage over Venezuelan government efforts to regulate media amidst a foreign-backed coup effort is grossly hypocritical, given Western journalists’ failure to speak out against their own governments’ crackdown on whistleblowers.
FAIR (4/30/19) has previously reported that zero percent of elite US newspaper and talkshow pundits challenged the idea of regime change in Venezuela. More than a considered or even clear-eyed view of Venezuela’s media landscape, fairy tales like Nugent’s about totalitarian state censorship in Venezuela reflect US corporate media regime’s own self-censorship, which is far more efficacious than any so-called “authoritarian” leader could imagine. Without deliberate constriction of the spectrum of “acceptable opinion,” after all, the Trump administration would never be able to get away with its brazenly illegal coup and an economic blockade that has already killed 40,000 Venezuelans in the past two years with total impunity.