A few years after Hugo Chavez was first elected president of Venezuela in 1998, the hostility of the rich became so intense that it led to a coup that ousted Chavez for two days in April of 2002. The perpetrators openly thanked the private media for its help, but a sector of the military and a huge uprising (which TV networks blacked out) restored democracy. The Chavez government took steps to prevent the private media from leading another coup, but the opposition has complained to foreigners of rampant censorship that’s basically shut them out of the TV media. For many years, the international press and prominent NGOs have sold that shockingly dishonest claim in various ways. If you rely on what the Associated Press (AP), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and others have said, then you’d never believe the following TV interviews with government opponents (gathered by Keane Bhatt) could ever have taken place in 2014. The list is nowhere near exhaustive:
Interview with Lilian Tintori, wife of protest leader Leopoldo López, on :
Interview with Mayor Gustavo Marcano, assistant national coordinator of opposition party Primero Justicia, on :
Interview with Julio Borges, national coordinator of Primero Justicia, on :
Interview with Mesa de la Unidad Democrática legislator Alfonso Marquina on :
Interview with MUD legislator Ángel Medina on April 8:
Interview with Lilian Tintori on :
Interview with five student opposition leaders, including Juan Requesens, on :
Interview with opposition mayor Ramón Muchacho on :
Interview with María Corina Machado on :
Interview with opposition mayor Antonio Ledezma on :
The Julio Borges interview on Venevision is quite illuminating. He accuses the government of everything from massive theft to repression, and at the point says
“….A message to the armed forces: we know you are against the repression that is happening in Venezuela and that you want a constitution that will be respected….”
The Venevision interviewer never responds with anything like “Wait a second. Why did you address the military like that? Are you encouraging another coup?”
The interviewer never offers anything like a challenge to Borges. The same applies to all the interviews, in particular the ones with Lilian Tintori and Maria Corina Machado, who accuse the government of being “a dictatorial regime” guilty of “murder”, “torture”, “persecution” and “repression”. Their interviewers could scarcely be friendlier and more accommodating throughout.
Venevision, according to a Carter Center study that I’ll discuss below, has the largest audience share for news of any private or public broadcaster. Televen has the third largest. Both are networks that, according to an HRW official (Daniel Wilkinson), “dropped their critical coverage” of the government after the 2002 coup – a brazen lie that anyone fluent in Spanish with the time to monitor the TV media can expose. Unfortunately, even honest journalists will tend to repeat falsehoods spread by groups like HRW rather than do the work required to expose them.
Associated Press reporting about Venezuela is dishonest even by the low standard set by the international press. This July 4 article by AP reporters Fabiola Sanchez and Hannah Drier talked about the sale of El Universal, an opposition aligned newspaper, to a Spanish firm:
“While neutral reporting in Venezuela is hard to come by after 15 years of polarization over socialist rule, El Universal has stuck closer than most to the ideal of fact-based, investigative reporting amid a crackdown on media outlets that, like it, have been fiercely critical of the government.”
How have any “fiercely critical” outlets survived the “crackdown” that’s been alleged for over a decade?
El Universal’s Reporting is Neutral?
On April 13, 2002, the day after Pedro Carmona was anointed the dictator of Venezuela after the coup, El Universal published a front page article with the huge headline that read “UN PASO ADELANTE!” (One step forward!). Right above the monstrous headline, smaller text appeared that said “Reconstruction” (in bold) followed by the words “A transitional government installed in Miraflores”. Is that an example of how El Universal approximates the “ideal” of “neutral reporting” better than most? The New York Times editors, aping El Universal’s, also hailed the coup. We should consider how long the NYT would stay open if its editors applauded a coup in their own country, or if that would be the very least of their worries.
Jump ahead to 2014 and El Universal is still publishing thinly veiled appeals for a coup as both “news” and “opinion” from politicians who openly supported the coup in 2002. Some crackdown. However, AP speculates that the new owners of El Universal may not be as rabidly anti-government as the old ones. AP’s concern is not that unelected, unrepresentative super-rich people buy unjustifiable influence over public debate. Their concern is that some super-rich folks might not be far enough to the right to keep El Universal’s reporting unchanged.
HRW has not been as dishonest in assessing the print media. HRW has instead argued that the circulation of Venezuelan newspapers is too small to make much of an impact on the public. As I explained here, relative to population, the combined circulation of four major Venezuelan newspapers (including El Universal) is about the same as the combined circulation of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today and the LA Times in the United States. That fact alone should generate considerable doubt about what has been repeatedly said about Venezuela’s television media.
Print media aside, Sanchez and Direr, authors of the AP article, spread the same lie that many NGOs and journalists (perhaps unwittingly at times) have spread about the TV media for years:
“President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez have driven most independent journalism from airwaves, using fines and the revocation of licenses to silence critical voices.”
In April of 2014, Daniel Wilkenson of HRW wrote, even more dishonestly
“Two of the four [major] private stations voluntarily dropped their critical coverage; a third was forced off the air; and the fourth was hounded by administrative sanctions and criminal charges until the owner sold it last year to investors reportedly linked to the governments, who have dramatically curtailed its critical content.”
In a debate with Keane Bhatt on Democracy Now, an HRW legal expert, Reed Brody, insisted that Wilkinson “didn’t say” that two of Venezuela’s major stations “dropped their critical coverage”. In fact, the New York Review of Books article I quoted above, where Wilkinson wrote exactly that, is still uncorrected as I write this.
In an “action alert” published in 2010, Amnesty International said that Globovision is the
“…only TV station whose license has not been revoked in recent years because of its editorial line”
That last quote from Amnesty is the biggest howler of the bunch, surpassing even Wilkenson’s, though the dishonesty of both the Committee to Protect Journalists and RSF offer stiff competition. I wrote to Amnesty about it years ago, but they never corrected that outrageous remark.
The New York Times – after receiving a petition signed by thousands of people – did retract this statement from an article this year:
“The only television station [Globovision] that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government was sold last year and the new owners have softened its news coverage.”
The editors later conceded
“Before its sale last year, it [Globovision] broadcast more voices critical of the Venezuelan government than any other TV station, but it was not the only one to regularly feature government critics.” [my emphasis]
Very significant that the NYT was compelled, this time, to contradict the chorus of press outlets and NGOs depicting the Venezuelan opposition as being close to shut out of the TV media. It’s a start, but it will take a lot more than that to get the chorus to respect the facts.
The Carter Center, despite its links to the US establishment, published data that also refuted the chorus. During Venezuela’s 2013 presidential campaign, it monitored television coverage and found that the stations Daniel Wilkenson said had “dropped their critical coverage” actually provided balanced coverage between the two major candidates. Globovisión, on the other hand, gave over seven times more coverage to opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, than to Nicolas Maduro (a close confidant of the late Hugo Chavez). Much to Wilikenson’s disgust, under new owners, Globovision may “dramatically” change and become less overwhelmingly slanted against the government. The private broadcasters were found to have 72% of the audience share for news. Again, that’s a 72% audience share for TV broadcasters whose coverage ranged from balanced between pro and anti-government voices to completely lopsided in favor of the opposition. The Carter Center’s data accounted for “cadenas”, government broadcasts that the private stations are obliged to show. It did not include numerous private stations and may underestimate the private media’s audience share.
The Venezuelan media is more politically diverse than it was during the media-led coup of 2002, something only the coup’s apologists should lament. Chavista governments have used regulatory powers (which all governments have over media) and expanded public media to bring that change about. Public outrage with the private media’s leading role in the 2002 coup also contributed. There are some very reasonable objections that can be made to the government’s regulatory approach. One objection is that it still leaves unelected billionaires with a level of influence over public debate that undermines democracy. That’s not of any concern to the NGOs and press outlets alleging that a “crackdown” has left the opposition all but voiceless. It appears they simply want Venezuela’s media barons restored to the position of dominance they had in April, 2002.
*Joe Emersberger can be reached at joeemersberger AT gmail DOT com