February 22, 2007
Silencing dissenting views little by little
SINCE he took office in 1999 Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's leftist president, has steadily centralised power in his own hands. But his officials have always been able to counter accusations that he is an autocrat by pointing to a pugnacious and largely free opposition media. That argument looks increasingly threadbare.
AP Broadcasting their master's voice
Shortly after winning a presidential election in December with 63% of the vote, Mr Chávez announced that he would not renew the licence of one of the country's oldest broadcasters, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), when this expires on May 27th. The owner of RCTV, Marcel Granier, is an outspoken critic of Mr Chávez. The decision appeared to be "a form of censorship [and] a warning to others", in the view of José Miguel Insulza, a Chilean Socialist who is secretary-general of the Organisation of American States. The opposition press faces increasing harassment. But government-owned media are multiplying.
The government accuses RCTV of breaking broadcasting laws, of discriminating against Mr Chávez's supporters and even of conspiring against the state. Yet it has made no effort to air its case in the courts. The broadcasting regulator, Conatel, has remained silent on the issue. Its director, Alvin Lezama, was sacked not long after the RCTV decision was announced, and the body merged into a new telecommunications ministry.
Tal Cual, an evening paper whose editor, Teodoro Petkoff, snipes at the government from the centre-left, was this month fined for a humorous editorial addressed to the president's nine year-old daughter, Rosinés. Mr Chávez frequently refers to her in public. He ordered that the country's coat-of-arms be changed after she said the white horse on it was "looking backwards". Laureano Márquez, a humorist, suggested in Tal Cual that Rosinés might ask a few other favours: "that he not get so cross with those of us who don't think like him", for instance. He and the paper were prosecuted for violating the child's "honour, reputation [and] private life".
Venezuela's four privately owned national TV channels showed bias in their coverage of the country's bitter political conflict of 2001-04. They supported a coup attempt that briefly ousted the president in 2002, and notoriously failed to cover demonstrations calling for his return. Mr Chávez has frequently threatened them with drastic measures "even though they'll call me a tyrant". His government has approved vaguely worded and potentially repressive media legislation, apparently to encourage self-censorship.
Two of the four took the hint. Venevisión, which is controlled by Gustavo Cisneros, a prominent Venezuelan businessman, and Televen (always the mildest) scrapped programmes run by opposition journalists and toned down their news coverage. These channels' licences may, it seems, be renewed. The fourth—Globovisión, a 24-hour news channel—is newer and its licence is not yet up for renewal. The result is that "as from June, Globovisión will be the only TV signal broadcast out of Caracas that is not pro-Chávez," says Andrés Cañizales, a media critic. And Globovisión already complains of constant official harassment.
Meanwhile, the government has vastly expanded its own media holdings. It runs three national TV channels, as well as Telesur, an international news channel set up by Mr Chávez as an answer to CNN. It recently bought CMT, a small Caracas channel, to broadcast Telesur at home. It has pumped money and other resources into "alternative" and "community" media, most of which are dependent on the state and are unlikely to adopt a critical stance.
Mr Chávez this month relaunched his weekly "Hello President" programme as a 90-minute nightly radio show, with a TV version once a week. Promising "exclusives" in every edition, he used the first to announce a new decree against "hoarders and speculators" with six-year jail terms for offenders. He also regularly obliges all TV and radio stations to broadcast his rambling speeches live.
Programming on state media is heavily slanted in favour of the government. Dissident voices, even from within the chavista camp, are mostly excluded. A study by the Global Media Observatory, a Venezuelan NGO of leftist inspiration, found coverage of December's election by the main government channel, VTV, to be even less balanced than that of RCTV. On several occasions, the study noted, VTV even suspended its news programmes in order to carry live coverage of government events, "especially the inauguration of public works".
Responsibility for regulating the media now lies with Jesse Chacón, the telecommunications minister. A former army officer, he took part in a bloody coup attempt against a democratic government in 1992. (Mr Chávez led another coup attempt in the same year.) He says that the government will use RCTV's slot for a "public service" channel. The opposition is sceptical, pointing out that it has failed to do this with any of its other channels. After May 27th, it will be up to the government to prove them wrong.