The New York Times
May 27, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, May 26 — Arturo Sarmiento speaks upper-crust English polished at Sandhurst, Britain"s aristocratic military school. He made fortunes trading oil and importing whiskey. Now Mr. Sarmiento, just 35 and a staunch supporter of President Hugo Chávez, owns an expanding television network here.
As tempers flare around Mr. Chávez"s decision not to renew the license of RCTV, the nation"s oldest broadcaster and a vocal critic, effectively shutting it down on Sunday, a new media elite is emerging. It is made up of ideological devotees to Mr. Chávez, senior government officials and tycoons like Mr. Sarmiento.
That is a marked contrast with the state of the media when Mr. Chávez"s rule began in 1999. Then, the industry was largely privately owned by monied interests hostile to Mr. Chávez. His supporters say that old guard — as markedly partisan as newspapers in the early history of the United States — actively sought to derail his actions during much of his presidency.
"With the polarization that"s befallen Venezuela, media organizations have been used to cause political change," Mr. Sarmiento said in a recent interview. He says his ambitions for TeleCaribe, a private broadcaster he bought last year, are different: to provide programming tailored to regional audiences in Venezuela. "Media vehicles should not be engaged in politics," he said.
Mr. Chávez has dueled with opponents in the media while fortifying news organizations loyal to him. For instance, newspapers favorable to the government have received nearly 12 times more government advertising, said Andrés Cañizález, a researcher at Andrés Bello University, citing a study of four leading dailies.
"Previous administrations in Venezuela also used advertising as a way to consolidate media support," Mr. Cañizález said. "The difference now is that the government has made growing its own media operations and combating its opponents in the media central elements of its political strategy."
In what may point to a rare example of widespread disagreement with the popular president, recent polls show that most Venezuelans oppose Mr. Chávez"s decision not to renew RCTV"s license.
Still, the move has rallied the president"s base. Anti-RCTV graffiti covers walls throughout Caracas alongside criticism of President Bush, whom Mr. Chávez regularly derides. Mr. Chávez has described RCTV as "putschist," with his disdain for the network intensifying since a group of military officers briefly ousted him in 2002.
The president accuses RCTV and other private broadcasters of supporting what amounted to a 48-hour coup. In RCTV"s case, the government says the network colluded with the coup"s conspirators by conducting a news blackout after Mr. Chávez"s removal and broadcasting cartoons when he returned to office two days later.
As Mr. Chávez"s political power has grown, with loyalists controlling the Supreme Court, the national assembly and most state governments, RCTV has remained explicitly critical of Mr. Chávez. Two other nationwide broadcasters, Televen and Venevisión, have curtailed critical coverage. Globovisión, a cable news channel, remains critical of Mr. Chávez but is viewed by a relatively small part of the population.
Mr. Chávez"s partisans often say critical coverage of the government illustrates elitist and racist sentiments, while dissidents say the news media are their only outlet for expression, since other institutions are controlled by Mr. Chávez.
Meanwhile, changes in the criminal code and new legislation have raised defamation penalties and enhanced the government"s ability to intimidate critics through legal action while Mr. Chávez has created an array of new state media ventures. When he was first elected, the government had just one television station and two radio stations. Now there are four new television stations controlled by central and regional governments and seven new radio broadcasters.
Some of the new ventures, like Telesur, a regional cable news network with a pan-Latin American agenda similar to the pan-Arabism of Al Jazeera, are taking over the operations of private broadcasters. Telesur, based in Caracas and backed largely by Venezuela"s government, recently acquired the broadcasting signal of CMT, a private broadcaster, allowing it to reach a wider audience beyond cable.
"There is a democratization of television under way in Venezuela," Andrés Izarra, a former RCTV executive who is now president of Telesur, said in an interview on Saturday.
Supporters of Mr. Chávez"s decision to deny RCTV a new license point out that most news organizations in Venezuela remain in private hands. Influential newspapers like El Nacional and El Universal, two Caracas dailies, remain independent and their editorials are critical of Mr. Chávez.
Still, some of the nation"s largest private media groups show a trend toward far softer coverage of Mr. Chávez"s government. For instance, Últimas Noticias, the Caracas tabloid with the nation"s highest circulation, is largely supportive of the government. The newspaper recently helped sponsor and covered in detail a series of forums on "21st century socialism," Mr. Chávez"s catch-all concept for the changes sweeping Venezuela.
Also largely refraining from critical coverage of Mr. Chávez are Panorama, Maracaibo"s main daily, and El Diario de Caracas and the English-language Daily Journal, both of which were acquired in recent years by Julio Augusto López, a pro-Chávez entrepreneur.
Mr. López also controls Canal de Noticias, a cable news channel, and is involved in publishing El Patriota, an army newspaper. Plans for yet another news channel have been announced by Wilmer Ruperti, a prominent shipping tycoon who supports Mr. Chávez.
Readership and revenues have grown for more stridently partisan boosters of Mr. Chávez in recent years, like Diario Vea, a daily founded in 2004 and edited by Servando García Ponce, a former longtime correspondent for the Itar-Tass news agency in Venezuela.
Vea, its pages filled with government advertising, runs features on Communist history, like Ho Chi Minh"s victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and columns by Venezuelans like Basem Tajeldine, who recently accused Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, of attacks against Jews to justify what he called "Zionist" policies.
"Freedom of expression is flourishing in Venezuela," Mr. García Ponce said in an interview at the paper"s new newsroom here in a fashionably remodeled industrial warehouse. "We are not repressive of minority opinions in Venezuela."
The government"s treatment of its critics is on display on La Hojilla, a nightly talk show on the main state television station that pillories opposition journalists against a backdrop with images of Mr. Chávez, Lenin and Che Guevara.
La Hojilla"s host, Mario Silva, also publishes a weekly newspaper with the same name and editorial tone of his show. (The most recent issue has a full-page cartoon depicting Marcel Granier, RCTV"s president, as Batman and the network"s main male anchor as Robin, in a loving embrace as they discuss plotting Mr. Chávez"s ouster.)
The creation of yet another state broadcaster by replacing RCTV with a new government broadcasting operation called Teves has fueled growing international concern. Human Rights Watch this week called the license decision a "serious setback for freedom of expression in Venezuela."
The government here seemed ready with arguments to counter the international political reaction to RCTV"s effective closure. The United States Senate this week approved a resolution describing the RCTV decision as a "transgression against freedom of thought."
It drew a rebuke from Bernardo Álvarez, Venezuela"s ambassador to the United States, who said the nonrenewal of RCTV"s license was a legal and regulatory decision.
"While the decision has been distorted to make it seem like Venezuela"s government is closing a television station, this is simply a regulatory matter," Mr. Álvarez said in a letter to Senator Richard G. Lugar, the Indiana Republican who introduced the measure.