July 13, 2007
In his first criticism of the Venezuelan government since 2003, media magnate Gustav Cisneros called for equal political coverage on the air.
Venezuelan media magnate Gustavo Cisneros on Wednesday criticized what he called the excessive politicization of television in Venezuela and questioned the growing restriction of space for the independent media.
He also announced that his network, Venevisión, from now on will provide ''balanced'' news coverage, giving equal time to the government and the opposition.
Dealing for the first time with the avalanche of criticism received after Venevisión virtually eliminated news programming that was critical of the administration of Hugo Chávez, Cisneros complained that the government pressures the network to broadcast only favorable news. Thus, he distanced himself from the editorial line that the network has held, a position considered by its critics to be favorable to Chavismo.
In a 10-minute program broadcast nationwide at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Venevisión, Cisneros said that the network will remain on the sidelines of the political conflict.
Many in the government and the opposition believe that a television channel can be a protagonist in the political game. That is not the mission of television,'' Cisneros said.
The businessman said that the space ''allowed to the independent media'' is ''increasingly smaller'' and complained that ``it is not easy to take a balanced position when some government officials want the television channels to report only the news that show the government in a positive light.''
In his address, Cisneros counseled the Chávez administration to ''tolerate balanced and independent news'' and to ``instruct the public broadcasting stations to follow the same rule.''
Cisneros did not spare the opposition, saying that ''it is not easy to take a balanced position when some in the opposition want television channels that report only the news that reflect negatively on the government.'' The criticism made by the businessman to the Venezuelan government is the first he has made since 2003, when he headed -- along with other media executives -- a demonstration in Caracas in favor of freedom of expression.
Also, it is Cisneros' first public appearance in Venezuela since he met with Chávez and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in June 2004. At that time, both Cisneros and Chávez agreed to respect the law and promote dialogue.
Cisneros' appearance took place following much public criticism over his network's silence over the government shutdown of RCTV in late May and news programming that some say was biased.
''Venevisión went from opposing the government to siding with it,'' said Andrés Cañizález, a researcher at the Center for Communications Research at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas.
According to Cañizález, the channel's editorial line was rejected by public opinion ''principally because of the silence they maintained after the shutdown of RCTV.'' ''Until very recently, [Venevisión's] news coverage was biased in favor of the interests of the national government,'' said Carlos Correa, executive director of Public Space, an independent organization that promotes freedom of expression in Venezuela.
Correa said that this tendency was confirmed by a study made by the European Union of the channel's coverage of the presidential elections in 2006. The study said 84 percent of the news broadcast by Venevisión was favorable to the government.
Despite the criticism, other studies showed opinions that were favorable to the network, in terms of the renewal of its license and its permanence on the air.
In his speech Wednesday, Cisneros said that the government renewed the license for five years after the network complied with ''the bureaucratic procedures established by the nation,'' thus rejecting the rumor that the renewal was the result of a deal between Cisneros and Chávez.
According to experts, Cisneros' address reflects a strategy of ''survival'' and ''damage control'' that could have mixed results.
''He is trying to maintain his space in Venezuela, both with the government and the broadest sector of the population, which sometimes is Chavista and sometimes is not,'' said Joaquín Pérez Rodríguez, a Miami-based expert on political campaigns in Latin America.