March 21, 2008
President Hugo Chávez's dismantling of the critical press looks to be continuing as the leftist leader whips up public support to shut down Globovisión -- less than a year after he refused to renew the license of the country's most popular TV station.
Chávez has called Globovisión, a 24-hour news channel, ''an enemy of the Venezuelan people,'' and one of the owners has been verbally attacked. Fervent government supporters have called on the national tax office to investigate the station. Hundreds rallied outside of its offices last month.
The threats against Globovisión come months after Chávez knocked RCTV off the commercial airwaves. RCTV had broadcast unflattering news coverage of Chávez for years.
Alberto Ravell, a part-owner who runs Globovisión, has come under personal attack.
''Ravell: Fascist, coup plotter, murderer, liar,'' read signs held by Chávez supporters at one of the president's speeches late last year.
Outside observers say that silencing Globovisión would give the president near-complete control over TV news coverage in Venezuela. An iconoclastic view holds that the leftist Chávez won't touch Globovisión because he needs the station as a foil.
SLIPPING IN POLLS
The tension between the news station and Chávez comes as the leftist president has lost popular support.
The polling firm Datos, in a quarterly survey of 2,000 Venezuelans last month, found that 34 percent said they support Chávez's government, down from a high of 67 percent in early 2005, and the lowest level since 2003, The Associated Press reported.
Another survey, by Venezuelan pollster Alfredo Keller, found that 37 percent of Venezuelans questioned identified themselves as Chávez supporters in February, down from 50 percent in mid-2007, the AP reported.
The threats against Globovisión have prompted the Inter American Press Association to express its concern.
''It would be disastrous for the people and their right to know if [Globovisión] were to cease operations,'' said Gonzalo Marroquín, editor of a Guatemala City daily, Prensa Libre, and chairman of the press association's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information. The group will hold its midyear meeting in Caracas at the end of March, and its leaders are hoping to take their concerns directly to Chávez.
For his part, Ravell doubts Chávez will risk trying to close the station.
''We're kind of a trophy for the government to say that there is freedom of expression in Venezuela,'' Ravell said in his office. Still, he fears that the government could cite a vague 3-year-old measure -- known as the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television -- to attempt to close down Globovisión.
The station seems to be under siege.
Twenty-foot walls topped by barbed wire encircle Globovisión in a residential neighborhood.
In the newsroom, crime reporter Lisette Villafranca said she faces open hostility from Chávez supporters and government officials.
''I get insulted in the streets, spat at. I've had a cup of urine thrown at me,'' Villafranca said. ``We can't transmit live from Miraflores [the presidential palace] or the foreign ministry. Globovisión and RCTV are the only ones that don't have that access.''
Globovisión is hardly an oddity in Latin America, where newspapers and television stations tend to be less neutral than their counterparts in the United States.
Globovisión -- like RCTV -- has been strongly criticized for broadcasting food shows and the like during the two-day coup staged against Chávez in 2002.
Reflecting the deep polarization, pro-Chávez and anti-Chávez demonstrators have rallied outside Globovisión.
''We're going to defend the Revolution,'' said Adila Rito, who was one of 300 Chávez supporters outside the station one night in February. ''We won't accept any more abuses from Globovisión or the Empire,'' the phrase that Chávez supporters use to describe the United States.
Chávez removed a thorn in his side when he refused to renew RCTV's operating license in May. The station had a 41 percent audience share, said Marcel Granier, who runs RCTV. Globovisión has only a 7 to 10 percent share today -- since it is mostly limited to cable.
Chávez gets mostly favorable news coverage on television now, and he gives speeches at least once a week that are carried live for hours on seven TV stations simultaneously.
Ravell, the son of a prominent journalist exiled by a military government, seems to relish his status as an outsider.
One a recent day, Globovisión alone was carrying the news that masked men had occupied the archbishop's home on historic Plaza Bolívar.
Ravell watched as Chávez supporters pushed away the Globovisión reporter and cameraman.
''We're against you guys, for what you broadcast,'' a man who looked like Che Guevara told the Globovisión reporter.
''Look at that,'' Ravell shouted. ``That's against us. But it's on the air.''
Tony Spanakos, a Montclair State University professor who is in Venezuela on a Fulbright scholarship, said the dirty secret is that Chávez actually benefits from Globovisión. Spanakos said Globovisión has too few viewers to threaten Chávez but enough to be used as a political weapon.
''In order to keep the most hard-core Chavistas radicalized,'' Spanakos said, 'you need to have some constant form of opposition. He can use Globovisión as that constant threat. The attack on Globovisión is part of a calculated strategy to appeal to the radicals and perpetuate the idea that the `Revolution' is always under threat.''
If so, each side seems to need the other.
Ravell said that Globovisión is profitable, thanks in no small part to the president's attacks.
''Our chief promoter and marketer is Hugo Chávez,'' Ravell said with a smile. ``He made us popular.''