Septembre 07, 2008
In speech after speech, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stares at the television camera and unleashes a hail of colorful insults against his opponents.
"Oligarchs," "fascists," "mafia bosses" and "coup mongers" are among his favorite taunts.
But critics complain Chavez has no right to use public airwaves to ridicule foes and campaign for allies, in essence making state media a propaganda machine that puts opponents at a disadvantage ahead of Nov. 23 state and local elections.
"He doesn't respect his political adversaries, and he doesn't respect the law," opposition leader Gerardo Blyde said Sunday, noting that Venezuelan law prohibits the use of public resources for political activities.
Blyde, who is now running for mayor of Baruta, one of Caracas' five boroughs, is joining scores of other opposition candidates in demanding that Venezuelan election officials bar Chavez from using presidential events to campaign.
Chavez — who was accused of unfairly using state media to further his own re-election in 2006 — has never been shy about insulting his critics, but the frequency and tone of his comments have recently heated up. He now uses the term "little Yankees" almost daily, trying to tar opponents as U.S.-loving traitors.
And his message travels: Venezuelan law requires all network TV and radio stations to interrupt regular programming to broadcast the president's speeches whenever he so chooses.
Information Minister Andres Izarra denies that pro-Chavez candidates benefit unfairly from that publicity. But he readily admits the government is waging "a media war" against privately owned television and radio stations and newspapers that heavily favor the opposition.
Facing a "hostile and manipulative private press, it's our duty to take advantage of the public media" to spread Chavez's message, Izarra told The Associated Press.
The number of major state-owned or state-friendly television channels has grown from one to six since Chavez took office in 1999. They regularly broadcast his party's events, but air scant or negative coverage of the political opposition.
The number of private TV channels taking a hard line against Chavez has meanwhile shrunk, as the country's oldest network, RCTV, lost its public broadcasting license in 2007 and two other channels, Venevision and Televen, have curbed criticism. That has left Globovision as the country's lone anti-Chavez channel among the top networks.
Chavez meanwhile gives his allies a national stage, hosting many of them on his Sunday television and radio program. A frequent guest is his brother, Adan Chavez, who is running for governor in their home state of Barinas.
Talk show host Mario Silva, a Chavez ally seeking the governorship in the state of Carabobo outside Caracas, uses his nightly state-TV program to trash rivals and air his own campaign footage.
Chavez's use of state resources to help his supporters goes even farther, some critics suggest, accusing the government of using military trucks and planes to ferry allies to political rallies. The ruling party denies any wrongdoing.
During his show on Sunday, Chavez told a ruling party candidate he was "sure" voters in central Apure state would elect him governor as he drove a light armored military vehicle down a dirt road.
Chavez later introduced his preferred candidates for several mayorships in the state to a crowd of supporters clad in red — the ruling party's color — while calling opposition leaders "ridiculous" and joking that they "need psychological help."
In response to the opposition's complaints, the National Electoral Council is preparing to draw up new campaign rules this week, said Vicente Diaz, one of the council's five directors.
Diaz says he opposes state media's promotion of pro-Chavez candidates, but critics argue that his four colleagues are Chavez backers and unlikely to take a tough stand.
Izarra pledged the government would comply with the council's rules.
"We always have," he said.