By Carlos Lauria >
August 3, 2007
Venezuelan officials’ increasing intolerance of free speech and press criticism reached a new low this week. A group of cable-television channels narrowly escaped being taken off the air, and President Hugo Chávez declared during his six-hour long weekly television and radio address that foreigners who criticize him or his administration while visiting the country will be expelled from Venezuela. Though analysts believe this is just another example of the president’s inflamed rhetoric that won’t result in any concrete actions, Chávez has ordered high-ranking officials to scrutinize statements made by foreign dignitaries and deport any outspoken critics while carrying out a deliberate strategy to control Venezuela’s media. >
The president’s order came at a time when Venezuelan authorities are studying a proposal by Minister of Communication and Information William Lara to amend the 2004 Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television and force all cable and satellite television stations operating in the country to carry Chávez’s simultaneous radio and television broadcasts live.
Though Minister of Telecommunications Jesse Chacón seemed reluctant to support such a bizarre idea, Lara’s initiative will be evaluated by administration officials, the minister said. Meanwhile, the government’s decision to ask cable and satellite providers to remove RCTV’s new signal from their programming is widely perceived as a further attempt to silence the main critical media outlet. RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest private television station, was taken off the public airwaves on May 27 after the government decided not to renew its broadcast concession.
Authorities waited only a few days after RCTV International, RCTV’s new signal, began broadcasting on paid-subscription television on July 16 to go after them. In what has become a pattern of continuous retaliation, the government said RCTV must register as a national channel before the National Telecommunications Commission to comply with the social-responsibility law.
As it did when it first took RCTV off the air, the Chávez administration is once again acting arbitrarily, and with political intent. The plan to force cable and satellite stations to carry the president’s speeches is a clear attempt to control the flow of information and follows a premeditated strategy to build a state communication hegemony.
The plan was activated soon after the 2002 coup against Chávez, when the Venezuelan government realized that the state communication apparatus was powerless to influence the supremacy of private-media monopolies. Since then, the administration has invested heavily in public funds to boost the size of the government’s media portfolio. It has also filled positions with activists and supporters in order to manipulate content and guarantee uncritical coverage.
Since 2003, the Venezuelan administration has launched several television stations:
- •” ViVe TV, a cultural and educational television network with coverage throughout the country.
- • ANTV, which broadcasts sessions of the National Assembly on the airwaves and on cable.
- • Avila TV, a regional television station run by the city of Caracas.
Telesur, the 24-hour news channel launched in July 2005, is certainly Chávez’s most ambitious media project. In a move intended to expand the network’s reach beyond cable and satellite subscribers, Telesur purchased a Caracas-based broadcast television channel CMT, in December 2006.
The administration’s investment in state media was not only limited to national broadcast and cable outlets but also included the creation of a network of alternative and community media, including TV and radio stations. At the same time, the government has opened newspapers and websites to disseminate the official line and discredit critical journalists and media owners.
Though the media landscape has changed substantially since 2002, Chávez and officials in his administration still point out the concentration of media ownership in private hands. Most of them refuse to acknowledge that the government has been able to thwart private media’s control over the flow of information with significant spending in public funds. As expressed by Telesur President Andrés Izarra, one of the few officials who has spoken plainly on the official media policy, the goal of the Venezuelan government “is aimed at achieving the state’s communication and information hegemony.”
Carlos Lauría is Americas senior program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.
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