In some Latin American countries, state-owned media are used not only for propaganda but as platforms to smear critics, including journalists. Some elected leaders have even invested in large multimedia holdings to further their agendas. By Carlos Lauría
Riots at an infamous Venezuelan prison in June escalated into gun battles between hundreds of troops and inmates, killing at least 22 people. The crisis lasted four weeks, drew widespread media coverage, and sparked a war of words between the government and the opposition. Supporters of President Hugo Chávez, including the influential talk show host Mario Silva, accused the press of “manipulating” the situation and called for an investigation. Silva, host of the late-night show “La Hojilla” (The Razor) on state-owned Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), accused critical broadcaster Globovisión of calling for an uprising in the prisons and fomenting public anxiety. He suggested the network was trying to destabilize Venezuela.
Video: Confrontation in Correa’s Ecuador
Silva’s accusations prompted the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) to open an investigation into Globovisión’s coverage. On October 18, the regulator fined Globovisión more than US$2 million, citing the country’s highly restrictive Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television. Using Silva’s broadcasts as a springboard, Conatel found the station falsely claimed that members of the National Guard had “massacred” prisoners and that its reporting could have provoked riots in other prisons. Globovisión called the charges baseless and stood by its reporting.
Silva, who often refers to Globovisión as “Globoterror,” is a close Chávez adviser who dedicates his show to character assassination of opposition figures, critical reporters, media executives, and free press activists. After the Caracas-based daily El Nacional published an article on the murder of Silva’s bodyguard, he called the paper’s editor, Miguel Henrique Otero, a “coward and a swine,” repeatedly insulted members of his family, and accused him of supporting the failed 2002 coup against Chávez. Otero filed a defamation suit against Silva, which is pending.
Silva’s publicly funded program has become the most notorious example of a regional trend in which state-owned media are used not only for political propaganda, but also as platforms for smear campaigns against critics, including journalists. In politically polarized Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, elected leaders have invested in large multimedia holdings, building bulky official press conglomerates that further their personal political agendas, CPJ research shows.
The pattern defies regional and international standards. Free press advocates believe state media should be politically independent in order to provide citizens with information free of commercial, state, or political influence. Indeed, public media should be “independent of the executive branch; truly pluralistic; universally accessible; with funding adequate to the mandate provided for by law; and they must provide community participation and accountability mechanisms at the different levels of content production, distribution, and receipt,” the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ special rapporteur for freedom of expression said in a 2009 report.
That document echoes the 2007 Joint Declaration on Diversity by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the African Commission.”The mandate of public service broadcasters should be clearly set out in law and include, among other things, contributing to diversity, and serving the information needs and interests of all sectors of society,” the declaration states.
Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua all lack laws mandating that state media serve the public interest. “Public media have not been conceived in our countries as a quality alternative for the dissemination of information or response to cultural diversity,” wrote Guillermo Mastrini, a media specialist at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, in an analysis of public media and communication rights.
Leaders of the three nations often describe private media executives as the “oligarchy” or the “business elite,” people tied to transnational conglomerates and determined to skew coverage in favor of the political opposition, business, or other special interest groups. Governments in these countries justify their actions against journalists–who are often denied access to officials and events–by accusing private media of being enemies of the people.
Analysts say Venezuela in particular has tried to replicate aspects of the Cuban communications model, where the government owns and controls all media, uses them for propaganda and to oppose foreign criticism, and vilifies independent journalists and bloggers. This is worrisome because Cuba was, until recently, one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists. Those who try to work independently in Cuba are harassed, detained, threatened with prosecution or jail, or barred from traveling. Government websites accuse independent bloggers of receiving money from foreign-based opposition groups. Cuba’s constitution recognizes only “freedom of speech and the press in accordance with the goals of the socialist society.”
At the same time, Cuban government policy has severely restricted domestic Internet infrastructure, with only a small portion of the population allowed Internet at home. The vast majority are required to use state-controlled access points and undergo identity checks and heavy surveillance. Access to non-Cuban sites is restricted. Venezuela, too, will eventually control all communications, including the Internet, suggests Antonio Pasquali, a scholar with Venezuelan Central University. “The telephone and Internet will be our last instruments of freedom,” he said.
Venezuela still has private outlets that exercise their right to present different points of view. Three national dailies– El Universal, El Nacional, and Tal Cual–provide critical coverage, as do a handful of Caracas papers and magazines, several regional publications, and a number of online news sites. But of the three private television stations, only Globovisión still carries news shows and airs criticism of the government. RCTV, once the largest TV network and a tough critic of the administration, was forced off the air in 2007 in a politicized regulatory action. Two years later, Conatel used a legal technicality as a pretext to strip the licenses of more than 30 radio and television stations, silencing a chorus of critical voices.
“Venezuela’s communications model clearly emulates Cuba,” said Otero of El Nacional.
Through more than a decade in power, Chávez has proclaimed himself a socialist “revolutionary” leading poor Venezuelans in a struggle against the elites, including the media. But it took the Venezuelan president a few years to realize that his ability to cling to power rests on dominating the media. Until the failed 2002 coup, the state communications apparatus was composed of the Radio Nacional de Venezuela network, VTV, and the official news agency Venpres (now AVN). Since then, the government has invested hundreds of millions of bolívares in state-owned and community media projects, including TV and radio stations, newspapers, and websites. Since 2003, it has financed the startup of ViVe TV, a nationwide cultural and educational television network; ANTV, which broadcasts National Assembly sessions on the airwaves and on cable; AN radio; Ávila TV, a regional channel run by the city of Caracas; Alba TV and Alba Ciudad FM; YVKE Mundial Radio; La Radio del Sur; the newspaper Correo del Orinoco; and the news website Aporrea. Venezuelan Social Television Station, known as Tves, began broadcasting on May 28, 2007, a day after RCTV was pulled off the air. In July 2005, the government launched its most ambitious media project, Telesur, a 24-hour news channel that officials see as an alternative to CNN. Venezuela owns 51 percent of the channel; the governments of Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia own minority stakes.
The administration continues to subsidize state media heavily. In July, deputies of the socialist party authorized a loan of 700 million bolívares (US$166 million) aimed at supporting the state media apparatus, news reports said. Communications and Information Minister Andrés Izarra has long acknowledged that the government’s strategy is aimed at “achieving the state’s communication and information hegemony.” By expanding state and community media, officials contend, the government is fulfilling citizens’ constitutional guarantee of plural information. But Marcelino Bisbal, a professor at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, said the administration perceives communication as a way to educate the people in socialism, its ultimate goal. “For this government, information is about creating one sole truth, one sole communication, one sole information, one sole culture,” Bisbal wrote in a media analysis.
Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa has followed closely in Chávez’s footsteps. When Correa took office in early 2007, state media consisted only of Radio Nacional de Ecuador. The administration erected an ambitious press machinery in just a few years. The 2008 government takeover of two private television stations, TC Televisión and Gama TV, and several other media outlets served as the starting point for this remarkable growth. The outlets were owned by Grupo Isaías, whose principals, Roberto and William Isaías, allegedly owed $661 million to Ecuador after the 1998 collapse of Filanbanco, their financial institution. The stations draw nearly 40 percent of the country’s news audience.
At the time of the takeover, Correa pledged to sell the media assets to recover money owed to Ecuadorans, but he has never done so. Neither did he keep his promise to preserve the outlets’ editorial independence. “All those media are used for government propaganda,” said Tania Tinoco, an anchor with the privately owned television station Ecuavisa.
Ecuador’s media landscape remains diverse and vibrant, CPJ research shows. Hundreds of radio stations operate around the country, among them community and indigenous broadcasters in provincial regions. Five private television networks–Ecuavisa, Teleamazonas, RTS, Telerama, and Canal Uno–and more than 35 daily newspapers offer a wide range of opinions, analyses, and political perspectives, CPJ’s analysis found.
But year by year, the Correa administration has plowed public funds–the amount has never been disclosed–into assembling a massive state media operation that now consists of numerous TV stations (TC Televisión, Gama TV, and Ecuador TV, plus cable stations CN3 and CD7), radio stations (Radio Pública de Ecuador, Radio Carrousel, Radio Super K 800, and Radio Universal), newspapers (El Telégrafo, PP El Verdadero, and El Ciudadano), magazines (La Onda, El Agro, Valles, and Samborondón), and a news agency (Agencia Pública de Noticias del Ecuador y Suramérica, known as Andes). “The state has transformed itself as a communications player, from being irrelevant when Correa took office to now having a leading role,” said César Ricaurte, executive director of the local press group Fundamedios.
The administration’s official stance is that state media should have editorial independence. “The public media are relatively new in Ecuador, and the government is trying to improve their administration and seek their editorial independence,” Doris Soliz, minister of political coordination, told CPJ. “But the media belong to the state, not to the government.”
In practice, however, Correa has used state media as a platform to discredit journalists who oppose his policies. The president often devotes his regular Saturday radio broadcasts to verbal assaults against media companies and individual journalists. The outlets most frequently targeted are the national dailies El Universo, La Hora, El Comercio, and Expreso, along with the television network Teleamazonas. The president has described critics as “ignorant,” “trash-talking,” “liars,” “unethical,” “mediocre,” “ink-stained hit men,” and “political actors who are trying to oppose the revolutionary government.” With this stream of abuse, Correa has managed to influence public opinion while avoiding debate on issues related to corruption and government transparency.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega mimics the steps taken by Chávez and Correa, gradually exerting more control over people and institutions, including the press, and casting the private media as enemies. The Sandinista-led government uses the official media apparatus–Channel 4, Channel 8, Channel 13, the radio station Nueva Radio Ya, and the news website El 19–to conduct character attacks against critics. These efforts are supported by an email news service called Nicaragua Triunfa–and the FSLN-owned Radio Sandino. Well-known critical journalists like former El Nuevo Diario editor Danilo Aguirre have been labeled “fascists.” Carlos Fernando Chamorro, host of the show “Esta Semana” (This Week) on private television station Channel 12, has been investigated and accused of money laundering in what CPJ described as a politicized inquiry intended to restrict news coverage on government corruption.
The investigations and name-calling are part of an aggressive campaign to obstruct and marginalize independent media. Nicaragua is home to more than 100 private radio stations and several television stations, including channels 2, 10, 11, and 12. Cable television is available in the main urban centers. There are two national dailies, La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario, both of which are harshly critical of Ortega, along with the weekly Confidencial, and several online publications.
But government officials maintain contact with only the handful of pro-government outlets controlled by the president’s family or party. Criminal defamation lawsuits against independent journalists are routine, and the administration has manipulated government advertising in ways intended to punish critical media and reward allies, a 2009 CPJ report found.
The June launch of Channel 13 Viva Nicaragua, a 24-hour television news network owned by the Ortega family and run by Ortega’s children, Luciana, Camila, and Maurice Ortega Murillo, is one instance of the president’s aim to control the flow of information. Promoted as an outlet focused on “social themes,” the station offers the official perspective to the exclusion of opposition voices. For example, an October piece on an epidemic of dengue fever focused entirely on the national campaign to prevent the disease and provided no information on the death toll or number of people who contracted the disease in 2011.
Nicaraguan journalists said the Ortega family has created a prosperous media empire in the last five years. Son Rafael Ortega Murillo, who heads a company called Nueva Imagen, negotiated the family’s access into Nicaraguan TV by partnering with Mexican businessman Ángel González in 2007. Carlos Enrique and Daniel Edmundo Ortega Murillo direct Channel 4; Juan Carlos Ortega Murillo directs Channel 8; and Maurice Ortega Murillo directs the TV production company RGB Media, according to press reports. President Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, is his communications strategist and top press adviser.
Leaders of other nations have exploited state media for political purposes. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales has been frank in saying his government takes advantage of state broadcasting to thwart perceived private media distortions. And in Argentina, critics say the television show “6, 7, 8” on state-run Channel 7 has launched witch hunts against unsympathetic journalists. On this roundtable show, five journalists and two guests regularly disparage coverage by the mainstream press, portraying reporters and news outlets as political actors and opposition. They have used social media to call on government supporters to take to the streets to protest mainstream coverage.
The concept of state media as public service–taken from the European model of entrusting organizations to act in the general interest and giving them enough autonomy to prevent political interference–has yet to be applied in Latin America. But some analysts point out encouraging regional developments, particularly in television. Televisión Nacional de Chile (TVN), Channel 22 in Mexico, and TV Cultura in Brazil have been put forward as examples of outlets that belong to the state but have accomplished their primary public service goal.
An announcement in July by Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes that state media would be reformed to grant official outlets unprecedented legal autonomy was seen by media analysts and press advocates as a positive step toward ending the role of government media as mouthpieces for ruling administrations. The reforms, developed in collaboration with the World Bank, are aimed at promoting the “public good,” as expressed by Andrew Leyton, representative of the multilateral lending institution. The World Bank will give financial support to the rebuilding of old equipment from state radio and television. Funes said the first step will involve the creation of Radio El Salvador Internacional and a news agency. David Rivas, secretary of communications for the Salvadoran presidency, said that for years, state radio and television have been “subject to political whims.” The Funes administration, Rivas said, is seeking to give state media independence so they can fulfill their goal of public service.
Carlos Lauría is CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. A native of Buenos Aires, he is a widely published journalist who has written extensively for Noticias, one of the world’s largest Spanish-language newsmagazines. In 2011, Lauría conducted a fact-finding mission to Ecuador.