Many state media in Latin American are used for political propaganda, but the Venezuelan government has built an unprecedented media empire that it uses to attack critics and independent journalists and obscure issues like crime and inflation. By Carlos Lauría
Published August 29, 2012
A few answers to a crossword puzzle were soon interpreted as an alleged plot to kill President Hugo Chávez Frías’s elder brother. Published May 9 in the Caracas-based independent daily Ultimas Noticias, the puzzle included the terms “kill,” “bursts of gunfire,” and “Adán,” the name of Chávez’s sibling—and led Miguel Pérez Pirela, host of the show “Cayendo y Corriendo” (Falling and Running) on state-owned Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), to say that mathematicians and psychologists had studied it, captured coded messages, and concluded it was an assassination plot.
More in this report
• Introduction: Media transformed
• Press under assault
• Globovisión harassed
• Hackers hound press
• Media under seige
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A day after the show, members of the national intelligence service visited the paper’s offices seeking information about the puzzle’s author, Ultimas Noticias said. Neptali Segovia, an English teacher who has created puzzles for the daily for more than 15 years, said the accusation was absurd, and presented himself at the intelligence service to be questioned. “I’m the first one interested in having all this cleared up. I have nothing to hide,” Segovia said in Ultimas Noticias. No charges were filed against him.
While the conspiracy theory was decried as excessive even by some in Chávez’s circle, the case is an example of the perilous, polarized environment in Venezuela, in which state media are used not only to advance political goals, but also as platforms to lambaste critics, including independent journalists, and avoid a debate on issues of substance, media analysts say. Rampant violence, kidnappings, a prison crisis, and inflation are among the major concerns of Venezuelan people that have gone unreported in the weeks leading up to the October 7 presidential elections.
“The official media divert attention from social problems like crime, insecurity, and the economy,” Margarita López Maya, a historian at Central University in Venezuela, told CPJ.
The diversions sometimes turn ugly. In March, host Mario Silva of the television show “La Hojilla” (The Razor), also on state-owned VTV, accused cartoonist Rayma Suprani with the critical Caracas-based daily El Universal of “spreading hatred” with her illustrations. Soon after, Suprani began getting insults and threats on Twitter, according to the local free expression group Espacio Público.
Venezuela has no laws mandating that the government provide information free of commercial or political influence. Instead, the Chávez administration has invested heavily to build a large state press conglomerate to further its political agenda, CPJ research shows. In other Latin American countries, state media also largely broadcast propaganda at the expense of plural viewpoints. But analysts say some state-controlled regional television stations have a more balanced approach, carrying issues in the public interest. They cite Televisión Nacional de Chile, Canal 22: Canal Cultural de México, and TV Cultura in Brazil.
When Chávez first took office in 1999, he inherited poorly financed state media consisting of two broadcasters and a news agency with limited reach. Meanwhile, the dominant, private media were well funded by pro-business elites and widely distributed. During the failed coup attempt in April 2002, the four main private television stations barely covered pro-Chávez demonstrations, instead airing cartoons and movies, CPJ research shows. Many analysts alleged that private media executives colluded to impose a news blackout, while the executives claimed they could not cover the story for fear of violence from Chávez’s backers. No media owner or executive was ever charged for involvement in the coup, but Chávez realized that controlling the flow of information could only be accomplished by expanding the number of outlets owned by the state.
And so he did. Since 2003, the government 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 the country’s oldest private television station, RCTV, was pulled off the air after 57 years. According to a 2007 CPJ report, the Venezuelan government failed to conduct a fair and transparent review of RCTV’s concession renewal in an effort to silence its critical coverage. In 2010, government regulators also pulled RCTV from cable and satellite for not carrying Chávez’s speeches.
The formidable media presence is supported by a group of state-funded community media, added López Maya from Central University. “The balance between private media and state-owned has changed dramatically since Chávez’s second mandate,” she told CPJ. In fact, the government recently marshaled resources from the broadcast regulator Conatel, the Ministry of Communication and Information, and the intelligence service to draw a map of the nation’s media based on their allegiances, according to Espacio Público. The survey concluded that more than 50 percent of media is loyal to the government, while 25 percent is sympathetic to the opposition.
In July 2005, the government launched its most ambitious initiative: Telesur, a 24-hour news network that carries no commercial advertising and is available free-to-air and via satellite in Latin America, the U.S., Western Europe, Northern Africa, and some parts of Asia and the Middle East, according to its website. Venezuela owns 51 percent of Telesur, and the rest is owned by the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Uruguay. Carlos Romero, a political scientist at Central University, said Telesur’s audience is more global than local due it its international programming. “It has very limited reach among the popular sectors. But it has modern technology and deep pockets,” Romero said.
In the book Hegemony and the Control of Communications, Marcelino Bisbal, media analyst at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas, wrote that the Venezuelan government’s media platform had no precedent in the history of the country or Latin America.
Chávez has invested time as well as money in the airwaves; he has used the state media empire to become omnipresent in the life of Venezuelans. According to Espacio Público, Chávez has spent more than 1,600 broadcast hours on the air since 1999, broadcasting 2,334 cadenas, nationwide radio and television addresses that pre-empt programming on all stations.
Yet the president’s presence on the air does not necessarily mean that ordinary Venezuelans are well informed by or about him. Chávez did personally announce that doctors had removed a baseball-size tumor from his pelvis, and said in February that he’d had a relapse of the cancer, but he has not provided details and his exact health condition is a state secret. Most information about his health has come from two sources: exiled physician José Mariquina, who has lived in the U.S. since 1991, and Venezuelan reporter Nelson Bocaranda, who runs the news website Runrun.es. Bocaranda has proved to be so accurate in predicting Chávez’s trips to Cuba that some call him the “unofficial minister of information,” according to press reports.
As his television appearances have diminished along with his health, Chávez has communicated via Twitter and written statements, prompting critics to complain that the president was ruling the country from abroad by tweet.
Indeed, digital media do play a role in furthering the government’s agenda and launching attacks on critics. Internet penetration has increased from 3 percent in 1999 to 36 percent in 2011, according to CANTV, the national telephone company. Chávez has called Twitter a “weapon” that can be used for the benefit of his revolution. Most Venezuelan officials use Twitter and Facebook; the state controls several news websites as well as blogs.
Local journalists and free press advocates say officials use this array of tools to denounce critical journalists for what they describe as attempts to destabilize the country, depriving Venezuelans of vital information. In May, Prison Minister Iris Varela accused the private press of exacerbating violent clashes in a Caracas prison and said the government had decided not to issue prison statistics any more to the private press. Prison unrest and crowding have become major problems for Chávez; violence is widespread, and inmates often manage to obtain guns and drugs with the help of corrupt guards. “It is not a question of hiding information,” Varela said, according to the state-owned news agency AVN. “We cannot allow the private media to bolster inmates’ resistance—they just want to attack President Chávez.”
CPJ Senior Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría, a native of Buenos Aires, is a widely published journalist who has written extensively for Noticias, the world’s largest Spanish-language newsmagazine.