The truth of Chavez's media war

Powered by automated translation

(Kagan McCloud for The National)

The coverage of the past week's ugly clashes in Caracas, Venezuela, has characteristically  reinforced the image of a tyrannical Hugo Chavez, bent on controlling the country's broadcast media.

Hundreds of students have protested, again, over the closure of RCTV - one of Venezuela's media channels that have vehemently opposed the president while supporting the oligarchy that he replaced. Mainstream media has offered little explanation of Chavez's seemingly draconian actions, save for citing his apparent and plausible desire to silence criticism of his leadership. Nor have they attempted to detail the presence of pro-Chavez supporters, including students, who have clashed with the protesters (the two youths killed in the clashes were both pro-chavez supporters).

The reports coming out of Venezuela have focused on the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela's (PSUV) insistence that the country's media adhere to government-imposed broadcasts that are now law, including speeches  from President Chavez.

"The new regulations have been roundly criticized by Chavez opponents, the Roman Catholic Church and media organizations", crooned AP's Fabiola Sanchez, echoing the sentiments of the international press.

She continues: "Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, accused the president of cracking down on independent media that don't share his socialist policies.

'Chavez has sought to intimidate and punish broadcasters who criticise his government," Vivanco said in a statement. "Now he's also going after those who refuse to promote his own political agenda.'"

This would all seem rather convincing and conclusive to most, compounded by the reality of Venezuela's double digit inflation, and, somewhat paradoxically for a major energy supplier, an electricity crisis. It would appear that Chavez is losing his grip on power and is acting increasingly egotistical and draconian in order to compensate for his lack of popular support.

To report that the media is being attacked after independent and objectively criticising the government's socialist agenda, however, is misleading. Since his inauguration Chavez has aggressively redistributed wealth and introduced free health care and free education for all ages, creating near 100 per cent literacy in the nation with a history of poverty and a huge rich-poor divide.

A couple of documentaries shed some light on the direction the country has taken, namely John Pilger's War on Democracy. Pilger's piece in the Guardian and a subsequent interview with the award-winning journalist provide an alternative depiction of events to the mainstream media's.

Pilger's documentary showed footage from the country's media depicting Chavez as a fascist and a Nazi, with caricatures of him portrayed as Adolf Hitler. Pilger's interviews with the upper classes found that their financial situation hadn't changed, and that in fact capitalism was booming (pre-recession), but that politically, they had lost their political clout.

To understand Chavez' opposition to the country's media, one must take a look at the last decade. RCTV and other privately-owned channels Venevisión, Globovisión and Televen vocally supported the illegal military coup attempt against Chavez in 2002. At the time Chavez was kidnapped and taken to a military base while RCTV reported that he had resigned from power, and heralded the change as a victory for democracy.

After the coup, hundreds of thousands of the country's poor came down from the barrios (slums) and, supported by elements of the military, demanded the return of their elected president.

Footage from an Irish documentary The Revolution Will Not be Televised showed a coup leader thanking Venevision and RCTV for their assistance and referred to the media as a "secret weapon".

So while Chavez continues to become increasingly unpopular with the West, which he has effectively kicked out of his country, he remains popular with the country's poor and has built ties with Russia and Iran.

Pilger concludes that: "he [Chavez] offers the threat of an alternative way of developing a decent society. In other words, the threat of a good example in a continent where the majority of humanity has long suffered a Washington-designed peonage."

It is becoming apparent, however, that while fighting the partisan media, Chavez's militant enforcers are overstepping the mark, and warrant accusations of stifling freedom of speech.

Dr Jairo Lugo, a journalism lecturer at Stirling University and an active journalist, has come to that conclusion.

He reported that: "The national prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, has proposed a "Law of Media Crimes" to regulate all content of all media outlets. Journalists who give an opinion based on "wrong facts" - including crime reporting - will be deemed criminals and jailed for up to six years.

A friend of Dr Lugo's suffered this very fate, and he added in his article that: "Gustavo shares the fate of more than two dozen journalists who are in jail, have had to leave the country, or were made to resign from their jobs because of political pressure"

It remains to be seen whether Chavez, whose party won ten elections in eight years, will be able to retain popular support and resist leaning towards a system of government that his critics have already likened to Fidel Castro's Cuba.

Read a Reuters article and interview with the leader of the student opposition at Caracas Central University.