After Chávez: More press freedom or status quo?

April 5, 2013

CARACAS, Venezuela – The opposition in Venezuela, along with international and local corporate media, claims that the state controls the news as much possible; restricts the right to information by threatening to deny the renewal of broadcast licenses; and unlawfully pressures private corporate media, provoking self-censorship in the media.

Some Venezuelans, mainly “Chavistas,” say that there is “too much” freedom of expression in Venezuela because it allows private media outlets to publish distorted information, news montages and insults to the presidency, which they claim are not allowed in more democratic countries.

During the two weeks following Chávez's death on March 5, The Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism witnessed these divergent views on freedom of the press.

Rosa Pellegrino, a professor at the Central University of Venezuela and editor of the state-owned Venezuelan News Agency, said before Chávez there was "confidence in the media."  

Pellegrino said that in April 2002, when anti-Chávez opposition snipers fired on a crowd, killing 11, some media outlets, by "manipulating images," made it seem that the attackers were Chávez supporters, which prompted a coup d'etat, with a 47-hour kidnapping of the president, and "people stopped believing in the media." That "was not only a coup, it was a rupture," she said.

Since then, "for us — journalists of any media — it has been very hard," she said. "Venezuelan journalists "are afraid to say what they feel to avoid confrontation."

During the time that Chávez was kidnapped by the rebels, she said, "Colleagues reported on protests, but their media do not publish it ... People were in demonstrations demanding the return of Chávez, and television stations were airing cartoons." 

In Venezuela, such polarization has prompted discussion, and most journalists identify themselves as opposition or not.

Pellegrino said that in every election "opposition" media outlets, such as the “El Nacional,” “El Universal” and most regional newspapers, announce their candidates as winners until the last minute, after which they end up losing.

What do the "opposition journalists” say?

Union Radio reporter Enrique Maruchi, identified with presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, said via email that "Chávez's relationship with the media was characterized by the constant attacks … keeping pressure on private media to achieve having a 'control' of information."

For Leonardo Favio Oliveros-Medina, a reporter for “Diario Avance de los Teques” in the Miranda region, and also aligned with Capriles, "Chavez's relationship with the media was of hatred, confrontation, because he was never a friend of complaints," he said.

The journalist from Miranda, where Capriles is governor, said if the Chavista candidate, Nicolás Maduro, wins the April 14 election, "The government's relationship with the media will not change, as Maduro tries to imitate Chávez. There will be no change, and I’m afraid it will make this confrontation fiercer or more radical.”

An investigative reporter for the “6to Poder” critical weekly, Nicolás Chaccal, said the Chávez government's relationship with the media was "estranged."

"The government of Hugo Chávez was characterized by creating its own media, to put pressure on private media. Persecutions against independent media were noted. In my view, there were no death threats in the practice of journalism, although there are stories during 14 years in government," said Chaccal, without offering specifics.

"In a hypothetical Maduro government, the relationship with the media may remain the same. (There will be) a clear demarcation and detachment, stronger public pro-government media, which weaken the private practice of journalism and a continuation of the Chávez legacy, in my personal judgment," Chaccal said.

What do international organizations and unions have to say?

The Venezuelan opposition media echoed the conclusions of the last meeting of the Inter American Press Association in March when "it was determined that the secrecy with which they handled the health status of the late president led to a general atmosphere of political uncertainty in the country."

The association said, "Freedom of speech and press were severely affected in the last months of 2012 and early 2013 in Venezuela," during the president’s recovery.

However, referring to this period, Pellegrino said, "You can’t say the president is going to die at any time because it could have caused a disaster. It was a concise management; it could have been more regular, yes, but there is nothing to indicate that they lied," she said. She said the media had to take care and respect the wishes of the president’s family.

The International Press Institute, based in Switzerland, urged Maduro’s interim government in Venezuela "to respect press freedom, to refrain from any form of harassment of the opposition press and ensure the safety of journalists in the forthcoming presidential elections," as published in opposition media. 

In late February 2013, the creation of the Bolivarian Republic of Communication and Information System, which integrates all state media, was formalized. The deputy for the state of Tachira and former presenter of the defunct Radio Caracas Television, Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, warned that this organization is a way of restricting the dissemination of information and criticism of the central government, adding that this measure "is announcing the end of freedom of information.”

But Pellegrino said, "It is completely false, a lie, that the state has a monopoly on communications." 

In his book, "Freedom of expression and media revolutionaries in Venezuela," writer Luis Britto-García said the Bolivarian Republic "is one of the countries with greatest freedom of expression in the world, both by the sustained expansion of its communications sector as well as the absence of restrictions on the content they broadcast."

Britto-García said that "the most decisive proof that the Venezuelan state does not violate the right to seek, receive and impart information is available in the decisions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued on Jan. 28, 2009, in the two media-related cases brought before it."

In the case of Radio Caracas Television, which disappeared after the Chávez government did not renew its broadcasting license, and of Globovision, which had serious disagreements with Chávez, the court determined that it "has not been established that the state violated the right to seek, receive and impart information."

In Venezuela, according to 2012 records, there are 499 licensed commercial FM stations, 83 public service and 247 community stations. Similarly, there are 67 commercial television broadcasters, 13 public service and 38 community stations.

But the large number of private media, does not mean a democratization "in their property or in the selection of content," says Britto-García, as it "operates an extreme concentration of the property … in the hands of a dozen families."


Iñaki Estívaliz contributed to this story.

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