Monday, October 1, 2007

Freedom of the Press in Venezuela

A conversation today with Carlos “El Navegante” (The Navigator, according to the sign on his jeep) reminded me that I had never posted the article I was writing in June about freedom of speech and the media here in Venezuela. Carlos is a driver in the taxi cooperative that transports 8 to 12 people at time between Monte Carmelo and Sanare in an assortment of old jeeps, SUVs, and pick-up trucks.

While we were waiting for others to arrive at the taxi stop, Carlos said he was glad to know I was writing about Venezuela. “I don’t think people in the United States have any idea how much freedom we have here, we can say and write anything we want. I think we are practicing a unique kind of socialism here, since the government never censures the press and businesses are free to pursue their private affairs and make money. The media in the U.S. is spreading lies about Chavez being a dictator and a tyrant.”

“True,” I replied, “the Bush Administration and the really played up the story about RCTV and freedom of speech, as if RCTV was being shut down unfairly.”

“That had nothing to do with freedom of the press!” insisted Carlos. “RCTV did not get to renew their lease as a nationwide network, but this is exactly like someone who rents a house from you. You allow them to stay in the house until the end of their lease, but then, when the time is up, you are free to rent it to someone else who can make better use of the house. In this case, another channel has a chance to use the publicly owned airwaves and produce better programming for the nation. I don’t think this concept is so difficult to understand.”

Some Opinions about “Free Speech” and Private TV in Venezuela, June 2007

Mario thought the government had made a mistake: five years ago.

When Mario exhibits his work, he tries to get gallery owners and museum officials to allow the forbidden: “Let people touch the sculptures!”

Mario says that those with perfectly good eyesight, who all their lives have been admonished by museum guards “not to touch,” are really excited when they get to lay their hands on the sensuous curves of his sculptures.

Mario lives in Maracaibo and creates beautiful works in ceramics and wood. Because he himself is blind, he sometimes offers sculpture workshops for sight-challenged students. At the end of May, as he was heading to one of these workshops in San Carlos, he spent the evening chatting with us in Sanare.

While Mario was willing to talk about art that night, he was more interested in discussing politics and intellectual freedom. This was the week that the Chavez government was being accused by the national and international press of suppressing free speech because it did not renew the nationwide broadcasting license of a major station, RCTV. Most of the Venezuelans I talked to thought the government had done the right thing in denying the station an extension of its license.

Except for Mario, who spent many years in the U.S. and was educated there; he thought the government was at fault. “I think the government should have shut down RCTV four or five years ago,” he said. “The government was weak at the time and didn’t respond at all after Granier [the owner of RCTV] and his station participated in the coup against Chavez in 2002 and then encouraged the sabotage of the national oil industry in 2003. Granier lost all legal right to hold a broadcast license. There was no reason to wait for his 20-year license to expire this year. Besides, the quality of their programming has always been awful.”

Irlanda, a progressive Catholic and a school teacher, had emphasized the same thing earlier that day. Because she works with women’s groups and students on issues of violence, sexuality, and gender discrimination, she was elated that RCTV’s soap operas would no longer be aired. “They are blatantly sexist and stupid and, in a sense, pornographic. The relationships depicted between men and women -- most of them rich and white, materialistic and shallow -- are demeaning to everyone concerned. I’d like my high school students to see shows where the people have more respect for each other, where sex is connected to feelings of love, and where the actors look more like the rest of us.”

Antonio, whom we had just seen in Caracas, disagreed with the decision not to renew RCTV’s license: “Of course, they deserved to be shut down – not only does everyone know that RCTV participated in the coup in 2002, but they admitted it themselves. But my worry is that right now this simply plays into the hands of the U.S. State Department and right-wing media around the world – they keep looking for reasons to make our government look like a dictatorship – this episode with RCTV will only be used to present us in a bad light.”

Antonio has worked as a petroleum engineer and as a manager of construction projects in the private and public sectors. He holds a masters degree in business management from the University of Dublin, but he also has many friends who are writers and film directors. He thinks the government’s proposal, to replace RCTV with a public station that produces its own independent programming, something like the BBC or PBS, is quite feasible: “The government has already invested in studios and projects that are giving lots of these young artists the opportunity and freedom to produce their own videos and films and documentaries. So, they are already prepared to make some good shows from a variety of perspectives.”

Then he added a cautionary note, “Let’s hope the things they produce find their way onto to the new channel, TVes.” He said he hopes that the government will keep itself out of the process and allow these new TV creators the freedom they deserve. In his experience, the Venezuelan bureaucracies often are cumbersome and inefficient, and are not yet free of the old Venezuelan curses of corruption and cronyism.

“Freedom” to own the press, freedom to monopolize the news

For two weeks at the end of May and the beginning of June, thousands of Venezuelan university students began marching in the streets of Caracas. Most of them had two distinct minority characteristics: they were white and upper class. They complained about the loss of their freedom of speech, but they were speaking and yelling very freely.

In fact, the protests had nothing to do with freedom of expression, but rather with the freedom of capital to assert unlimited control over the public broadcasting airwaves. They were supporting the right of one rich Venezuelan, Marcel Granier, to renew a broadcasting license that had expired. Granier was one of a handful of citizens in Venezuela who enjoyed real freedom of speech on TV. He owned a major television station (Radio Caracas TV) that had nationwide network status, and he asserted personal control over the programming.

In most countries of the world, including many others that have a great respect for human rights, Granier would have been stripped of his broadcasting license years ago (and perhaps, put in jail.) In 2002, he and RCTV directly aided the coup that ousted President Chavez from office for two days, yet he and many other co-conspirators were never arrested for treason. For the next five years RCTV kept broadcasting a steady stream of anti-Chavez invective.

This busload of demonstrators – who supported the government – got stuck in traffic jam next to us and may not have made it to the demonstration in favor of closing RCTV.

The Protests and Coverage by the “Free” Press of the North

The U.S. media gave considerable attention to the students protesting on behalf of RCTV. These young people were allowed to march, stop traffic, and chant, even when they did had not complied with the requirements of requesting a police permit in advance. Generally they were handled very gently by the police, although a couple of times the police broke up a march after some participants bombarded the peace officers with stones and big chunks of concrete sidewalk. There were many more police injured than demonstrators. Some of the early marches drew ten thousand participants, but gradually the enthusiasm for street demonstrations waned.

While the demonstrations were still going on in the streets, the North American press kept the headlines coming on a daily basis. The Bloomsburg network ran a typical headline, “Thousands protest closing of television station,” that was a fair enough description, because at some of the marches there were 5 or 10 thousand people showing up.

One day, June 2nd, the U.S. media had a chance to provide some balance by covering the other side of the issue, since many people were also demonstrating in support of Chavez. Once again, a typical headline read: “Thousands march in support of government shutting down RCTV.”

This may seem like balanced coverage, but it was not. The media conveniently avoided mentioning that on this particular day “thousands” meant five hundred thousand (the low estimate), or a thousand thousand (many sources estimated over a million participants) – fifty to a hundred times more than the biggest turnout in support of RCTV earlier in the week.

On that day, Saturday June 2, I was returning to Caracas from the city of Barquisimeto and hoping to see the march before getting on a plane for Miami. But I never got close. An enormous traffic jam of would-be demonstrators engulfed us for more than two hours. Alongside us were hundreds of buses and thousands of cars full of people waving banners and chanting -- they didn’t get to the march on time either. As we were waiting, I telephoned a friend, a fellow U.S. citizen and long-time resident of Venezuela who was at this pro-government march, and he said it was like a gigantic fiesta.

In the case of the smaller, pro-RCTV demonstrations, there had also been people from the United States taking part, including some Venezuelan-Americans who flew down from Miami and were interviewed by The Miami Herald. Among the other North American participants, according to veteran journalist and essayist Luis Britto Garcia, was Rowen Rosten, CIA chief for Latin America. A picture of him grinning amidst the protests was captured by an enterprising Caracas cameraman.

The Pro-RCTV students blow it
Several days after the huge anti-RCTV, pro-government march, the National Assembly hosted a remarkable event. It invited twenty students, ten who supported the pro-RCTV
position and ten pro-Chavez students who were against renewing RCTV’s license, to speak and debate before the legislative representatives. When they arrived, the ten pro-RCTV students were wearing red T-shirts, which are usually associated with Chavez supporters.

Douglas Barrios, who supported RCTV, spoke first. He read a statement about supporting RCTV in the future without much inflection or emotion, and he did not really present arguments about the freedom of expression. At the end of his speech, Barrios said, “I dream of a country in which we can be taken into account without having to wear a uniform.” Then he and his nine colleagues pulled off their red T-shirts and revealed other T-shirts that had pro-RCTV messages on them. They were about to walk out of the National Assembly when pro-Chavez students and members of the Assembly convinced them to stay, and asked them to take part in the debate and listen to their counterparts’ arguments against renewing the license of RCTV.

The second speaker was Andreina Tarazon, a student at the Central University of Venezuela, and she supported the moral and legal position of the government. She said that the opposition students were confused and could not distinguish between “libertad de prensa” (freedom of the press) and “libertad de empresa” (freedom of big business). Eighteen more speakers were scheduled to follow, evenly divided between pro- and anti-positions. Andreina and the other nine speakers who supported the government were well-prepared, and they proceeded to defend their position with reason and passion.

But not the anti-Chavez students. At this point they really blew it. The third speaker, and the second spokesperson for the pro-RCTV side, Yon Goicoechea, stood up briefly to say that his group’s position was non-political, and so they were not going to continue with the debate. They were giving up on an unprecedented opportunity, for this was the first time in Venezuelan history that university students had been invited to address the national legislature, and the debate was being broadcast on national television.

Goicoechea and his followers simply walked out of the National Assembly, and from that moment they lost the limited amount of public sympathy they had built up in the previous two weeks.

Yon Goicoechea, it turns out, is not just a student at the private Catholic University, Andres Bello. He is also an experienced organizer for Primera Justicia, a small, ultra-right political party which gets most of its support from the richest neighborhoods in Caracas and meets regularly with representatives of the U.S. Embassy to chart anti-Chavez strategies. When Goicoechea and his nine cohorts marched out the back door of the National Assembly, they left an incriminating document behind on the speaker’s lectern.

The first and only speaker on behalf of RCTV, Douglas Barrios, had been reading his speech from printed pages, but he forgot to take the last page with him. This page, it turns out, was printed by ARS Publicity, a Caracas public relations firm owned by Globovision, the stridently anti-Chavez media empire. Globovision and ARS had helped orchestrate the attempted “media” coup of April 2002 and the shut-down of the oil industry in 2002-3. The page not only contained parts of Barrios’ speech, but also the scripted directions that instructed Barrios about the exact moment he was supposed to remove his red T-shirt.

So, even though they had taken a beating in the international press, Chavez and his supporters had emerged victorious, at least on the domestic scene. Ariela Mamreia, a law student from the Central University who also spoke at National Assembly, explained in a newspaper interview that opposition media and foreign media had focused on a minority of students, mostly at elite and private universities, who did not represent most university students (there are over 600,000 in Venezuela), who were firmly behind the government. The margin of support for Chavez is even more overwhelming, she said, if one considers the hundreds of thousands of adults who have returned to school, usually at night, to finish their college level studies under the Mission Sucre program.

But what about freedom of the press?

The majority of television stations in Venezuela continue to be owned by wealthy Venezuelans and they still criticize Chavez constantly. An even larger percentage of newspapers are privately owned and critics of the government. The spectrum of opinion in the major media is far wider than in the U.S.A.

In the United States and many other parts of the world, the ownership of the major media is concentrated in very few hands, so that a rich oligarchy gets to choose what you see or don’t see, what you read or don’t read. They have succeeded, at least in part, in getting most North Americans and many Europeans to view Hugo Chavez as a dangerous leader and a “menace to democracy” (to quote the Bush Administration.)

Yet we English speakers in the North (and in Australia) may be the ones suffering from the biggest deficit of democracy, especially when it comes to the opinions that are expressed in the news. In 2005 British/Pakistani author Tarik Ali questioned how much “free press” really exists under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch, the media baron who has just taken over The Wall Street Journal. Why is it, asked Ali, “that all of Rupert Murdoch’s 247 editors in different parts of the world supported the war in Iraq?”

After the pro-RCTV students embarrassed themselves by not taking advantage of their opportunity to speak in front of the national legislature, their marches ended. But a few of the hard-core kids decided to do what they do best: Go shopping! The last protest photograph I saw was of several young women riding the fancy escalator in the Sambil shopping mall. (Unfortunately I can’t get that photo to upload onto the page.) They all looked similar to the young woman to the right and they also wore tape over their mouths.

If you need to know more about why Venezuela is not becoming an authoritarian country, or you need more evidence and arguments to put in front of others, please read the opinion of one of the best-informed Latin American scholars in the U.S.

“Freedom of Speech Alive and Well in Venezuela”
By Greg Grandin
June 15, 2007

The government of Venezuela has decided not to renew a broadcast license for RCTV, one of the oldest and largest opposition-controlled TV stations in the country. The U.S. media, in keeping with its reporting on Venezuela for the past eight years, has seized upon this opportunity to portray this as an assault on "freedom of the press."

It's not clear why a TV station that would never get a broadcast license in the United States or any other democratic country should receive one in Venezuela. But this is the one question that doesn't seem to come up in any of the news reports or editorials here.

RCTV actively participated in the U.S.-backed coup that briefly overthrew Venezuela's democratically elected President Hugo Chavez in 2002. The station promoted the coup government and reported only the pro-coup version of events. It censored and suppressed the news as the coup fell apart.

Even ignoring RCTV's role in the coup, its broadcast license would have been revoked years ago in the U.S., Europe, or any country that regulates the public airwaves. During the oil strike of 2002-2003, the station repeatedly called on people to join in and help topple the government. The station has also fabricated accusations of murder by the government, using graphic and violent images to promote its hate-filled views.

The whole idea that freedom of expression is under attack in Venezuela is a joke to anyone who has been there in the last eight years. Most of the media in Venezuela is still controlled by people who are vehemently (sometimes violently) opposed to the government. This will be true even after RCTV switches from broadcast to cable and satellite media. All over the broadcast media you can hear denunciations of the president and the government of the kind that you would not hear in the United States on a major national broadcast network. Imagine Rush Limbaugh during the Clinton impeachment, times fifty, but with much less regard for factual accuracy.

Pick up a newspaper — El Universal and El Nacional are two of the biggest — and the vast majority of the headlines are trying to make the government look bad. Turn on the radio and most of what you will hear is also anti-government. Television now has two state-run channels, but these only counterbalance the rest of the programming that is opposition-controlled. Venezuela has a more oppositional media than we have in the United States.

In fact, if the government carries through on its promise to turn RCTV's broadcast frequency over to the public, for a diverse array of programming, then this move will actually increase freedom of expression in Venezuela. It wouldn't suppress it, as the media and some opportunistic, ill-informed politicians here have maintained.

Sadly, some human rights officials here have also, without knowing much of the details, jumped on the media and political bandwagon. In a press release this week, José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said that "The move to shut down RCTV is a serious blow to freedom of expression in Venezuela." (Of course RCTV will not be "shut down," since it can continue to distribute its programs through cable and satellite media).

But in an interview the same week Vivanco gave a different view, criticizing "those who claim that the fact that the Chavez government is not renewing the license for RCTV, per se implies a violation of freedom of expression. That is nonsense. ... you are not entitled, as a private company, to get your contract renewed with the government forever."

So why is a station that has repeatedly violated the most basic rules of any broadcast license entitled to another 20-year, state-sanctioned franchise?

It is not surprising that a monopolized media here would defend the "right" of right-wing media moguls to control the airwaves in Venezuela. Still it would be nice if we could get both sides of the story here — like Venezuelans do from their major media, which is right now saturated with broadcasts and articles against (as well as for) the government's decision. Then Americans could make up their own minds about whether this is really a "free speech" issue. Is that really too much to ask from our own "free press?"

Greg Grandin is one of the foremost historians of Latin America in the United States, Professor of History at New York University, and served on the United Nations Truth Commission for Guatemala. He wrote this piece for the Center for Economic and Policy Research — His recent book, THE EMPIRE’S WORKSHOP, (Metropolitan, Henry Holt, 2006), is one of the best guides to understanding current and past conflicts between the U.S. and Latin America.
George Ciccariello-Maher, a doctoral student from Berkeley who lives in Caracas, was on the scene at the National Assembly for the student debate and produced a detailed article about the nature of the so-called ‘student rebellion’ – “Who’s pulling the Strings? Behind Venezuela’s “student rebellion,” which appeared online at Counterpunch, June 9/10, 2007.

The next two you have to find for yourself. For other good articles on the RCTV controversy by North Americans who have spent many years in Venezuela, see Charlie Hardy (at his website,, also see his fascinating new book of the same name, COWBOY IN CARACAS) and Bart Jones, a former Associated Press reporter in Caracas who has just written the best biography in English on President Chavez, titled HUGO!

No comments: