Americas

Corporate Media Outraged: Venezuela Expands Free Speech

The newly sworn-in president of the new television channel TVes, journalist Lil Rodriguez, delivers a speech after the inauguration of the board of directors of the channel on May 21. (Photo: Juan Barreto / AFP-Getty Images)

Venezuela has been facing the most sustained campaign of destabilization, including a barrage of media lies internationally and violent riots inside Venezuela, since the last serious attempt to overthrow the left-wing government of Hugo Chavez in 2004.

On May 27, the 20-year concession to broadcast over the state-owned Channel 2 airwave, which had been granted to multi-millionaire Marcel Granier's RCTV, expired. The Chavez government made the decision, in accordance with laws established by a pre-Chavez government, not to renew RCTV's concession, but instead to use the channel to establish a new public TV station, Venezuelan Social Television (TVes).

The new channel, which began broadcasting just after midnight on May 27, has been set up via a loan from a state-run bank. However, it will quickly be required to become self-funded. The government will have no say over the content of the new station, which will purchase programs made by independent producers.

RCTV will be able to continue broadcasting via satellite or cable, and station heads have indicated they intend to do so. In case the station uses the non-renewal of its concession as an excuse to lay off workers, the Venezuelan government has guaranteed all of RCTV's work force jobs at the newly created station.

The government has explained that its decision is a direct result of RCTV's repeated violations of the law. RCTV has been responsible for more than 600 violations of Venezuela's broadcasting law, including regularly broadcasting pornography, and has refused to pay fines for such infractions. It has also been accused of non-payment of taxes. The station has been strongly criticized for rarely allowing on air Venezuelans of indigenous or African heritage, even though they are the majority of Venezuela's population.

The government has singled out RCTV's role in helping organize the April 2002 United States-backed military coup that overthrew the elected Chavez government, which was subsequently restored by a popular uprising of the poor, as the key factor behind the non-renewal. During their time in power, the coup leaders publicly thanked RCTV for its assistance.

These facts have become twisted beyond recognition in a campaign by the corporate media that is part of a drive to paint the Chavez government as moving toward a dictatorship, even though pro-Chavez forces have won 11 straight national elections and Chavez was re-elected in December with the largest number of votes in Venezuelan history.

The campaign has been based on constant reporting of lies as fact, most significantly the claim made by RCTV and United States-funded opposition groups that RCTV has been "closed," even though it is being allowed to continue broadcasting.

On May 21, CNN stated that RCTV "is going to be shut down, is going to get off the air, because of President Hugo Chavez, not a big fan of It." The Melbourne Age joined the chorus on May 29 with an article under the false headline "Chavez Cuts Off Station to Silence Dissent." A May 26 BBC Online article claiming Chavez had defended his "right to silence the channel" has Chavez defending something he hasn't done in words he hasn't used!

The corporate media have ignored the fact that 79 out of 81 TV stations, 706 out of 708 radio stations and all newspapers in Venezuela are privately owned, and that the majority of the private media are virulently anti-Chavez. Since Chavez was elected in 1998, only two TV stations have been closed: the state-run Channel 8 during the coup by the coup leaders, and community TV station Catia TV in July 2002 by then-Caracas mayor and coup leader Alfredo Pena.

Freedom of speech has been extended under the Chavez government. Just after Chavez came to power, he passed a law that allowed the entire population the right to use the nation's airwaves. This legalized a large number of previously illegal "pirate" radio stations, the type of stations that are still illegal in the United States. The government has actively promoted community media, especially radio, which has blossomed in recent years. TVes aims to provide a space to the growing movement of independent media producers.

What none of the critics have been able to answer is: which other government in the world would renew the license of a station that actively participated in a coup against the legitimate government? The tolerance of the Chavez government toward the private media involved in the coup is remarkable. The government has not attempted to shut down RCTV or jail its owners, or even cancel its license, although it had a strong legal case to do so. Instead, it allowed the license to run out its term, then chose to grant the concession to someone else. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting released a statement that was posted on Venezuelanalysis.com on May 25 strongly criticizing the corporate media, claiming, "It is frankly amazing that this company has been allowed to broadcast for five years after the coup."

The government says it is seeking to "democratize" the media, so that those who were previously excluded can have a voice. An article by George Ciccariello Maher posted on Venezuelanalysis.com on May 29 pointed out that 80 percent of all messages, information and media content produced in Venezuela are controlled by either Granier or billionaire Gustavo Cisneros, who owns Venevision. Both are married to granddaughters of William H. Phelps Jr. — the founder of 1BC corporation, which runs RCTV. Leading 1BC shareholders include direct descendants of Phelps. Cisneros is also one of the richest men in Latin America, owning a range of industries in Venezuela and across the region.

In light of these facts, the only possible justification for renewing RCTV's concession is that Granier and his oligarchic mates who own 1BC have some sort of automatic right to use it forever, regardless of how they abuse the privilege. To renew the license would have sent the message that the likes of Granier, by virtue of their extreme wealth, can break the law with impunity, work to overthrow elected governments and refuse to pay taxes, and they will be rewarded with a renewal of their concession. And by implication, that the majority of Venezuelans, whose access to media is being increased, do not have the same right.

At the heart of the campaign over the media in Venezuela is the Bolivarian revolution being led by the Chavez government, which is redistributing the nation's wealth and breaking the economic and political power of the oligarchy. This revolutionary process is increasingly empowering the working people and the poor through participatory democracy. The democratization of the media is a crucial part of this campaign. In keeping with its profoundly democratic nature, the revolution has sought to break the media monopoly — not by silencing the rich minority who exercise the monopoly, but by countering it with an explosion of new media run by the previously voiceless.

All attempts to stop this peaceful and democratic revolution have failed, and the opposition is growing desperate. Despite going all out to organize the "mother of all demonstrations" on May 26 against the non-renewal of RCTV's concession, Ciccariello Maher reports that footage of the protests screened on the state-owned VTV channel revealed that it failed to fill more than half a city block, suggesting less than 10,000 people were present. The corporate media duly reported "tens of Thousands." Ciccariello Maher points out that the corporate media internationally have ignored the much larger demonstrations in favor of the government's decision, often occurring spontaneously. A huge fiesta was organized on the evening of May 26 to celebrate the opening of the new channel.

Having failed to mobilize significant numbers, the opposition then resorted to violence, with some among the protesters on May 26 opening fire on police without provocation, injuring 11 officers. In the days following the May 27 deadline, students from the wealthy universities, which remain strongholds of the elite, took to the streets, burning tires and garbage in order to block traffic, while attacking police with rocks. The inevitable images of police forcibly clearing the streets has given the corporate media more images to present out of context, implying an increasingly authoritarian regime in Venezuela cracking down on dissent. Yet the corporate media ignored students from the Bolivarian University — created by the Chavez government to provide free education to the poor excluded from the old universities — who marched off campus on May 29 according to a Bolivarian News Agency report, in a show of support for the RCTV decision.

On June 2, Aporrea.org reported that Avenida Bolivar in central Caracas was completely filled by a "red tide" of people from across the country who took part in a massive demonstration to reject opposition violence and support the government's stance.

The Venezuelan government believes that behind the RCTV campaign is a new plot to destabilize the country in order to undermine the Chavez government, isolate it internationally, and lay the groundwork for its overthrow and for the reversal of the gains made by the revolution by whatever means possible. Venezuelanalysis.org reported on May 31 that a statement was issued the previous day by more than 600 organizations, "including communal councils, political movements, collectives, community media, and cooperatives" supporting the government's decision on RCTV's license and describing the opposition protests as part of an "imperial strategy." The statement began: "The Venezuelan people forcefully reject the interference of the United States government in the internal affairs of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Once again the C.I.A. has put a destabilization plan in place with the objective of overthrowing the Bolivarian government and of assassinating President Hugo Chavez."

The government has responded to the local and international corporate media campaign by announcing that the attorney general's office would begin an investigation into the coverage of CNN and Venezueland station Globovision. The government is upset that a Spanish broadcast by CNN screened footage of a protest in Mexico while claiming it was a protest against the RCTV decision inside Venezuela, and that CNN recently showed an image of Chavez alongside an image of an assassinated Al Qaeda leader. The government claims Globovision intended to potentially incite Chavez's assassination when it followed an interview with Granier with the images of the failed assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II, while a song with the lyrics "Have faith, for it doesn't end here" played over the top.

Venezuela is home to the world's largest reserves of oil, in the Orinoco Belt. On May 1, the Chavez government nationalized investments of six American and European oil corporations. As the lead-up to the United States-led invasion of Iraq revealed, when oil profits are at stake, the corporate media appear prepared to regurgitate whatever rubbish they are fed by the Bush administration and its allies. The much-vaunted "attack on freedom of expression" supposedly underway in Venezuela, in reality exists in the same places as Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction — inside the minds of the United States State Department.

From Green Left Weekly.

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