When former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was briefly deposed in a 2002 coup, the country's press reacted with unbridled enthusiasm. The daily newspaper El Nacional welcomed the day's events with the headline "One step forward." But that wasn't particularly surprising: Never in the history of Latin America had the media played quite so prominent a role in facilitating the overthrow of a democratically elected government. Gustavo Cisneros, Venezuela's answer to Rupert Murdoch, played a direct role in planning and funding the coup. At the time of the putsch, he owned Venevisión, a private TV channel that ran biased, even manipulated, coverage to incite support for the coup.
12 years later, Venezuela's media landscape looks very different. For the past three weeks, thousands of anti-government protesters have battled the police in the streets of Venezuela. Fed up with chronic shortages and runaway inflation, they have launched a protest movement that represents the most serious challenge yet to President Nicolás Maduro, Chavez's handpicked heir to his so-called Bolivarian revolution. At least 20 people have been killed.
But you wouldn't know any of that from watching Venezuelan television. Rather than broadcasting coverage of the protests that have spread throughout the country, the Venezuelan media has maintained a studious silence.
"Most of the time, people [in Venezuela] don't see the protests live," Gustavo Hernandez, a writer for the Venezuelan blog Caracas Chronicles, said. "They only get small snippets on the newscast ... which air late at night. They cover the news in a very reduced way."
While the recent protests have exposed the vulnerable state of Venezuela's supposedly independent media, the government has spent the past decade expanding its control over the country's newspapers, websites, radio outlets and TV stations. With the 2004 passage of the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, the government won wide latitude to censor media in order to "promote social justice and further the development of the citizenry, democracy, peace, human rights, education, culture, public health, and the nation's social and economic development." The law was expanded to include the Internet and social media in 2011.
"It's one of the most unreal pieces of legislation I've ever seen," Hernandez said. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the law mandates media groups to "establish mechanisms to restrict, without delay, the dissemination of messages." Violators can be fined up to 3,000 USD or 10 percent of the annual year's income, or face a service suspension. Journalists, especially critical ones, can be arrested on a variety of vaguely worded charges (criticism of the government can be equated with "conspiracy against the state"). In 2010, Guillermo Zuloaga, the owner of Globovisión, a channel critical of the government, was arrested after criticizing official restrictions on freedom of expression. Zuloaga was briefly arrested, then released pending investigation, on accusations of "inciting panic."
The current bout of demonstrations broke out when students at the University of the Andes in San Cristóbal gathered to protest an attempted rape on campus. The incident highlighted concerns about growing insecurity and crime under Maduro, but the protest movement has since grown to include grievances ranging from rising inflation to chronic food shortages.
Throughout the unrest, critics have been sounding the alarm about a government-coordinated "media blackout" designed to minimize coverage of the protests. Press freedom advocates say the government's harsh treatment of private media organizations has led many newspapers, TV stations and radio broadcasters to effectively censor their own coverage and largely ignore the protests. Maduro took a news channel off the air after it broadcast coverage of the violence in mid-February. When Henrique Capriles Radonski, the country's most prominent opposition leader and the runner up in last year's presidential election, delivered a major speech two weeks ago, no network covered it.
It's a far cry from the political muscle the private media flexed in 2002. At the time, the private media were seen as the unofficial leaders of the uprising -- in particular, the four leading television networks that Chávez famously called the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." "This coup d'etat would not have been possible without the help of the news media, especially television," Chávez said at the time. The compilation of ads below, which were aired on private TV stations and called on viewers to hit the streets and protest, gives a feel for the networks' willingness to take anti-government positions:
But the media didn't stop at calling for protests; they went so far as to suppress and manipulate news coverage. In one instance, Isaías Rodríguez, the attorney general at the time, tricked a network into hosting him by promising to announce his resignation, only to be cut off when he mentioned the word "coup." In one of the most controversial episodes of the 2002 coup, private television stations aired footage that purported to show pro-government chavistas firing on opposition demonstrators. While several anti-government protesters were indeed killed during the march and many more injured, it remains unclear who was responsible for their deaths. But private television stations seized on the footage and aired it non-stop as part of their campaign against Chávez. Video evidence that emerged later indicated that the chavistas may have been firing on police in self-defense, but the question of who was responsible for the protesters' deaths has never been definitively settled.
Such tactics were crucial to the coup's strength, however short-lived it proved to be, and raised serious concerns about media bias in the country. Most of the criticism, after all, wasn't coming from a commitment to public-interest journalism; it was no secret that the majority of private outlets in Venezuela were owned by wealthy families with an interest in ousting Chávez. The events of 2002 showed they had no interest in separating those interests from their role as ostensibly neutral sources of information. After a 36-hour detention, Chávez returned to the presidential palace after having secured the military's backing and his supporters flocked to the streets. The private stations abandoned the story, reportedly airing Tom & Jerry cartoons instead.
After the failure of the coup, Chávez embarked on an aggressive campaign to establish "media hegemony." He shuttered independent outlets and expanded state media. In 2007, Chávez revoked the license of RCTV, a leading anti-government broadcaster. Others dialed back the dissent in their coverage to avoid having their licenses revoked for "technical and administrative reasons," the amorphous reasoning behind the closing of 34 radio stations in 2009. Two of the most popular TV channels, privately-owned Venevisión and Televen, have toned down their criticism of the government over the past several years, and the popular Globovisión fell into line after a businessman with close ties to the government purchased the station last year. (But not enough, apparently: Maduro complained in October that an investigative report on food shortages that aired on the channel amounted to "war propaganda.")
Given Venezuela's history of having feisty and irreverent media outlets, understand the rationale behind such a crackdown. George Ciccariello-Maher, author of We Created Chávez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution, told al-Jazeera, "This is a government that has seen a coup d'etat led by the private media."
As the BBC and Reuters have noted, opposition-minded newspapers have continued to stand against the government, but those outlets are beset by their own sets of problems. As with newspapers in other parts of the world, declining circulation numbers plague the industry. The Maduro government has asserted further control over the medium by withholding foreign currency needed to buy newsprint, which must be imported to Venezuela.
On Feb. 10, El Impulso, a Venezuelan newspaper, announced that it was reducing its output from four sections to one, citing difficulties in acquiring newsprint during a paper shortage. The process for securing newsprint, the paper said, often takes more than three months as a result of tight currency controls. El Nacional, a leading daily and one of Maduro's fiercest critics, announced in February that it expected to end print circulation imminently, given that it was unable to import newsprint. According to Hernandez at Caracas Chronicles, there have been murmurs that the government plans to sell newsprint to smaller newspapers in the countryside to bypass the larger newspapers and limit their ability to print their pages.
At least ostensibly, a thriving independent media scene still exists in Venezuela: In 2012, the BBC noted that 70 percent of radio and TV stations were privately owned, and despite its growth over the last decade, state TV still attracted only a paltry 5.4 percent of viewers. The real victory of the crackdown is the ubiquity of state influence on private TV and radio stations, down to the free ten minutes of ad time that private networks are obligated to give the government.
But, as the dictatorial former heads of state in so many Arab countries could attest, social media has upended traditional means of media regulation. Various reports have put Venezuela's Twitter penetration at the fourth- or fifth-highest in the world. (The metrics for determining that are up for debate; a lower estimate ranks Venezuela's number of Twitter users as thirteenth-highest in the world.) Meanwhile, Internet and smartphone use is on the rise. The Venezuelan government may be able to silence newspapers by limiting their physical circulation, but most of those struggling outlets still have vibrant Twitter feeds and websites. On Tuesday, El Impulso announced a new app, called SOSVenezuela, that allows activists to stay up-to-date on protesters' plans in different cities around the country.
As the protests progress, it will be interesting to keep an eye on whether new media like Twitter can be as potent in 2014 as its more traditional counterparts were in 2002 -- and maybe do a better job of actually presenting the truth.
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