Back in August, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report on the state of media in Venezuela.
And it is not a pleasant report, at least for those who believe in free and independent media.
It seemed like a routine story. In March, José Gregorio Briceño, governor of Venezuela’s southern state of Monagas, appeared on national television and complained that federal officials were not addressing claims of contaminated water in his state. An oil pipeline managed by the state-run oil company PDVSA had recently burst in the Guarapiche River, which runs through Monagas. News accounts followed with testimonies from independent experts and families with ill children.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías vowed to act—not to investigate potential water contamination, but to counter the “media terrorism” threatening the country. Federal officials complained of political manipulation and a media conspiracy in an election year; Chávez is up for a third six-year term in October. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz announced a new federal injunction requiring journalists to base reports on water quality on a “truthful technical report backed by a competent institution.” Otherwise, journalists risked “destabilizing” public order, and could incur fines or jail time.
Chavez moves to silence independent media in favor of government propaganda.
The gradual dismantling of Venezuela’s more critical and independent press and the building up of a vast state-run media empire is a remarkable reversal of the media landscape prior to Chávez’s rule. Then, major newspapers and television and radio stations were dominated by a private-sector, business-oriented elite determined to shield its audience from leftist and socialist views. When critics accuse Chávez of a media power grab, his loyalists counter that the government effectively democratized the press by wresting control from a powerful oligarchy with its own agenda.
And restrictive laws are enacted to make it all “legal.”
Regulatory obstacles also play a role. In 2009, the telecommunications regulator Conatel, whose members can be freely appointed or removed by Chávez, shut down and seized equipment at more than 30 radio stations, with reasons ranging from administrative technicalities to broadcasts about illegal squatters in the face of a housing shortage. Officials said more stations were on their watch list, but did not specify which ones. “The messenger is punished whether or not the information is true,” said Andrés Cañizalez, a professor and media expert at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. “It’s tough to prove at times. A radio presenter is suddenly off the air, or a station closes, and you later learn that the government had pulled its advertising.”
Only friendly journalists are informed of government releases and press coferences. If an independent journalist hears about such and event and attends it, the government poskesman or official either ignores or ridicules the reporter.
Amira Muci, an opinion show host on Radio Victoria in Maracay and the secretary-general of the local branch of the Colegio Nacional de Periodistas, said disrespectful treatment is the norm. “When your questions are uncomfortable or when they don’t have answers, they try to embarrass the reporter,” Muci said. “Or they say you are disrupting the revolutionary process. So many journalists give up and become, in effect, government stenographers. They think it is the only way to survive.”
With the Venezuelan elections taking place this weekend (Oct. 7), supporters of the opposition party have a right to feel depressed and downhearted. The efforts to shut down any discussion of the issues other than the words of the government makes the opposition campaign that much harder.
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