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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 March, 2003, 21:44 GMT
Venezuela's media war
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Chavez: Press publishes "rubbish, lies, perversion"
Nowhere is the polarisation of Venezuelan society more apparent than in the frequent attacks on media workers, coupled with government threats to shut down independent TV and radio outlets.

Watchdogs have criticised both the behaviour of the privately-owned sector and the president, Hugo Chavez, for his attitude towards them.

Violent attacks against both the pro-government and opposition media have become commonplace across the country.

They range from physical aggression towards individual journalists and camera crews to bomb attacks on stations and intimidation by groups of protesters on both sides.

So far this year, the government has broadcast 39 official transmissions on national television and radio, which shunt all scheduled programming off air while they run.

This is a total of 40 hours of airtime in two months for the controversial leader, not counting the weekly TV and radio phone-in show, "Hello President".

But according to government estimates, during the recent general strike an average of 700 pro-strike advertisements were broadcast every day by the independent channels.

Propaganda control or censorship?

In February, the National Assembly granted initial approval for new broadcasting regulations. These measures have been designed - according to the government - to control propaganda without violating freedom of speech.

It seems unlikely that they will affect the state channel, Venezolana de Television, which most opposition supporters believe runs nothing but government propaganda.

Mr Chavez regularly cites Channel 8, as the station is also known, as a "paradigm" of the new Content Law, a rare example of a successful and balanced station.
Anti-Chavez protesters rally during the recent strike
The general strike lasted two months

Government sympathisers accuse the private media of leading the fight against the "Bolivarian Revolution" in the absence of a credible and united political opposition. They see the hand of powerful media moguls behind the short-lived coup on 11 April 2002.

When Mr Chavez was returned to power by popular demand just days later, the subsequent news blackout on the independent channels was put down to safety concerns for reporters on the streets, but Chavez supporters are not convinced. Throughout this historic day the channels ran nothing but cartoons and Hollywood movies.

The opposition now say the new broadcast legislation - which they have nicknamed the "Gag Law" - is tantamount to censorship. They have already held several marches in defence of press freedom.

Balance needed

The recent threats by Mr Chavez to shut down certain TV channels - based on alleged violations of broadcast regulations - have been condemned by a number of international non-governmental organisations, including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders.

Some of the president's proposals are undoubtedly a threat to freedom of the press, such as clauses regarding the respectful portrayal of government officials.

But many Venezuelans would welcome some sort of non-political controls on all sectors of the media industry to ensure greater impartiality and balance in reporting. The public have come to understand only too well the dangers of distortion.

During Mr Chavez's TV and radio phone-in on Sunday 22 February, the president used the slot to warn the international community - and Colombia, Spain and the United States in particular - to stop meddling in Venezuelan affairs.
Police scour the scene of the blast
Embassy blasts followed broadcast

The following day bombs went off at the Spanish and Colombian embassies, and the US embassy subsequently closed for 24 hours following security threats. The opposition claim that Mr Chavez's broadcast incited these attacks.

But the government blames the media for the eight-week general strike, which contributed to a 16.7% contraction of the economy in the final quarter of 2002, according to Central Bank figures. The oil sector shrank by nearly 26 per cent as thousands of workers walked off their jobs.

"Rubbish, lies, perversion"

Mr Chavez now refers to the powerful media owners who promoted the strike as "the four horsemen of the apocalypse".

But months earlier, he had already written off the press for publishing "rubbish, just rubbish, lies, perversion, immoralities", after reading critical newspaper articles regarding the state of the Bolivarian schools programme.

At a meeting in Washington in January the foreign minister, Roy Chaderton, complained that the media are immune from the electoral process.

"In Venezuela, you can disagree with the military, religious leaders, intellectuals and politicians, but never dare to challenge the holders of media concessions."


Venezuela's independent TV channels are owned and directed by several high-profile businessmen, including:

  • Gustavo Cisneros (Venevision)

  • Marcel Granier (Radio Caracas Television)

  • Alberto Federico Ravell (Globovision 24-hour satellite news channel)

Mr Cisneros, owner of Venevision and head of numerous joint ventures with multinationals such as Coca-Cola, has been dubbed the Rupert Murdoch of Latin America. Mr Chavez regularly singles him out as a "coup-plotter" and a "fascist".

Marcel Granier of RCTV also speaks out against the Chavez regime. During the strike he told Union Radio that when Mr Chavez first came to power, many of the independent channels favoured him.

But "little by little", Mr Granier explained, "anti-democratic actions, actions violating the rule of law, attacks on journalists and attacks against the media have created the current situation in which the majority, not all, of the Venezuelan media are very concerned by the systematic and repeated violation of human rights".

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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