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Last Updated: Friday, 19 March, 2004, 17:21 GMT
Venezuela's war of the airwaves
By Charlotte Eimer
BBC regional analyst

Nowhere is the polarisation of Venezuelan society more apparent than in the media, which is dominated by anti-government independent networks.

Protesters walk towards National Guard line, late February
The government accuses independent media of co-ordinating violent protests
Violent attacks on journalists are commonplace, as are government threats to close down the TV stations it accuses of broadcasting "war propaganda".

Watchdogs have criticised the behaviour of both the private sector and President Hugo Chavez.

Between 27 February and 3 March there were 25 attacks on reporters, photographers, cameramen and their assistants during opposition protests against delays in the process to call a referendum on the president's rule, say independent media groups.

But Information and Communications Minister Jesse Chacon says some networks are guilty of inciting violence and racial hatred.

He has announced plans to submit a report to the UN and Organization of American States to establish which groups are conducting what he calls terrorist media campaigns.

Opposition supporters have nicknamed state TV the Discovery Chavez
The Chavez-dominated national assembly is also debating whether to introduce emergency regulations to correct what the government considers to be the pro-opposition bias of a number of channels.

And three privately-owned TV stations have been ordered to pay $2m in taxes for allegedly donating free advertising to the opposition strikers who tried to bring President Chavez down last year.

Marcel Granier, owner of the popular RCTV network, described the move as a "grotesque" crackdown on freedom of speech.

President as TV presenter

The opposition is equally critical of the president's use of the little-watched state media.

Mr Chavez is renowned for regularly commandeering the airwaves - including the private networks - at peak time to broadcast government statements.

He also hosts a weekly radio and TV show called Hello, President from locations throughout Venezuela.

One year ago the National Assembly granted approval for new broadcasting regulations. These measures were designed - according to the government - to control propaganda without violating freedom of speech.

The opposition says the regulations are tantamount to censorship. NGOs agree that clauses such as one demanding the respectful portrayal of government officials are indeed a threat to press freedom.

The regulations, however, have had little effect on the state-owned channel, Venezolana de Television (VTV). Opposition supporters have nicknamed VTV the Discovery Chavez, saying it runs nothing but government propaganda.

Chavez holds up an opposition newspaper during his weekly TV show on 7 March: The headline reads CD takes streets without violence - several people have been killed
Chavez attacks "media bias" during his weekly TV show
Government sympathisers accuse the private media of leading the fight against the "Bolivarian revolution" in the absence of a credible political opposition. They also see the hand of powerful media moguls behind the short-lived coup attempt on 11 April 2002.

When Mr Chavez was returned to power by popular demand just days later, the subsequent news blackout was put down to safety concerns for reporters on the streets. But Chavez supporters are not convinced.

Many Venezuelans would welcome non-political controls on all sectors of the media to ensure greater impartiality and balance. The public have come to understand only too well the dangers of distortion.

During an edition of Hello, President in February 2003 Mr Chavez used the slot to warn the international community - and Colombia, Spain and the US in particular - to stop meddling in Venezuelan affairs.

The following day bombs went off at the Spanish and Colombian embassies, while the US embassy was closed for 24 hours following security threats. The opposition said the president's broadcast incited the attacks.


Venezuela's four main independent TV networks are owned by high-profile businessmen.

Mr Chavez refers to these tycoons - whose channels promoted an eight-week general strike at the end of 2002 - as the "four horsemen of the apocalypse".

Gustavo Cisneros, owner of Venevision TV and 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, owner of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), is highly critical of the Chavez administration. During the strike he admitted that when the president first came to power, many of the independent channels favoured him.

"But little by little", Mr Granier told Union Radio, "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."

The national press is also overwhelmingly dominated by the opposition. The two main broadsheets - El Nacional and El Universal - regularly publish strongly-worded editorial attacks on the Chavez government.

Government fights back

At the moment privately-owned channels dominate the airwaves in Venezuela, with state-owned VTV claiming an audience share of less than 2%. Between them, Mr Granier and Mr Cisneros control more than 60% of the market.

To correct this imbalance, the government is set to invest $56m in the state-owned channel over the next 18 months.

At the same time 32 radio stations are also being launched on previously vacant FM frequencies. But this is not the only media initiative the government is backing.

Throughout the nation, a small but growing chain of community radio stations is springing up to counter reporting by the private networks which portray Mr Chavez as an unstable dictator.

Although these local stations say they are independent, Mr Chavez has already earmarked $2.6m for them, along with promises of technical assistance and advertising from state-owned companies.

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

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