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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 1 April, 2003, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
TV battle in Latin America

Nick Higham
BBC media correspondent

Imagine a world in which Tony Blair hosts a television programme called Hello, Prime Minister from locations around the country every Sunday on BBC One and on every BBC radio station.

Imagine this programme, in which he lambasts his political opponents and cries up the government's achievements for three or four hours at a time.

Hugo Chavez
Chavez was elected to reform the country
Imagine he also commandeers airtime on ITV and Channel 4 and Five at peaktime, sometimes two or three times a week.

And then imagine a world in which news coverage on those same commercial channels is routinely hostile to the government - while the BBC, of course, is a government mouthpiece, its programmes preceded by video vignettes in which Union Jack-waving workers and peasants march across the screen in slow motion to the accompaniment of stirring music.

It is of course unthinkable - in Britain, but not in Venezuela.

I have just returned from my first visit to Latin America, and I found it frankly staggering.

Venezuela is the most deeply polarised country I have ever been to.


Since 1998 its president has been Hugo Chavez, a populist swept to power on a promise to do something, anything, for the two-thirds of Venezuelans living on or below the poverty line.

Last year he was briefly deposed in a coup (until the military switched sides to reinstate him).

General strike
A general strike was held to depose Chavez
Last December the middle classes, whose own standard of living has been plummeting, began a two-month general strike to try and unseat him.

They fear he is trying to "do a Castro" and turn Venezuela into a kind of Cuba, proudly independent and desperately poor.

The strike succeeded only in paralysing the economy, which enjoyed what the economists call "negative growth" of nine per cent last year and is predicted to shrink by a further 20% this year.

Throughout, the media have played a shamelessly partisan role.

Chavez thumps the tub every Sunday in his programme Ola! Presidente.


In the edition I saw (number 144) he was broadcasting from a new workers' housing development somewhere in the provinces, taking time out to attack the invasion of Iraq.

Venezuela, whose economy depends on oil exports, thinks America's purpose in the Gulf is to smash Opec and drive down the price of oil.

In 1998 Chavez was the first head of state to visit Saddam Hussein in Baghdad since the Gulf War.

Dr Marcel Granier, chief executive of RCTV, which along with its rival Venevision is one of Venezuela's two main commercial channels, maintains that TV coverage of the 1998 election was relatively impartial and that government spokesmen are still given airtime in his station's news programmes.

But in Granier's view the government are "a gang of felons" with little belief in democracy and the rule of law.

Given his shameless use of state TV and radio, Granier says Chavez has no right to complain if commercial TV channels are biased against him (Granier does not concede that they are, though other observers disagree).


RCTV's Todos Intimos, at 9pm each night, is currently one of the top-rating telenovelas or soap operas which dominate the ratings in Venezuela - which may be why Granier so resents what he calls Chavez's frequent "confiscation" of RCTV airtime during Todos Intimos's transmissions.
Hugo Chavez and Saddam Hussein
Chavez met Saddam Hussein in Baghdad

With the country's major newspapers all lined up against Chavez, the president himself feels beleaguered, railing against middle class "saboteurs" out to destroy his populist revolution.

The result: there is nowhere ordinary Venezuelans (or visiting foreign journalists, for that matter) can turn for reliable, impartial coverage of affairs.

Like most Latin American countries Venezuela's history is one of dictatorship: a lasting democracy was only established in 1958.

Civil society has had less than half a century to take root. Television's inability to stand back from the fray is a reflection of Venezuela's wider social failures: almost certainly, it is also making things worse.

To use a metaphor appropriate to a petroleum-based economy, Venezuela's broadcasters aren't pouring oil on troubled waters, they are fuelling the flames.

This column also appears in the BBC's publication Ariel.

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