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VENEZUELA
War of words and images
Mike Ceaser
7/4/2002
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The anti-government media played a major role in Chávez’s ouster.

Venezuelans are increasingly divided by the role played by the media in the country´s political crisis.

The country´s major mass media outlets are almost uniformly allied with the opponents of President Hugo Chávez. Critics say that their bias shows in what they cover and, more importantly, what they ignore.

The government has accused the media of fueling the chaos and bloodshed surrounding the April 11 coup, which unseated Chávez for two days (LP, April 22, 2002).

The morning after Chávez´s return to power, the capital´s two major newspapers did not publish their daily editions. The reaction two days earlier, however, was much different.

The morning after Chávez´s ephemeral fall, the headline in El Universal announced, "IT´S OVER!" in letters three times the size of its own nameplate.

The same was true for television. On April 11, the broadcast media were saturated with coverage of the mass demonstrations calling for Chávez´s ouster. Two days later, however, when crowds packed downtown demanding the president´s reinstatement, TV viewers were fed cartoons and cooking shows.

Nearly everyone in Caracas now seems to agree that the independent media behaved shamefully during the turmoil, which saw Chávez forced out by military and popular opposition, only to be restored by supporters 48 hours later.

"The media´s attitude was that of political actors, not public servants," said a reporter for El Universal who requested anonymity.

After Chávez´s reinstatement, media owners said that danger to journalists´ lives prevented them from covering the pro-Chávez demonstrations. Reporters have been harassed and assaulted by Chávez supporters recently, and one photographer was killed by a sharpshooter during the protests.

The explanation did not convince Chávez supporters, however. They asked why local TV stations did not pick up feeds from foreign news channels, which did have reporters on the street, and accused the media of downplaying the events to prevent more people from flocking to the demonstration.

The country´s two major broadsheets, El Universal and El Nacional, whose offices are downtown, said they did not publish the Sunday after Chá-vez´s return because of crowds in surrounding streets. The El Universal reporter, however, said she went into the streets and interviewed people with no trouble.

El Nacional´s workers union released a statement June 10, criticizing the daily´s editors and owners for not publishing after Chávez´s return.
"The majority of employees, reporters and journalists put our lives on the line only for the media owners and board members to decide not to publish anything and hide from the public the serious events that were taking place in the streets. We will not accept such behavior again," read a communiqué from the union.

In Venezuela´s divided society, it is not surprising that most of the media establishment opposes Chávez. The nation of 23 million people has split roughly along racial and class lines over the controversial president, with the professional and white middle and upper classes generally opposing his anti-neoliberal, anti-globablization stance, while poorer, darker-skinned Venezuelans view him as a savior.

Among Venezuela´s TV station owners is the Cisneros family, one of the richest in Latin America.

Among the first people to visit Pedro Carmona, the businessman chosen by military officials as "transitional president," who was in power for barely a day, were the very media moguls whose companies had cheered on the opposition.

Chávez has long had an antagonistic relationship with the media (LP, Jan. 28, 2002), and their role in the coup and its aftermath did nothing to smooth things over.

In an otherwise conciliatory speech on his return to power, Chávez had harsh words for the media.

"A communications medium became a medium of terror to sow panic in the population," he said of the wall-to-wall coverage of the anti-government protests.

Media owners have their own reasons for resenting Chávez. One of the president´s favorite themes is what he calls the chasm between the real Venezuela and the "virtual nation" created by the media. According to Chávez, the media-made nation is rife with exaggerated or imaginary troubles, including anti--government work stoppages, demonstrations and Colombian guerrilla camps on Venezuelan soil.

"Small groups with great economic power have made themselves the owners of the communications media," Chávez said in his weekly radio address on April 7. "The media circulate lies when they want to create ... opinions for or against someone."

Chávez has tried to change this by interrupting ordinary radio and television broadcasts with government-mandated transmissions called "chains," in which the same signal is broadcast by all stations. In the days before his brief fall from power, while a strike shut most stores and huge crowds of Chávez opponents filled streets, the government interrupted media transmissions as many as 20 times a day to announce that the protest was a failure and that government business was going on as usual.
The stations finally found their own solution, splitting their screens in two. One half showed Chávez insisting that the city was under control, while the other showed images of raging demonstrations. The government responded by cutting off the television transmissions.

Many people objected to the repeated interruptions.

"Chains as intense as these are considered abuses of the right to be informed," said Carlos Ayala, a constitutional law professor and former chairman of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The commission has objected to the practice several times, and Ayala called it a disguised form of censorship.

In a speech on April 15, Chávez acknowledged having taken unfair advantage of the government-mandated transmissions.

The government is not without its own means of reaching Venezuelans - it has official television and radio stations.

Since Chávez´s return, both the media and the administration have made conciliatory noises. The media, while still critical, have seemed more willing to give room to the views of Chávez supporters, while the president has imposed no chains except for his regular speeches.

The El Universal reporter said that she hopes the episode will lead media managers to rethink their position, but added that so far she has seen no substantive moves in that direction.

"The media...have to acknowledge their mistakes," she said, adding that so far, "there has just been more polarization."
 


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