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VENEZUELA
Chávezvision
José Orozco
6/13/2007
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In media war, Chávez risks alienating supporters.

José Pérez makes his living from selling all sorts of sports, political and pop star paraphernalia on the streets of Caracas. A supporter of President Hugo Chávez, Pérez’s political and business interests seemed at odds as he sold Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, flags at a rally in front of the 53-year-old network’s downtown Caracas studios in its final weekend on the air.

“I’m a Chavista,” said Pérez. “I support him in everything, but in this I don’t support him.” “If they close the channel, I’ll continue with the government but I won’t support Chávez in anything,” he said.

According to a nationwide poll by the local firm Datanalisis in April, 70 percent of Venezuelans opposed Chávez’s decision not to renew the network’s license. Only 13 percent supported the decision. The same poll gave Chávez a 65-percent approval rating.

On the network’s final weekend, rallies against the government’s decision not to renew the station’s license in front of RCTV showed a much darker-skinned and poorer audience than either opposition events and certainly for what the channel’s cast of stars are known.

After RCTV went off the air at midnight on May 27, protests led by students who oppose Chávez gripped Caracas and other cities around Venezuela for several days. Students continue to rally for freedom of expression and other civil liberties.

More than the largely middle-class protesters, however, Chávez should be worried that many poor, moderate chavistas reject the decision not to renew RCTV’s license. Pérez seems to exemplify that position. “I depend on RCTV,” said Pérez. “If I’m home on a Sunday, I distract myself with the channel. Lots of Venezuelans without cable aren’t going to watch anything.”

Freedom of choice
Luis Vicente León, head of Datanalisis, attributes the widespread rejection of the RCTV closure not to worries over freedom of expression, but to concerns about freedom of choice.

On the heels of Chávez chastising and pressuring dissenters among his supporters to join his new single party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, the RCTV case also suggests to critics a harder line against political allies as well as opponents, including a seemingly intolerant attitude toward opposition media. As perhaps Chávez’s most important act against the popular will, RCTV’s closure hints that Chávez is willing to risk political capital to achieve his vision of an egalitarian and centralized society with himself at the helm. How far he goes against the popular will to achieve that vision, however, may sow doubts among moderate supporters like Pérez.

But the more zealous Chávez supporters at the “hot corner” of Plaza Bolívar, the city’s main square, don’t seem to mind. Hard-core chavistas gather here to argue about Chávez ‘s so-called Bolivarian Revolution and their leader’s “21st century socialism.”

In front of Miriam Bolívar sits an effigy of Marcel Granier, RCTV director and Chávez arch-enemy, with a sign that reads: “Biography of a delinquent, Marcel Granier. Assassin, coupster, fascist, terrorist.”

Chávez accuses RCTV of egging on a failed coup against him on April 11, 2002. Bolivar, a homemaker and Chávez devotee, claims that RCTV’s reign of terror has ended. “RCTV has been kidnapped by a family of gringos that speaks English among themselves,” said Bolívar. “They’re not Venezuelans. It can’t belong to a family of oligarchs.”

“We can’t have media that pushes anti-values like death and consumption. These aren’t communications media, but communications enterprises,” she said.

Like many Chávez supporters, Bolivar links media ownership to the business elites that long held power in Venezuela. “We can’t continue having a small group of families that think they own the country and a vast majority burdened by poverty.”

For Chávez supporters, closing RCTV not only bodes well for media accuracy, while eliminating an outlet that attacks Chávez , but also represents a step toward realizing an egalitarian society. Chávez supporters also blame the network for pushing US pop culture and values on the Venezuelan people.

“Why do we want Superman, when we have Bolívar and Sucre?” said the pro-Chávez activist, referring to Venezuelan independence heroes.

Globovisión in the spotlight
Only Globovisión, a 24-hour news network that only broadcasts to Caracas and Valencia, remains as a highly critical voice against Chávez’s government. But already Globovisión is being threatened.

Information Minister Willian Lara blasted Globovisión for broadcasting RCTV archival footage of the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, while a salsa singer crooned: “Have faith that this doesn’t end here.”

Chávez followed, warning Globovisión to “calm down” its “destabilization” plans of promoting the student protests. Opposition critics argue that after Chávez won the 2004 recall vote on his rule, the Televen and Venevisión networks softened their stance, canceling their opinion shows, all of them hosted by fierce Chávez critics. Chávez supporters call these moves an effort to correct past biases and improve the quality of journalism at the networks, efforts that RCTV and Globovisión have not made.

Earle Herrera, a career journalist and pro-Chávez deputy, defended RCTV’s closure. “For the first time, the airwaves have been democratized,” said Herrera. “A channel that was in a few hands is now in many hands.”

After the coup, argues Herrera, the media elites at RCTV continued abusing its media power through attacks on the government.

“They weren’t simple criticisms,” he added. “The guests called on people to not recognize the government and rise up against the Constitution and the laws. No state gives a license to an economic group for that group to conspire against the state.”


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