Poor Endy Chávez, outfielder for the Navegantes del Megallanes, one of Venezuela's big baseball teams. Every time he comes up to bat, the local TV sportscasters start in with the jokes. "Here comes Chávez. No not the pro-Cuban dictator Chávez, the other Chávez." Or "This Chávez hits baseballs, not the Venezuelan people."
In Venezuela, even color commentators are enlisted in the commercial media's open bid to oust the democratically elected government of Hugo Chavez. Andrés Izarra, a Venezuelan television journalist, says that the campaign has done so much violence to truthful information on the national airwaves that the four private TV stations have effectively forfeited their right to broadcast. "I think their licenses should be revoked," he says.
It's the sort of extreme pronouncement one has come to expect from Chavez, known for nicknaming the stations "the four horsemen of the apocalypse." Izarra, however, is harder to dismiss. A squeaky clean made-for-TV type, he worked as assignment editor in charge of Latin America at CNN en Español until he was hired as News Production Manager for Venezuela's highest rated newscast, El Observador on RCTV. On April 13, 2002, the day after business leader Pedro Carmona briefly seized power, Izarra quit that job under what he describes as "extreme emotional stress." Ever since, he has been sounding the alarm about the threat posed to democracy when the media decides to abandon journalism and pour all its persuasive powers into winning a war being waged over oil.
Venezuela's private television stations are owned by wealthy families with serious financial stakes in defeating Chavez. Venevision, the most-watched network, is owned by Gustavo Cisneros, a mogul dubbed the "joint venture king" by the New York Post. The Cisneros Group has partnered with many top US brands-from AOL and Coca-Cola to Pizza Hut and Playboy-becoming a gatekeeper to the Latin American market. Cisneros is also a tireless proselytizer for continental free trade, telling the world, as he did in a 1999 profile in LatinCEO magazine, that "Latin America is now fully committed to free trade, and fully committed to globalization.?? As a continent it has made a choice." But with Latin American voters choosing politicians like Chavez, that has been looking like false advertising, selling a consensus that doesn't exist.
All of this helps explain why, in the days leading up to the April coup, Venevision, RCTV, Globovision and Televen replaced regular programming with relentless anti-Chavez speeches, interrupted only for commercials calling on viewers to take to the streets: "Not one step backwards. Out! Leave Now!" The ads were sponsored by the oilindustry, but the stations carried them free, as "public service announcements."
They went further: On the night of the coup, Cisneros' station played host to meetings among the plotters, including Carmona. The president of Venezuela's broadcasting chamber co-signed the decree dissolving the elected National Assembly. And while the stations openly rejoiced at news of Chavez's "resignation," when pro-Chavez forces mobilized for his return a total news blackout was imposed.
Izarra says he received clear instructions: "No information on Chavez, his followers, his ministers, and all others that could in any way be related to him." He watched with horror as his bosses actively suppressed breaking news. Izarra says that on the day of the coup, RCTV had a report from a US affiliate that Chavez had not resigned, but had been kidnapped and jailed. It didn't make the news. Mexico, Argentina, and France condemned the coup and refused to recognize the new government. RCTV knew but didn't tell.
When Chavez finally returned to the Miraflores Palace, the stations gave up on covering the news entirely. On one of the most important days in Venezuela's history, they aired Pretty Woman and Tom and Jerry cartoons. "We had a reporter in Miraflores and knew that it had been retaken by the Chavistas," Izarra says. "[but] the information blackout stood. That's when it was enough for me and I decided to leave."
The situation hasn't improved. During the recently-ended strike organized by the oil industry, the television stations broadcast an average of 700 pro-strike advertisements every day, according to government estimates. It's in this context that Chavez has decided to go after the TV stations in earnest, not just with fiery rhetoric but with an investigation into violations of broadcast standards and a new set of regulations. "Don't be surprised if we start shutting down television stations," he said at the end of January.
The threat has sparked a flurry of condemnations from the Committee to Project Journalists and Reporters Without Borders. And there is reason for concern: The media war in Venezuela is bloody, with attacks on both pro-and anti-Chavez media outlets. But attempts to regulate the media aren't an "attack on press freedom," as CPJ has claimed-quite the opposite.
Venezuela's media, including state TV, needs tough controls to ensure diversity, balance and access, enforced at arms' length from political powers. Some of Chavez's proposals (such as an ominous clause banning speech that is "disrespectful" to government officials) overstep these bounds, and could easily be used to muzzle critics. That said, it is absurd to treat Chavez as the principal threat to a free press in Venezuela. That honor clearly goes to the media owners themselves. This fact has been entirely lost on the organizations entrusted to defend press freedom around the world, still stuck in a paradigm in which all journalists just want to tell the truth and all threats come from nasty politicians and angry mobs.
This is unfortunate, because we are in desperate need of courageous defenders of a free press at the moment, and not just in Venezuela. After all, Venezuela isn't the only country where a war is being waged over oil, where media owners have become inseparable from the forces clamoring for regime change, and where the opposition finds itself routinely erased by the nightly news. But in the United States, unlike in Venezuela, the media and the government are on the same side.
This article first appeared in The Nation.