Transitions

The fall of the last bastion of free speech in Venezuela

For years, Venezuela’s government has dodged accusations that it does not protect freedom of speech. Critics usually point to the frequent use of public airwaves to broadcast government propaganda, as well as the many TV and radio stations the government has shut down for playing critical content. The government usually responds by citing the continued ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

For years, Venezuela’s government has dodged accusations that it does not protect freedom of speech. Critics usually point to the frequent use of public airwaves to broadcast government propaganda, as well as the many TV and radio stations the government has shut down for playing critical content. The government usually responds by citing the continued operation of Globovisión, a sharply critical all-news station (or rather, the only critical news station). Chavistas claim that its survival throughout the Chávez era refutes any allegations of censorship.

But the government will have to find another weak alibi. As of the last few days, Globovisión’s critical presentation of the news feels like a thing of the past.

Last March, Globovisión’s owners announced that the station had been sold to a group of Venezuelan businessmen linked to the insurance industry. The decision made sense both economically and politically. Globovisión has been under siege for years by being routinely fined for covering news that regulators felt would "stir public anxiety." Because of their work, Globovisión’s owners and journalists are also under constant threats of being arrested.

The standoff between the government and Globovisión goes back to 2001. Back then, most of the Venezuelan media took a harshly critical stance toward President Hugo Chávez’s early efforts to establish what he called a "socialist republic." After losing several battles, stations such as Venevisión and Televen backed down and began self-censoring. Radio Caracas Television was shut down after the government refused to renew its license. The small-ish Globovisión, Venezuela’s main private all-news channel, remained unapologetically critical and correspondingly experienced significant growth in its ratings. While it presented itself as a news network, its programming was loaded with opinion shows that mostly promoted the opposition’s point of view.

The existence of critical news stations, however, does not exactly give credence to the government’s claims that all of the media are against it. The Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have both cited Globovisión as the only remaining critical TV station in the country, pointing out that more than 50 percent of news media outlets are favorable to the government. NGOs such as Human Rights Watch concluded that "[w]hile sharp criticism of the government is still common in the print media, on the private TV station Globovisión, and in some other outlets, fear of government reprisals has made self-censorship a serious problem."

But judging by the actions of Globovisión’s new owners, the station is now preparing to give up its role as the last line of defense for free speech. Several well-known journalists have either resigned or lost their jobs (such as Kico Bautista shown above) because of differences with the new owners. Following a decision to ban live video of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state took to Twitter to denounce apparent links between the station’s new owners and members of the ruling clique. Massive numbers of Twitter followers began "un-following" the station. This prompted a furious communiqué from the owners in which they vowed to prevent the station from acting "like a political party," a talking point typically used by high-ranking chavistas when criticizing the station.

These moves come at a time when the Maduro administration is dominating the airwaves with mandatory broadcasts even as his popularity is tanking. Venezuelans are suffering through severe shortages of everything from corn flour to toilet paper, and this seems to be hurting the government’s image.

Globovisión’s demise is one of several worrying trends in Venezuela’s public sphere. After criticizing chavista strongman Diosdado Cabello for corruption, the state TV channel VTV decided to bench their own chavista talking head, Mario Silva, and cancel his long-running show, La Hojilla ("The Razorblade"). Now, Maduro has been talking about going after cable TV. Among his targets is CNN, which, he says, is conspiring against his government by engaging in "psychological warfare" and by plotting a coup.

A few years ago, the Chávez administration began working toward what they call "communication hegemony." With these latest moves, it seems as if the goal is within reach. But if the government succeeds, it will soon find itself facing a new problem. When all the critics are gone, officials will no longer have anyone to blame for "media conspiracies" and other such nonsense.

At any rate, Venezuelans really don’t need their TV news to tell them there is no toilet paper on the supermarket shelves. It’s this grim reality that’s the real enemy of the government — and that’s one case where censorship isn’t going to help.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and co-author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

 Twitter: @juannagel

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