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Venezuela and the Media: Fact and Fiction
To read and view the U.S. news media over the past week, there is an episode of grand tyranny unfolding, one repugnant to all who cherish democratic freedoms. The Venezuelan government under "strongman" Hugo Chavez refused to renew the 20-year broadcast license for RCTV, because that medium had the temerity to be critical of his regime. It is a familiar story.
And in this case it is wrong.
Regrettably, the US media coverage of Venezuela's RCTV controversy says more about the deficiencies of our own news media that it does about Venezuela. It demonstrates again, as with the invasion of Iraq, how our news media are far too willing to carry water for Washington than to ascertain and report the truth of the matter.
Here are some of the facts and some of the context that the media have omitted or buried:
1. All nations license radio and TV stations because the airwaves can only accommodate a small number of broadcasters, far fewer than the number who would like to have the privilege to broadcast. In democratic nations the license is given for a specific term, subject to renewal. In the United States it is eight years; in Venezuela it is 20 years.
2. Venezuela is a constitutional republic. Chavez has won landslide victories that would be the envy of almost any elected leader in the world, in internationally monitored elections.
3. The vast majority of Venezuela's media are not only in private hands, they are constitutionally protected, uncensored, and dominated by the opposition. RCTV's owners can expand their cable and satellite programming, or take their capital and launch a print empire forthwith. Aggressive unqualified political dissent is alive and well in the Venezuelan mainstream media, in a manner few other democratic nations have ever known, including our own.
Now consider the specific facts of RCTV as it applied to have its broadcast license renewed.
The media here report that President Chavez "accuses RCTV of having supported a coup" against him. This is a common means of distorting the news: a fact is reported as accusation, and then attributed to a source that the press has done everything to discredit. In fact, RCTV - along with other broadcast news outlets - played such a leading role in the April 2002 military coup against Venezuela's democratically elected government, that it is often described as "the world's first media coup."
In the prelude to the coup, RCTV helped mobilize people to the streets against the government, and used false reporting to justify the coup. One of their most infamous and effective falsifications was to mix footage of pro-Chavez people firing pistols from an overpass in Caracas with gory scenes of demonstrators being shot and killed. This created the impression that the pro-Chavez gunmen actually shot these people, when in fact the victims were nowhere near them. These falsified but horrifying images were repeated incessantly, and served as a major justification for the coup.
RCTV then banned any pro-government reporting during the coup. When Chavez returned to office, this too was blacked out of the news. Later the same year, RCTV once again made all-day-long appeals to Venezuelans to help topple the government during a crippling national oil strike.
If RCTV were broadcasting in the United States, its license would have been revoked years ago. In fact its owners would likely have been tried for criminal offenses, including treason.
RCTV's broadcast frequency has been turned over to a new national public access channel that promises to provide programming from thousands of independent producers. It is an effort to let millions of Venezuelans who have never had a viable chance to participate in the media do so, without government censorship.
The Bush Administration opposes the Chavez government for reasons that have nothing to do with democracy, or else there would be a long list of governments for us to subvert or overthrow before it would get close to targeting Venezuela. Regrettably, our press coverage has done little to shed light on that subject.
Our news media should learn the lesson of Iraq and regard our own government's claims with the same skepticism they properly apply to foreign leaders. Then Americans might begin to get a more accurate picture of the world, and be able to effectively participate in our foreign policy.
Robert W. McChesney is a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. (www.cepr.net).