Dec 1 2006

The Myth of the Muzzled Media

[Note: This piece is a sidebar to “The Repeatedly Re-Elected Autocrat.”]

Following Hugo Chávez’s September 20 speech at the U.N., which included a mocking reference to George W. Bush as “the devil,” U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton told reporters “the real issue” was that Chávez was not “giving the same freedom of speech” to Venezuelans (Daily News, 9/21/06).

Editorials condemning Chávez and approvingly citing Bolton’s accusation appeared in several newspapers (e.g., Augusta Chronicle, 9/22/06; Omaha World-Herald, 9/22/06), but one pundit, John McLaughlin of television’s McLaughlin Group (9/22/06), challenged Bolton’s claim, responding on air, “Well, Ambassador Bolton, maybe they already have freedom of speech.”

Seconding McLaughlin’s point, columnist Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, wrote (Augusta Chronicle, 10/9/06), “Indeed they do, with the most anti-government media in the hemisphere.”

Following a 2005 Venezuela visit, Weisbrot found (Extra!, 11-12/05) that on Venezuelan TV, “There were commentators and experts trashing the government in ways that do not happen in the United States or indeed most countries in the world.”

Venezuela’s commercial television networks played such a key role in the April 2003 coup that the day after Chávez was removed, coup leaders took to the commercial television airwaves to thank the networks. “I must thank Venevision and RCTV,” one grateful coup leader remarked in an appearance captured in the Irish film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The film documents the networks’ anti-Chávez crusading before and during the short-lived coup, in which the stations actively participated, putting themselves to service as bulletin boards for the opposition. Venezuelan TV reliably repeated the would-be junta’s propaganda, including the lie that Chávez had resigned and had not been ousted.

Were a similar event to happen in the U.S., and TV journalists and executives were caught conspiring with coup plotters, it’s doubtful they would stay out of jail, let alone be allowed to continue to run television stations, as they have in Venezuela.

Moreover, anti-government demonstrations continue to be a staple of Venezuelan political life. On October 7, opposition leaders boasted that a political rally for leading opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales drew crowd estimates from 10,000 to over 100,000 (Latinnews Daily, 10/9/06; Independent, 10/9/06). CNN’s Lou Dobbs reported that the “massive anti-Chávez rally jamm[ed] the streets” (Lou Dobbs Tonight, 10/9/06.) The New York Times failed to report this news of Venezuelan political dissent, while the Washington Post relegated it to a 31-word “World in Brief” item (10/8/06).

But alarmism about the supposed muzzling of Venezuelan media and dissent continues in U.S. media. An editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune (4/5/06) reported that “new laws and regulations plus higher taxes and punitive fines amount to a neo-totalitarian infrastructure for muzzling Venezuela’s once-vibrant press.”

As Extra! reported a year ago (11-12/05), Venezuela’s powerful privately owned media sector—including five of seven major TV networks and nine out of the 10 major daily papers—continues to oppose Chávez in no uncertain terms. Contrary to claims of widespread press-gagging, observers of Venezuelan media have noted the freedom with which Venezuela’s private media routinely criticize and even vilify the government.

But new laws potentially restricting journalism do raise questions. In the 2005 Extra! article “Venezuela’s Press Laws Have Potential for Abuse,” we expressed concern over some vaguely worded Venezuelan media laws:

The Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, passed in 2004, permits the government to suspend and even close stations that “promote, defend or incite breaches of public order or that are contrary to the security of the nation.” Other laws, echoing official disparagement laws in several neighboring countries, prohibit insulting the president and other high officials. These laws have already resulted in a small number of legal actions (Washington Post, 7/15/05), and, as critics point out, the larger threat is the self-censorship these laws engender in journalists who may avoid controversial issues in fear of official sanction (Knight Ridder, 10/18/05; AP, 10/9/05).

While these laws continue to be a concern and should be removed from the books, there is little evidence that Venezuela’s opposition media is being stifled.