Venezuela's media is caught in a vicious circle

CARACAS — A community television station beams daily reports to the shanty towns that sprawl just above its offices in the converted stables of a former presidential residence.

The station, Catia TVe, based in the western Caracas neighborhood of Catia, trains local residents, lends them equipment and broadcasts their reports. It is one of many such media projects that have flourished during President Hugo Chavez’s 10 years in power.

“When community media was launched, it was as the result of the people from the community's worries about the private media in Venezuela. Why couldn't we as human beings also make television?” said Miguel Lopez, a producer and presenter at Catia TVe for programs such as "Anti-imperialist Sovereignty."

State-funded media outlets that have been set up to defend Chavez's socialist project are proliferating in Venezuela, waging a media war with the television channels, newspapers and radio stations opposed to the president's radical Bolivarian revolution.

And it looks like Chavez is winning the battle for control of the airwaves. Five new government-funded television stations propagate his point of view, as do community channels like Catia TVe and a recently launched international news station broadcast throughout Latin America.

Venezuela does not have a law requiring impartiality in public broadcasting, an issue that has  rankled the opposition, who says that because state media is funded by a combination of sovereign oil and money from taxpayers — some of whom are opposed to Chavez's revolution — it ought to reflect a diversity of political opinions.

Catia TVe is funded by donations and advertising but also receives some financial assistance from the government – it was loaned its offices by the Ministry of the Interior and Justice and many of its donations come from government institutions.

Meanwhile, the government has blunted the private media’s influence. In 2007, Chavez revoked the terrestrial broadcasting license — permission to broadcast over the air rather than through cable or satellite systems — of Radio Caracas de Television (RCTV), one of Venezuela’s oldest and most popular stations that has a stridently confrontational line towards Chavez’s government. Chavez accused the station of conspiring in a 2002 coup d’etat because it blocked news of an uprising in his support and instead broadcast friendly interviews with the coup leaders.

RCTV continues to televise on cable but to a vastly reduced audience.

Other private channels — which have by far the largest audiences — practice a form of self-censorship, said Andres Canizalez, an analyst in media studies at the Andres Bello Catholic University. The government revised the broadcast licensing law in 2007, reducing the review period to five years from 20. The change effectively created a deterrent against excessive criticism of the government lest offending stations suffer the same fate as RCTV. Only one channel — Globovision — maintains an antagonistic stance toward the government.

"The government has the greater bias, a greater number of media outlets, a greater control,” Canizalez said. “Because, on top of everything, the state managed to implement a law on social responsibility that basically is applied to the private media and is a legal, coercive instrument to maintain the private media under the threat that they can be sanctioned.”

A study by the Media Monitoring Group at Canizalez’s university, in conjunction with the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, found that state media channels were overwhelmingly biased in the government's favor during this year's campaign for a referendum that abolished presidential term limits, allowing Chavez to run for re-election indefinitely.

Looking at TVes, which was established by the government to replace RCTV, the study found that 90 percent of the station's reports favored the government's position, with the other 10 percent representing neutral voices and no airtime for the opposition. VTV had a bias of 83 percent in favor of the ‘yes’ vote, 15 percent neutral and 2 percent against.

Opposition channels had a significant bias against the government’s proposal but allowed a few more neutral and pro-government points of view, the study said.

The balance rises further in the government’s favor given Chavez's use of a law that allows him to interrupt all terrestrial broadcasting to televise his public appearances. The law was originally set up to allow the president to make important public announcements, but Canizales said Chavez has abused it. A report by Reporters Without Borders found that Chavez exercised the law 1,816 times in 10 years, talking for 1,179 hours — the equivalent of 49 consecutive days.

Chavez has even expanded into international news, launching TeleSUR in 2005 as a foil to CNN’s Spanish-language station, which dominates the region. The channel receives some investment from the left-wing governments of Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua but most of the funding comes from the Venezuelan state. It has an audience of 100 million and is broadcast through much of Latin America, Europe and North Africa.

Headquartered in a state-of-the-art building in the east of Caracas, with two studios with robotic cameras, TeleSUR is unabashedly left-wing, said its president, Andres Izarra.

“We are an institution that is obliged to give the other side in this media circus in Venezuela where there is an overwhelming hostility by the commercial media,” he said. “[We are here] to balance or defeat the media circus from which our process suffers daily.”

Izarra said teleSUR has an “independent editorial line” with no interference from Chavez and cited teleSUR's regular invitations to those with opposing points of view as evidence of its journalistic integrity.

Izarra has fought on both sides of this media war. He worked as production manager for RCTV before he resigned after criticizing its editorial line during the 2002 coup attempt. He has been president of teleSUR since 2005, and simultaneously served as minister of communication for Chavez's government. He left that position in 2008.

He defended VTV’s editorial bias because channels such as Globovison are equally partisan. He refuted the argument that there is a stronger case for the state media to remain neutral because it is funded by oil revenues and taxpayers’ money.

“These private channels that don't air any other opinions and who reach a quantity of citizens daily are on public airwaves that belong to everyone and you can't get them off it,” he said. “They abuse public airspace and we use public airspace to defend ourselves.”

Lopez, of CatiaTVe, said that community TV reflected the true concerns and aspirations of Venezuela's poor communities and that the private, or commercial, media only reported negatively about his community.

The media war, it seems, has reached a standoff, with neither side willing to give way. “We're in a vicious circle,” Canizalez said. “Because the private media is biased, the public media does not feel obliged to be fair. The government could set an example which would give it more license criticize the private media.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on Venezuela:

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