In Venezuela the role of the mass media has grown in tandem with the failures of a political system that during the 1980s and 1990s lost legitimacy. The erosion of the political system allowed the mass media to fill the gaps by functioning almost as a substitute for political parties. This was not a Machiavellian plan orchestrated by the media but the product of the country’s sociopolitical dynamic, along with citizens’ passivity or complicity. Moreover, the mass media derive their credibility from citizens’ perceptions of the comparatively weak state and its public institutions.
This media climate has grown only worse with the polarization that has divided Venezuelan society in two political camps over President Hugo Chávez’s project of 21st century socialism. The media sphere, with few exceptions, finds itself split into two equal blocks: pro-government media on one side and pro-opposition media on the other. In this context of highly charged polarization, the media convey crisis and, paradoxically, create crisis. The media have lost their healthy distance from the events they cover. With clear political intentions, the media feed their audiences with an endless flow of images, information, and rumors about any event that can be used for the purpose of political parties. As the French media specialist Dominique Wolton describes in War Game: La información y la guerra, this results in the “overmediatization” of the citizenry as the airwaves become saturated with information that does not necessarily permit Venezuelans to better understand the issues.1
The media, according to the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, have the power to construct truth and to impose a predetermined vision of the world. In Venezuela, a phenomenon called “anchorage” has come into use. The term describes the tendency of media outlets to ground their coverage from the viewpoint of the political sectors with which they identify. In an extremely politically polarized society, this anchorage results in “confirmation bias,” or the tendency of media to pick and choose where they get their information, what they report, and even what is possible. When media convey only one side of a story, they impede deliberation and the ability to reach a consensus. This denies citizens the possibility of meaningful participation in a democratic system. When the media report with a clear political bias, they not only affect the meaning and use of information, but also impede citizens’ right to impartial and independent information, which basically violates the democratic essence of a free press.
Venezuelan citizens are caught in a war—a war that is being fought fundamentally over the political nature of the media, in which the armies are the media and the soldiers are the reporters, information is the weapon, and the citizens’ right to information is collateral damage.
The Venezuelan media construct two parallel and apparently irreconcilable truths. In both cases, the media pretend to fulfill the function of establishing consensus and legitimacy. As a consequence, they coexist separately. One side in the media war defines itself as a promoter of liberties, participation, access, and opportunities, while the other is defined as failing to recognize the merit of those virtues, intent on undermining civil, political, social, and economic rights and freedom. One side defends governmental management, the other attacks from any side: political, economic, health, education, security, environmental, etc. These two media societies have perversely generated their corresponding media citizens, subjugated and united, in turn, under the media dominion.
The public and private media outlets fight to the death, armed with the opposite of information. The media report with clear political intentions, altering the meaning of the information, and more alarmingly, even hinder the citizens’ right to independent and impartial news.
In order to understand the magnitude of the media battle, it is important to stress the prevailing communication infrastructure in Venezuela. According to statistics from a study by the National Electoral Council (CNE) during the first week of the 2012 presidential campaign in July, of the 111 television stations operating in Venezuela, 61 (55%) belong to the private sector, 13 are public (12%), and 37 (33%) are community with a limited reach. With regard to AM radio, 172 (87%) belong to the private sector, two of which each have 60 additional frequencies, and 25 (13%) are public. With regard to FM radio, there are 466 (59%) that are private, 82 (10%) that are public, and 243 (31%) that are community-run. In regard to print media, there are about 100 dailies in circulation, of which 20% are pro-government or balanced. The rest are overwhelmingly for the opposition.2 Eleazar Díaz Rangel, a journalist and the director of the daily Ultimas Noticias, estimates that overall the country has a total of 1,200 private media outlets (TV, radio, and newspapers), of which 65% back the opposition.3
According to research conducted by Venezuela’s Global Media Observer, an independent organization tasked with analyzing Venezuela media, during various election cycles, print media offered a better balance than did the television stations, while the radio coverage was the most biased. Similarly, it found differences among the national and regional media, which produced more balanced coverage. This could mean that media polarization is more acute in the central area of the country.
Community media outlets cannot escape the polarization and they are often unavoidably found on one side or the other of the political spectrum. That said, a critical perspective among many community media has helped to create an alternative “third way” between the public and private media. One of the groups at the forefront is the National Association of Free and Alternative Community Media (ANMCLA), formed in June 2002 to “cultivate, articulate, and defend the diverse approaches to a free and alternative community media.” They referred to themselves as a “revolutionary social movement” in the communications field, and more than 300 organizations collaborate in the network throughout Venezuela. Although community media have worked in Venezuela for many years, the Chávez administration has promoted the democratization of the national airwaves and consequently the establishment of community media outlets. There is also a proposed Community and Alternative Media Law that would “regulate, respect, and guarantee that the people have the necessary instruments to exercise their right to communication.”
Research from the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Mark Weisbrot and Tara Ruttenberg, analyzing the evolution of television viewership in Venezuela between 2000 and 2010, shows that in 2010“thestate television channels in Venezuela garnered only 5.4% of viewers. Of the other 94.6% of viewers, 61.4% watched private television, and 33.1% paid for their programming.”4 There has been little change in the viewership in recent years, although viewership of the state channel has risen substantially over the last decade, from 1.9% between 2000 and 2001.
Weisbrot and Ruttenberg show the “clear connection” between the viewership patterns and public events. During times of crisis or when public interest for political events rises, so does viewership. The study demonstrates the relationship between events in April 2002, the strikes and work stoppages in the petroleum sector in 2002–03, and the government’s decision not to renew RCTV’s broadcast license in 2006–07. Similarly, viewership tends to rise during certain elections, such as the 2006 presidential race, the constitutional reform referendum in 2007, and the 2009 constitutional amendment referendum. When the crisis or elections come to a close, viewers return to their normal habits and to private networks.
According to Weisbrot and Ruttenberg, their findings “contradict the commonly held and extensively reported belief that the Chávez government controls the television media outlets. In reality, the opposite is true: the ratings for state television are quite negligible, presently a meager 5%. The private networks clearly dominate the television audience.”5
We can identify four battlefronts of Venezuela’s media war: (1) evaluation of the government’s management, (2) organization of interests, (3) political-electoral thermometer, and (4) analysis of the international situation.6
In the first, the media confrontation takes place over the evaluation of the Chávez government’s administration of several areas, including the economy, education, health, security, the oil industry, and the environment.
The positive assessment of the government’s role in these areas comes from the National System of Public Media (SNMP), a four-year-old network of several regional, national, and international Venezuelan state television, radio, and print outlets, including among many others, Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), TeleSUR, La Radio del Sur, Correo del Orinoco, and the Agencia Venezolana de Noticias news agency. This group concentrates on the diffusion of official state activity, with a special emphasis on the figure of President Chávez. These media defend state management and make an effort to demonstrate that the country is on the path of a transition to socialism. In that sense, state management is an expression of a social democracy that advances toward a social structure that includes material and cultural equality between people, and society provides each person with what he or she requires to satisfy his or her necessities. The government’s management is portrayed as leading the country to a society governed by the popular power in a profoundly participatory and protagonist democracy. According to this model Venezuela’s economy should continue to be restructured and wealth redistributed for the development of a new socialist mode of production.
The negative assessment comes from the private oppositional media, which attack the same government management, blaming it for failing in key areas—housing, security, health, education, and the economy—that they say has led the country into chaos and social conflict. In general, these media do not report on the accomplishments of the government’s management or they evaluate them in terms of possible negative consequences.
Both blocs politically use their own criteria of news worthiness, concealment, neutralization, and filtering of information to create a positive or negative image of state management.
The second battlefront is over how civil society—organized or not—elevates and negotiates its interests and needs with state decision-making bodies. Just as with the previous point, the angle of the report depends on the political orientation of the media in question. The oppositional private media place great emphasis on portraying a society that is the victim of an inefficient government’s management, on a state that is deaf to the interests of the population, and on the failure of system to resolve conflicts. They also represent the state as a very bad employer, particularly in its relations with the employees of the state-owned enterprises.
The SNMP feature these issues less, and report on the situation from two apparently contradictory or politically convenient perspectives: either as an expression of a society that is activated in the defense of its interests and needs—in other words, popular power— or as protests that are politically manipulated by sectors of the opposition and the media that is at their service.
The third area is the representation of the political climate and, in particular, the 2012 electoral process, including an analysis of state management and the quality of the government’s ability to respond to the interests of the people. Included in this area is also an approval or disapproval of the government and an interpretation of social protests. The confrontation becomes evident over topics such as democracy versus dictatorship, legitimate president versus dictator, recognition and fulfillment of human rights versus violation of civil, political, economic, and cultural rights.
The political climate is equally expressed by both sides in polar-opposite worlds. The mainstream private media display discontent, dissatisfaction, frustration, and fear, depicting the country in a situation of chaos and social conflict, as a result of the failure of Chávez’s socialist project. The state media portray a positive view of a country that has many new accomplishments and an optimistic outlook on the future. This supposedly emanates from the legitimacy and credibility of the successful political process.
With regards to the electoral climate, in the same CNE study on the first week of the 2012 presidential campaign, it also recorded the amount of time the major Venezuelan networks spent covering the two presidential candidates: Chávez and the united opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski.7
During the first week of the campaign, the private channel Televen and Venevision dedicated 1,680 seconds and 4,500 seconds of favorable coverage respectively to Radonski, while Chávez only received 900 seconds of favorable coverage from Televen and 540 from Venevisíon. The private channel Globovisíon dedicated 30,480 seconds to Capriles Radonski and only 3,360 to Chávez, while the state channel VTV dedicated only 12,180 seconds to Capriles Radonski and 30,360 to Chávez. In total these four channels dedicated 48,840 seconds to Capriles Radonski and 35,150 to Chávez.
Interestingly, VTV is often criticized for its biased coverage, while the private media are ignored. However, writes Ultimas Noticias director Eleazar Díaz Rangel, “If we honestly want to talk about balance, we should broaden that discussion to include all media.”8
The fourth and final area of the media battle is in the way that the media inform about global political, economic, and social events.
The oppositional media play a role of “consular media” for the way they express and defend foreign interests. They grant greater presence to foreign points-of-views and actors. One can observe a use of information that is committed to denationalizing the conflict. Generally, when the “interests of Venezuela” are reported, they do so through government spokespersons, a kind of impartial distancing from the Venezuelan position. The threatening voice of the United States occupies the news and headlines of the opposition media. One can observe a tendency to highlight the position of the United States as both judge and coercive external strength; a sort of moral or external support in the face of internal problems.
The SNMP emphasizes events in the Latin American and Caribbean region by focusing on Chávez’s performance in international contexts, summits, and so on. They grant more prominence to government positions and actors in international arenas and to experts who support the Bolivarian process. They carry out a passionate defense of the interests of Venezuela and directly reject those governments and international authorities that delegitimize the country with respect to human rights and are unaware of or minimize accomplishments of the Bolivarian process.
In Venezuela, the omnipresence of the media has permitted reporting practices to be eminently opinionated, surpassing the limits of manipulation of the citizens and capturing “the truth.” In this symbolic prison, the receivers of media messages perceive the distorted representation as reality and are incapable of distinguishing between fact and fiction.
Everyone has the right to inform and be informed. Everyone has the right to freedom of the press, not just the media companies and their journalists. But the media polarization contradicts these rights. Instead, the media ignore their professional integrity and mandates that are recognized by the whole journalistic community. The whole system is threatened, as subjective half-truths are sewn and disinformation spread, constructing media realities that are far from the realm of reality.
Maryclen Stelling is a Venezuelan sociologist and a member of the Global Media Observer. This article was translated by Jesenia Dolmus.
1. Dominique Wolton, War Game: La información y la guerra (México, D.F.: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1992).
2. Lisseth Boon, “El Gobierno crece en medios informativos pero no en audiencia,” El Mundo (Caracas), August 3, 2012.
3. Eleazar Díaz Rangel, “Los medios y los candidatos,” Ultimas Noticias (Caracas), July 15, 2012.
4. Mark Weisbrot and Tara Ruttenberg, “Televisión en Venezuela: Who Controls the Media?” Center for Economic and Policy Research Report, December 2010, page 2.
5. Weisbrot and Ruttenberg, “Televisión en Venezuela,” 6.
6. Carmen Elena Balbás and Maryclen Stelling, “Tendencias de opinión en medios impresos de circulación nacional,” Primera Mano, Radio Nacional de Venezuela, documento de circulación interna, Caracas 2011.
7. Días Rangel, “Los medios y los candidatos,” July 15, 2012.
Read the rest of NACLA's Fall 2012 issue: "#Radical Media: Communication Unbound."