Until the late 1990s, Venezuela’s leaders routinely persecuted the country’s community media. Homes and offices that housed community radio stations were regularly raided and their operators often feared for their lives. Running a community radio or television station was a truly clandestine activity. In the hopes of changing this situation, many community media outlets supported Hugo Chávez’s rise to power. Beginning in 1998, when Chávez became president, community media were finally allowed to operate freely. Although their numbers gradually increased, many continued broadcasting without permits.
Despite this newfound freedom, it was not until after the April 2002 coup attempt that community media in Venezuela fully came into their own. The subsequent explosion of Venezuela’s alternative and community media is a result of three related factors: the complete lack of balance in the coverage provided by Venezuela’s corporate media, the successful defeat of the April 2002 coup that temporarily overthrew President Chávez, and the state’s active support for community media after the failed coup.
During the coup, community media filled the gap created by the corporate media, whose active role in the coup included not providing coverage of the resistance against the coup government. The coup organizers realized that they would have to control the flow of information in order for the coup to succeed. Since the mainstream media practiced a complete news blackout of pro-Chávez activity in the country, community media was instrumental in providing the public with information on the active resistance against the coup regime. In an attempt to stop this flow of information during the two days of the coup, the de facto government raided community media radio and television stations throughout the country and confiscated their equipment. Nevertheless, the community media managed to get the message out before most of them were closed down. Despite the crackdown, the community media’s broadcasting of the resistance caused the resistance to snowball into an increasingly active and eventually unstoppable force. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that community media played a crucial role in the collapse of the coup regime.
Prior to the coup, the Chávez government had relied entirely on the state media outlets—Venezuelan Television and Venezuelan National Radio—as a means of bypassing the “censorship” of the oppositional corporate media. At that time, even though community media were generally government supporters, the government did not pay much attention to them.
The most important form of support that community media received from the government prior to the coup was the “Organic Telecommunications Law,” which was passed in June 2000. This law specifically calls for three types of broadcast media in Venezuela: private, state and community. As such, the law gives legal recognition to community broadcasters, which allows them to receive special tax breaks. However, to qualify as a community broadcaster the programming must meet certain criteria. First, the station must be non-profit and dedicated to the community, meaning that at least 70% of its programming must be produced from within the community. Secondly, the station’s paid staff may only produce a maximum of 15% of the programming with the rest to be produced by community volunteers. The station must also provide training to members of the community so that they themselves become qualified to produce programs. Other requirements stipulate that the directors of community media cannot be party officials, members of the military or work for the corporate media.
Although the Chávez government began taking steps to legalize community media in January 2002, it was not until immediately following the failed coup that the government realized the importance of an alternative media. The relatively low ratings of the state media made evident that state broadcasters should not be the only alternative to the corporate media. Additionally, the state media’s centralized nature makes it vulnerable in a coup situation, as the shutdown of the state media outlets for the entire duration of the coup made clear.
A few months after the coup, government officials sat down with community media representatives to develop plans for strengthening the community media sector. At that time, many community broadcasters still lacked permits to operate, so legalization was a top priority. At least 14 community media outlets have been legalized since the coup, bringing the total legal community television and radio broadcasters to 30—around 25% are television stations and the rest radio stations. The vast majority of community broadcasters, however, still lack permits.
The Chávez government has also nurtured this burgeoning sector by sponsoring two conferences on community media, where community media representatives from across Latin America came to exchange ideas and experiences. At the last conference, held October 2003 in Caracas, President Chávez announced that the Venezuelan government was planning to fund a community media news agency, which would network community media via satellite. In his speech, Chávez proposed that this news agency could help create a national “neighborhood news broadcast” that would allow community broadcasters to exchange news items from different parts of the country.
Over the past year, community media have proliferated with the help of the central government. The state’s role has incited criticism from opposition leaders and their corporate media allies, who have made unsubstantiated claims that the Chávez government is directly financing community media outlets. But the government merely provides logistical help, ranging from training to advice on how to apply for broadcast permits. Venezuelan community media now find themselves in a difficult position. On the one hand, the corporate media condemn them for supposedly operating illegally and for allegedly receiving illegal funding from the government, yet, on the other, the government is very slow in providing them with permits as they scrape by to keep their stations operating.
In cases where the local government is in the hands of the opposition, community media are often targets of repression. The illegal closure of Catia TVe last July by the mayor of Greater Caracas, Alfredo Peña, who belongs to the opposition, is a prominent and recent example of this repression. Since the station does not broadcast continuously, officials of the mayor’s office were able to enter the station’s premises, which were located on the top floor of a public hospital, while it was off the air. The initial argument for closing the station was that the premises were not being used, and the equipment was being removed in order to safeguard it against theft. Once it became clear that the closure had no legal basis, it was reopened a few weeks later. Because the closure contradicted the opposition’s claims that President Chávez is the party responsible for suppressing free speech in Venezuela, the corporate media completely ignored the incident.
The primary role of Venezuela’s community media has been to provide news coverage that reflects the community. This is expressed in Catia TVe’s name, which means “Catia sees you,” signifying that members of the community make their own TV and see themselves and their community reflected in their programs. In contrast, the opposition media, insofar as they represent the interests of large private companies, are completely removed from poor communities and stand for a diametrically opposite set of interests. Therefore, in a possible upcoming recall referendum, community media will undoubtedly defend “el proceso,” as the process of change led by President Chávez has come to be known.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gregory Wilpert is a freelance journalist and sociologist living in Caracas, Venezuela. He is also co-director of the Web site, www.venezuelanalysis.com, which provides independent news and analysis on Venezuela.
1. This was especially true in Caracas, where Radio Alternativa Caracas, Radio Catia Libre, Catia TVe and Radio Perola were raided. Several leaders of the alternative media including Nicolás Rivera and Leopoldo Mansalve were arrested without a warrant.
2. “Organic” meaning that it is a law required by and derived from the constitution. For a report on the conference, see: www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1049.