Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has long been demonized by the Western media as a "leftist firebrand" (the U.K. Independent), "militaristic strongman" (Financial Times), and as "Venezuela's demagogue" (The Washington Post).
No surprise, then, that Chávez's decision not to renew the license of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) elicited outrage across Britain and the United States. In a May 29 article titled "He Is Losing the Country's Respect," Catherine Philp wrote in The Times of London: "The move has fuelled accusations that Mr Chavez is moving towards an increasingly authoritarian rule and is quashing dissent against his 'socialist revolution.' "
The Washington Post described the action as an attempt to silence opponents, supplying further proof that Chávez is a "dictator." A Washington Times editorial described Chávez as "the Venezuelan muzzler," adding, "Mr. Chavez's so-called 21st century socialism resembles the destructive, oppressive and authoritarian socialist regimes of the 20th century."
One might think from these comments that Chávez is indeed behaving like a stereotypical "strongman." So why did he refuse to renew the license?
According to CNN reporter T.J. Holmes, the motive lies in the fact that RCTV "has been critical of his government." Or as a Financial Times headline put it, "Chavez Pulls Plug on Dissenting TV Station."
These and similar claims have given the impression that Chávez is simply crushing dissent. An Independent editorial came closer to the truth: "President Chavez has long detested RCTV, accusing it of helping to incite a coup against him in 2002."
The problem with RCTV, in fact, does not revolve around political differences with Chávez , but rather with its complicity in an attempt to overthrow Venezuela's government.
As with The Independent editorial quoted above, a consistent theme of media reporting has been to ascribe this "accusation" to Chávez personally. The Independent referred to RCTV, "which Mr Chávez believes was plotting against him." And The Times reported: "President Chavez withdrew its licence, accusing the network of 'coup plotting.'"
These media reports all distort the truth by attributing a mere "claim" to Chávez, someone they have all previously demonized as an authoritarian strongman. This earlier demonization acts to undermine the credibility of the charge against RCTV in readers' minds, so reinforcing the bias of ostensibly balanced reporting against the Venezuelan government.
In a rare example of media honesty, the Los Angeles Times reported in May that RCTV had initially been focused on providing entertainment. "But after Chávez was elected president in 1998," the article stated, "RCTV shifted to another endeavor: ousting a democratically elected leader from office."
Controlled by members of the country's ruling elite, including station chief Marcel Granier, the channel saw Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution in defense of Venezuela's poor as a threat to established privilege and wealth.
Thus, for two days before the April 11, 2002, coup, RCTV canceled regular programming and ran constant coverage of a general strike aimed at ousting Chávez. A stream of commentators delivered fierce criticism of the president with no response allowed from the government. RCTV also ran nonstop advertisements encouraging people to attend an April 11 march aimed at toppling the government and later broadcast blanket coverage of the event. When the march ended in violence, RCTV ran manipulated video footage falsely blaming Chávez supporters for scores of deaths and injuries.
On the same day, RCTV allowed leading coup plotter Carlos Ortega to call for demonstrators to march on the presidential palace. After the overthrow appeared to have succeeded, another coup leader, Vice Admiral Victor Ramírez Pérez, told a journalist, "We had a deadly weapon: the media. And now that I have the opportunity, let me congratulate you." Another grateful leader remarked: "I must thank Venevisión and RCTV."
RCTV news director Andrés Izarra later testified at National Assembly hearings on the coup attempt that he had received clear orders from superiors at the station: "Zero pro-Chávez, nothing related to Chávez or his supporters. . . . The idea was to create a climate of transition and to start to promote the dawn of a new country."
While the streets of Caracas erupted with public outrage against the coup, RCTV broadcast soap operas, cartoons, and old movies.
On April 13, 2002, RCTV's Marcel Granier and other media moguls met in the Miraflores palace to offer their support to the country's new dictator, Pedro Carmona, who in one stroke eliminated Venezuela's Supreme Court and the National Assembly, and suspended its Constitution. When Chávez returned to power that same day, the commercial stations refused to cover the news.
Many journalists have reported the enforced closure of RCTV, but in fact the channel has not been shut down; it has been broadcasting since July by satellite and cable. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting made the point that matters: "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."
In a letter published in the Guardian (May 26, 2007), Gordon Hutchinson of the Venezuela Information Centre rejected the claim that there is censorship in Venezuela, where 95% of the media is fiercely opposed to the government. This includes five privately owned TV channels controlling 90% of the market. All of the country's 118 newspaper companies, both regional and national, are privately held, as are 706 out of 709 radio stations.
While the British and U.S. press focus intensely on the alleged crushing of free speech in Venezuela, little is written about much worse actions elsewhere.
In Honduras, beginning May 28, President Manuel Zelaya ordered all TV and radio stations to broadcast one-hour prime-time programs every day for 10 days to counteract what he called "misinformation" on his administration provided by the media.
The BBC reported Zelaya's actions May 25. A June 11 media database search found that in the previous two weeks, the U.S. press mentioned the Zelaya story in four articles, the highest-profile outlet being The Miami Herald; in contrast, the words Chávez and RCTV were mentioned in 207 articles during the same period. British newspapers did not mention Zelaya's actions at all, while Chávez and RCTV were mentioned in 23 articles.
In Colombia, President Álvaro Uribe was asked if he would have refused to renew RCTV's license. "I would not do that to anybody," he replied. The Inter Press Service news agency commented wryly: "But the right-wing Uribe cannot shut down opposition TV stations for the simple reason that there aren't any."
In October 2004, Uribe closed the public Instituto de Radio y Televisión (Inravisión). The Colombian government argued that Inravisión was "inefficient." But the underlying problem "was the strength of the union" of Inravisión employees, according to Milciades Vizcaíno, a sociologist who worked for almost 27 years in educational programming for the channel.
These and many other similar attacks on free speech across the region do not make the front pages of the British and U.S. press. As usual, alleged concerns for democracy and human rights mask deeper priorities: protecting governments that toe the line dictated by Western power, and undermining those that do not.
David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org and the author, with David
Cromwell, of Guardians of Power-The Myth of the Liberal Media (Pluto Press,