Venezuela's Media Quake

International and local media have repeatedly accused the Venezuelan government of stifling "free speech." But a recent controversy over an opposition news channel's coverage of a mild earthquake shows the government has legitimate reasons for holding politically motivated news channels accountable. The controversy also demonstrates how foreign media promote local distortions seeking to demonize the Chávez government.

June 10, 2009

In 1812, one of the most devastating earthquakes of the nineteenth century hit Caracas and the coastal port of La Guaira. An estimated 10,000 people died and most of Caracas was buried in rubble. The quake also marked a major setback in the then-ongoing war of independence as religious and royalist authorities heralded the disaster as a sign of God’s wrath on the fledgling revolution.

Almost 200 years later another seismic event became an opportunity for political rouse. This time the quake was mild in its impact, causing little physical damage. Yet, it has triggered a maelstrom of international media defending network giant Globovisión as a victim of political censorship. The resulting frenzy has obscured the key debate of private versus public rights on the airwaves and the limits of uncritically framing the issue as a violation of "free speech."

Shortly after the first tremors were felt on May 4 at 4:40 a.m., Alberto Federico Ravell, director of Globovisión, claims he performed the necessary duty of personally delivering a “message of calm” to the station’s viewers. During the broadcast, he announced on the air several times that government aid and information was unavailable despite numerous attempts from government officials to distribute information to the station. According to Ravell’s broadcast, the only available news on the quake was through the U.S. Geological Survey, a Virginia-based government agency monitoring seismic events.

What Ravell omitted from his report was that Venezuela’s National Seismological Institute, known as Funvisis was closely following the geological movements. Funvivis operates a 24-7, state-of-the-art facility and provides virtually live data updates on its website and via email alerts.

In a recent interview, Bruce Presgrave, a geophysicist who supervises the USGS division that records and reports earthquakes globally, verified to me that the data his agency received on the morning of May 4 originated from geological stations in Venezuela monitored by Funvisis. Presgrave adds that the Venezuelan agency provided information “very quickly and has a well-run facility and monitoring system.”

Globo’s coverage of the quake incensed government supporters and prompted the National Telecommunications Commission, Conatel, to launch a formal investigation. At issue is whether Globovisión violated the public's right to access critical information in a time of crisis.

Cilia Flores, the head of Conatel, argues the issue could not be ignored since Ravell’s actions unnecessarily “instigated panic” and promoted an “unwarranted mistrust in government services.” Flores charges that Ravell “assumed the role of officiator in a state of emergency, and did not allow national agencies to deliver the information in a responsible and accurate way.”

"In a critical moment, he impulsively and irresponsibly exploited the situation to further his personal political agenda,” she adds.

Ravell claims the government is simply trying to “shut him up” as a way of eliminating opposing political opinion. Human Rights Watch and two delegates from the United Nations, Frank La Rue and Cecilia Botero, have joined Ravell in claiming that pressure from the Conatel investigation has more to do with Ravell’s role as a Chávez critic, than any legal infractions resulting from his broadcast.

Conatel’s investigation will be the third separate proceeding against Globovisión within a year. The first took place during the November 2008 regional elections when the station broadcast the victory speech of a candidate before the official election results had been reported. The second investigation was sparked when a guest commentator on the channel insinuated that Chávez should be assassinated. Violations could lead to temporary administrative sanctions or the eventual withdrawal of the channel's broadcasting license.

What is particularly at stake in the case of the recent earthquake is how international coverage of the issue has ignored a nuanced analysis of how Conatel and other officiating bodies have attempted to parse the differences between criticism and harm to the public good. By framing the story as an issue of whether Venezuela enjoys "free speech," international media – whether advertently or not – become the choir of an ongoing political strategy by opposition parties to discredit the Chávez government.

In response to criticism of the government's case against the channel, Venezuela’s Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) Roy Chaderton Matos contends,“If any other channel in another part of the world made the same abuse of the airwaves, they would be off the air.” He continues, “Globovisión has produced a permanent state of disinformation, including participation in the 2002 coup, a practice that has sought to destabilize and block the process of participatory democracy.”

Chaderton says the activities of opposition media in Venezuela amount to “media terrorism.” (For more about media in Venezuela and about claims of state "censorship" see: "What is the Venezuelan News Media Actually Like?")

“We’ve grown accustomed to it,” explains a local resident at a café in a small town outside of Caracas. “Everyone already knows who is who and what to expect from each channel.” In 2007, the government's decision to not renew the broadcasting license of the television channel RCTV generated heated public debate about the fate of the station and the future of public and private media in the country.

President Hugo Chávez recently jumped in the fray, inviting his critics (and allies) to a public debate, with each side representing their viewpoints: "I say this very seriously... If there is no freedom of expression here, we are inviting them to an open debate." As Latin America's most prominent conservative leaders converged for a right-wing summit in Caracas, Chávez offered, "How great it would be to have a special Aló Presidente; invite the Right and the socialists, and I will sit among the public audience and leave you all to debate."

Members of the summit ultimately rejected the invitation to a public intellectual debate.

Angela Marino Segura is a PhD candidate at New York University.

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