Changing face of Venezuelan pressSunday, August 17, 2014
Buyouts further polarize media
Press takeovers, censorship, US intervention and paper scarcity just the tip of the iceberg
In the last year and a half, Venezuela’s media have been shaken by a series of unexpected buyouts. The common thread to many of these changes to media outlets is that after their acquisition, editorial lines have become, at least, less aggressive with the current government. First came radio FM Center, followed by cable network Globovisión and publisher Cadena Capriles.
The most recent to change hands was El Universal, the oldest newspaper in the country and it seems as if the purchasing spree will not end anytime soon. Reportedly next in line are publishing group Bloque de Armas and television network Televen — which has the second highest viewership ratings in the country, according to Juan Francisco Alonso, a press union representative of the broadsheet El Universal.
Critics cry foul, saying this is a tactic led by President Nicolás Maduro to silence criticism of his government. But these structural changes started even before Maduro became president in 2013.
The tipping point that triggered this profound transformation of the media was the failed coup attempt on former president Hugo Chávez in April, 2002. Before the coup — in which he was removed from power for two days by a group of military officials and business leaders — most media moguls were critical of his government. When the time arrived, they supported the plotters, halting publication or news broadcasting during 48 chaotic hours, keeping citizens in the dark about the unfolding events.
After the coup, the late former president opted for a more offensive approach. He chose to tackle the opposition media head on, cancelling dozens of radio and television licences, filing lawsuits and imposing big fines.
This, in turn, caused a rapid polarization of the media between the voices of the opposition and the state-owned Chavismo bloc, which is still influential today.
Another crucial element that fuelled the polarization was the United States’ intervention in politics and local media. According to leaked diplomatic cables published online by WikiLeaks, the US took an active role in trying to influence the political scene and decided the mass media was integral to their ambitions. Washington tried to influence the majority of Chávez’s 14 years as president, primarily via their Embassy, working hand-in-hand with media organizations and opposition leaders.
One of the pillars of their strategy to bring down the government was to finance local institutions, in total some 300 — ranging from political parties, trade unions, universities and consulting firms.
Up until 2006, Washington committed a total of US$15 million, for its goal to “strengthen democratic institutions.”
Another key strategy implemented by the Office of Transition Initiatives of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was to use non-governmental organizations, which apparently focused on social aid, to gain a greater presence at grassroots level. The ultimate goal was to win over Chavez’s supporters by “counteracting (the president’s) rhetoric and promoting alliances,” one of the US Embassy’s cables from 2006 reads.
According to other declassified diplomatic dispatches, journalists from privately-owned media outlets and opposition politicians received financial assistance via NGOs such as the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad and Espacio Público. Through these organizations, Washington also coordinated actions against the government.
One cable in particular from 2010 reveals the nature of the relationship between the US Embassy and part of the the Venezuelan media. It concerns a meeting between the owner of El Nacional, Miguel Henrique Otero, his wife Antonieta Jurado and the former US ambassador Patrick Duddy, in which Otero directly asked Duddy for financial support. However, on this occasion, the US official refused to help.
Those in opposition to Chávez and Maduro’s Bolivarian revolution have often denounced the government for asserting its influence over the media, saying the government and its allies are acquiring control of television networks and radio stations, but just 4.6 percent is state-owned and around 25 percent is community-run (mostly by pro-government allies), according to the last publicly available 2011 annual report released by the Information Ministry (Minci).
As if the identity crisis in the media wasn’t apparent enough, there is also a paper shortage, and critics allege the government is denying access to foreign currency needed to buy the product.
This has forced newspapers such as El Nacional, El Expreso and El Impulso to reduce the number of pages they print or even to shut down or temporarily suspend production altogether.
As a result of the changes in the industry, dozens of journalists have either lost or quit their jobs, or have been censored. The latest sweep occurred at El Universal just two weeks ago, when 40 columnists and cartoonists were censored, fired or left their jobs voluntarily to show solidarity with their colleagues.
For their part, the new owners have said that they refused to run certain columns because they were not in line with the paper’s “ethical code” and that, of late, they’ve been trying to “rescue balance.”
The changes have led to a growth in online media. Many reporters have turned to outlets on the web to publish their work, such as runrun.es (edited by the recalcitrant opposition activist Nelson Bocaranda, who still works for El Universal), konzapata.com (run by well-known business writer Juan Carlos Zapata) and lapatilla.com (headed by Alberto Federico Ravell, former CEO and shareholder of Globovisión).