Chavez & the Media: A History of Conflict

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez returned last weekend from convalescing in Cuba; this is a file photo of the Venezuelan leader.

by Allison Dickinson
Special to Sutradhar’s Market

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías is a polarizing figure, seemingly either adored or despised, depending upon the commenting public figure or media outlet. Venezuela’s media have had a tumultuous relationship with the leader, ranging from support to outright calling for his resignation. Chávez and his administration have been sharply aware of the treatment they receive in the media and have been quick to condemn coverage they deem inaccurate. The Chávez administration also fights back through the government broadcast media.  As John Lombardi writes: “[t]he effective exploitation of the media to develop constituency and maintain the currency of the leader’s identification with the people has been [a] hallmark of the Chávez regime….”  In Venezuela, there is a distinct power struggle over control of the media and the framing of events, which can be illustrated through the importance placed upon the media using four examples: the 1992 attempted coup against the government of then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez by one Hugo Chávez, the subsequent relationship between Chávez and the media, the 2002 coup against President Chávez, and Chávez’ practice of “chaining” broadcasts. These examples, will illustrate the importance lent to the broadcast media by political players in Venezuela.

In 1992, an ultimately unsuccessful coup d’état, which significantly featured the participation of then-Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez, involved a prominent scuffle over media control. Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka write that the coup plotters in this attempt “commandeered the antenna that controlled the signal of three commercial television stations” in an attempt to gain control of the airwaves and thereby the country’s system of mass communication. They then allegedly headed up an attack on the state-run television station as well, violently eliminating resisters, and, “after successfully executing these maneuvers, they broadcast a video of Hugo Chávez expressing his support for the uprising and exhorting the people of Venezuela to join in.” However, Marcano and Barrera Tyszka continue, the coup corps were unsuccessful in taking over channel 10, Televén, and then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez used this channel to communicate with the citizens of Venezuela, stating he was still in power and that the attempted coup had ultimately resulted in failure. The focus upon and use of broadcast media as a very real symbol of power as well as a method for claiming power is easily recognized in this 1992 coup attempt.

The media subsequently played an important role during the interim between Chávez’s failed coup and his eventual election to the presidency. Chávez’s rise to fame and his eventual earning of nearly 60 percent of the participating vote in the presidential elections of 1998 were in part due to the attention provided him by news media outlets, many of whom at the time supported his candidacy: “Chávez’s ascent in the polls even corresponds to the positive media coverage he gained in the spring of 1998,” Leslie Gates wrote.   President Chávez himself admits to this, even as he makes no attempt to veil his disdain for the private media, saying in an interview, “I remember Venevisión, a TV channel that was the spearhead of the coup d’état; well in the early days, I was practically king of Venevisión.”  He goes on to call members of the media at large “rats” and expresses some glee at having them “cornered in their own lair, their own trenches….” While Chávez initially had some private media support, this support waned after his election. He complained of the coverage he received after his first visit to Fidel Castro in Cuba, saying, “They devoted as much negative publicity as they possibly could to those two days I spent there. They broadcast a part of my speech in Havana on TV and invited some ‘experts’ to comment…” but then triumphantly recounts an individual citizen’s reaction being far more supportive.  This discrepancy between the alleged smears of Chávez by the private media and the general public’s approval rating of him has been marked throughout his presidency. Daniel Hellinger describes the head-on conflict carried out in and about the news media, writing, “Chávez, with his intellectual acumen and understanding of popular culture, is a masterful social communicator. For this reason opponents sought to limit the president’s authority to use state-owned television and command access to the entire national broadcast system.” Hellinger goes on to state that many of the hot debates regarding the media essentially boiled down to the “basic struggle between the president to preserve his main channel of communication to his social base of support, and the opposition’s desire to limit that capability.” Both the chavistas and the opposition understand the importance of the media in guiding and managing popular opinion, and each group’s level of access to broadcast media is integral to their respective holding of power.

Eventually, in April of 2002, this rivalry came to a head via a coup d’état largely supported by the private media. Steve Ellner and Hellinger write, “[i]f Chávez often indulged in extreme rhetoric and accused the opposition of treasonous behavior, many of his opponents responded in kind. In doing so, they heavily relied on the mass media, much of which did not hide [their] antagonism to the government and even played an important role in the attempted overthrow of Chávez in April 2002.” Under this contentious political climate, demonstrations in support of and in opposition to the government — along with the National Guard and the Metropolitan Police — crossed paths near the presidential palace of Miraflores.  While there are several different accounts of what really happened during the forty-eight hours of the 2002 coup, one thing is fairly clear: there was a struggle for media control. An interview with then-General Jorge García Carneiro, who remained loyal to the Chávez government during the coup, reveals some of the suspense over control of the airwaves. This recounting of the battle for media coverage is worth quoting at length as an example of the importance placed upon the media during this tense time:

…I was then informed that almost all the TV relay repeater units had been removed and there were no microwave repeaters running. Images to Venezuela could only be broadcast via recorded transmissions. Someone present pointed out that changes could be made to a recorded version by the time it was broadcast, so the truth would not be told, it would be distorted. We had to broadcast live, even if it was only the sound of one voice. A young woman from the press pointed out that we could contact a man who worked for CNN Atlanta and ask him for a link to Venezuela so our broadcast would be live. After numerous tries we made telephone contact and said, ‘This is a call from Venezuela, we don’t want a relay broadcast. All the microwave repeaters are down here; we need you to give us a live satellite link to read the second declaration regarding the coup d’état.’ Obviously this is sensational for a journalist. So in this way we read out the second declaration, acknowledging the constitution and demanding a return to the rule of law. This is what finally turned the tables on the coup plotters.

Another Chávez supporter, Charles Hardy, writes that the coup leaders made sure to take the state-run television and radio stations off the air to create a news vacuum filled exclusively by the privately-owned stations. Hardy recounts how these stations were overjoyed at the coup’s success: “These stations and their owners had been hoping for such an event for months, and their announcers were even proud to tell how they had helped in the preparations for the coup and had been congratulated by leaders for their work.” It is highly unusual to hear of a case wherein the broadcast news media actively assist with a coup; the media’s ability to reach government opposition assisted in gathering support for the opposition protest.  Indeed, one oft-cited example of the media’s support for the coup was a controversial camera shot of government supporters who had come under sniper fire returning volleys with their handguns. While Hardy claims that the limited range of these handguns led to a logical conclusion that the government supporters firing back “were responding to the threat posed by the shooting from the snipers and the police,” rather than directly battling the opposition marchers, the television coverage didn’t seem to agree: “…the opposition would speak of the ‘Massacre of Miraflores’…and would show the video of these three government supporters shooting. Almost never would they or the commercial media show photos of the police firing into the crowd.” Following the ultimate failure of the coup attempt, Hardy notes the media voluntarily created a news blackout: “[t]he commercial radio and TV stations had already stopped broadcasting any news of what had happened the day before. So as to keep the ordinary citizen in the dark, they showed only cartoons and old movies.” The broadcast media, government opposition, and chavistas alike were aware of the power held by whichever party could reach the public via the airwaves during this tense period in Venezuela’s recent history.

Of course, the private media battle with President Chávez is hardly one-sided. Chávez enjoys a great deal of control over what is transmitted through Venezuelan airwaves; one tool he is accused of particularly relishing — to the chagrin of the opposition — is known as the cadenas (“chains”).  As defined by A.C. Clark, “[t]hese consist of Chávez forcibly ‘chaining’ all the broadcast signals in the country — radio and television — and compelling them to transmit whatever he is saying. If you are watching a sporting event or a movie or the news, or listening to the radio, the signal is suddenly interrupted and you have to watch Chávez do whatever he is doing at the time.” Clark accuses Chávez of chaining broadcasts for no reason and for especially inundating the airwaves when an election approaches. He further claims that Chávez has bought out or shut down most opposing media outlets so as to directly or indirectly have a hand in a majority of the broadcast media, a view shared by international organizations Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The broadcast media, especially television, hold particular importance in the Venezuelan political arena. Through two coups involving Hugo Chávez in opposite roles, a main focus was gaining and retaining control of functioning broadcast ability, and the rule of Chávez is marked by a concentration on mass communication. The president himself states the importance of the media; in one interview, he describes the importance and success of his primarily call-in-based weekly show Aló Presidente and adds that “[c]ommunity-based media is really important in restraining the distortion campaign of the privately controlled media. We cannot remain quiet in the face of the private media campaign to poison the people’s outlook.” While the government’s relationship with the media is rocky and certainly controversial, there is no denying that all parties recognize the media’s importance in the political sphere.

(The photo of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez is from Iran’s Press TV and is in the public domain.)

About rickrockwell2011

Rick Rockwell is the Director of the School of Communication’s International Media program at American University. Rockwell is an award-winning journalist and author. His book, Media Power in Central America, won an award from the American Library Association. Please see the additional links for a full profile.
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