The President’s War on the Media


A version of this article appeared July 16, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Chávez’s War on the Media.

Copyright ©2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Chávez’s War on the Media

By MARY ANASTASIA O’GRADY


Venezuela is holding a presidential election, but the president has
squelched free speech.

Suppose the country you live in is holding a presidential election and
the incumbent is running for another term. Suppose further that the
economy is in bad shape. The ranks of the unemployed and poor have
swelled, the government is spendthrift, and the central bank is no
longer independent.

The president takes no responsibility. He blames everything on the
rich. He says they are exploiting the working classes and don’t pay
their fair share in taxes. Fomenting class envy and resentment is his
stock in trade. Now suppose there are is no independent media.

Welcome to Venezuela. Think the country can hold a fair presidential election?

South America’s oil dictatorship kicked off the campaign season on
July 1. Hugo Chávez, who has been the commander in chief of the
military government since 1999, hopes to keep his job when Venezuelans
go to the polls on Oct. 7. Henrique Capriles Radonski, the former
governor of the state of Miranda, is out to unseat him.

Outside observers, including the international media, are treating the
race like a real battle of ideas. But how can that be when there is no
free speech?

Let’s put aside for a moment all the obvious problems. Forget about
the lack of an independent electoral body to ensure fairness in voter
registration, at polling stations, and when tallying ballots. Forget
about how Mr. Chávez makes up rules as he goes along and then gets the
judiciary that he controls to bless them. Forget too that the
state-owned oil monopoly (known by the Spanish-language initials
PdVSA) is his campaign war chest, and the central bank prints money on
demand. For now, consider only the military dictatorship’s capacity to
control the message.

The Chávez government has muzzled free speech. Photo: Getty Images.

Mr. Chávez and his cronies in the Venezuelan elite know better than
anyone that he is running a Ponzi scheme. The key to maintaining some
support is keeping his impoverished constituents from seeing the
light, and that means controlling the narrative. Or as President Obama
might say, the ability to “tell a story.”

Venezuelans don’t read much but they do watch a lot of television, so
independent broadcasting had to go. It wasn’t hard to get rid of it.
Television stations require government licensing. In the Chávez
economy, many television ventures also depend on government
advertising to remain viable. So it was made clear to the
uncooperative that their permits would not be renewed or that their
bread and butter would be cut off.

At one time there were three independent, national
broadcast-television stations and many regional broadcasters willing
to criticize the government. Today, all largely have been silenced or
expelled from the market. Meanwhile, there are now at least four
state-owned national broadcasters dedicated to polishing the image of
Mr. Chávez and his Bolivarian revolution.

One dissident broadcaster—Globovision—remains. But it reaches only the
cities of Valencia and Caracas, and its permit expires in 2015. In
2010, its owner, Guillermo Zuloago (who also owned two car
dealerships), had to go into hiding when Mr. Chávez put out an order
for his arrest on charges of hoarding Toyotas. (Chávez price and
capital controls have produced shortages of many things, so a car
dealer holding inventory for delivery to customers can easily be
accused of unlawful hoarding.) Mr. Zuloago now resides in the United
States.

The government also imprisoned for a time Globovision’s second-largest
shareholder and later stripped him of his property. Recently the
company paid a fine of nine million bolivars ($2 million using the
official exchange rate) for broadcasting news of a prison riot.

Scores of independent radio stations also have closed under chavismo.
Only a few willing to run some criticism of the president have
survived. It matters too that PdVSA is also the largest contractor to
the private sector, which means the business community has had to
knuckle under to survive.

There are still brave reporters and opinion writers who dare to
challenge the status quo, despite the shrinking number of television
and radio outlets. But they run great risks.

According to Alberto Jordán, a journalism professor at the Central
University of Venezuela who once supported Mr. Chávez, many have paid
dearly for doing their work. Mr. Jordán, a columnist for the
Venezuelan daily El Universal, wrote recently that under chavismo
there have been 300 government-orchestrated court cases against
journalists.

In multiple cases—from reporting on drinking water contamination, the
shortages of goods or anything that might cause “anxiety” among the
population—reporters have been put on notice that they could be
subject to criminal prosecution. There is nothing like the threat of
doing time in a Venezuelan cell to focus a journalist’s mind on
state-approved reporting.

It is also worth noting that while independent journalists are
silenced, Mr. Chávez uses executive decrees to take over the airwaves
whenever he wants to give speeches. These famous discourses run for
hours.

So can challenger Capriles win the election? Perhaps. But if you’ve
ever witnessed a demagogue running for re-election, you can appreciate
how difficult it will be without an independent media.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com

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