"We had a deadly weapon: the media. And now that I have the opportunity, let me congratulate you." In Caracas, on 11 April 2002, just a few hours before the temporary overthrow of Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, Vice-Admiral Victor Ramírez Pérez congratulated journalist Ibéyiste Pacheco live on Venevision television. Twenty minutes earlier, when Pacheco had begun to interview a group of rebel officers, she could not resist admitting, conspiratorially, that she had long had a special relationship with them.
At the same time, in a live interview from Madrid, another journalist, Patricia Poleo, also seemed well informed about the likely future development of "spontaneous events". She announced on the Spanish channel TVE: "I believe the next president is going to be Pedro Carmona." Chávez, holed up in the presidential palace, was still refusing to step down.
After Chávez came to power in 1998, the five main privately owned channels - Venevisión, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Globovisión and CMT - and nine of the 10 major national newspapers, including El Universal, El Nacional, Tal Cual, El Impulso, El Nuevo País, and El Mundo, have taken over the role of the traditional political parties, which were damaged by the president's electoral victories. Their monopoly on information has put them in a strong position. They give the opposition support, only rarely reporting government statements and never mentioning its large majority, despite that majority's confirmation at the ballot box. They have always described the working class districts as a red zone inhabited by dangerous classes of ignorant people and delinquents. No doubt considering them unphotogenic, they ignore working class leaders and organisations.
Their investigations, interviews and commentaries all pursue the same objective: to undermine the legitimacy of the government and to destroy the president's popular support. "In aesthetic terms, this revolutionary government is a cesspit," was the delicate phrase used by the evening paper Tal Cual. Its editor, Teodoro Petkoff, is a keen opponent of Chávez. Petkoff is a former Marxist guerrilla who became a neo-liberal and a pro-privatisation minister in the government of rightwing president Rafael Caldera. The Chávez government is not, of course, above criticism. It makes mistakes, and the civilian and military personnel who surround it are tainted by corruption. But the government was democratically elected and still has the backing of the majority. It can also be credited with successes, nationally and internationally.
When it comes to discrediting Chávez, anything goes. There was a scandal in Caracas in March when a faked interview with Ignacio Ramonet, the director of Le Monde diplomatique, was circulated. In a statement alleged to have been made to Emiliano Payares Gúzman, a Mexican researcher at Princeton University, Ramonet was supposed to have said: "Chávez lacks a respectable intellectual corpus, and that is why his ship is always off course. When he won the elections, it seemed to me that he had something about him. But populism won out, as so often happens in such cases. I have seen videos in which he sings boleros while setting out his economic programme, if indeed he has one. I think those true and verifiable facts speak for themselves, I don't need to voice my opinion of somebody like that."
Venezuela Analítica (1) immediately posted the "statement" on the web, without checking on its authenticity, and it then became headline news in El Nacional. The paper was delighted to give credence to the idea of Chávez being isolated internationally, and made no attempt to check with the supposed interviewee. When Ramonet denied having made the statement, El Nacional rounded on the hoaxer (2) and, less overtly, without even apologising, on Ramonet.
The "information" that has been published has verged on the surreal. For example, "sources from the intelligence services have uncovered agreements entered into with elements linked to Hezbollah on the Venezuelan island of Margarita, who are controlled by the Iranian embassy. You will remember that when Chávez was campaigning, a certain Moukhdad was extremely generous. That debt had to be repaid, and now Iran is to make Venezuela an operational base, in exchange for training Venezuelans in Iranian organisations for the defence of the Islamic Revolution. Terrorism is in our midst" (3).
On 21 March El Nacional ran the headline: "Hugo Chávez admits to being the head of a criminal network." Next day Tal Cual referred to "the feeling of nausea provoked by the aggressive words he uses to try to frighten Venezuelans". The president was insulted, compared with Idi Amin, Mussolini or Hitler, called a fascist, dictator or tyrant, and subjected to a spate of attacks. In any other country actions would have been brought for libel. "An ongoing and disrespectful attack," was how the minister of trade, Adina Bastidas, put it. "They accuse me of funding the planting of bombs in the streets. And I cannot defend myself. If you attack them, they complain to the United States!"
Chávez responded to this media bombardment, sometimes using strong language, especially during his weekly broadcast Aló presidente! on the only state-controlled television channel. But his regime in no way resembles a dictatorship, and his diatribes have not been followed by measures to control the flow of information. Since Chávez took office, not a single journalist has been imprisoned, and the government has not shut down any media. Yet it is accused of "flouting freedom of information" and of "attacking social communicators".
'Tell the truth'
On 7 January a group of the president's supporters besieged the offices of El Nacional chanting hostile slogans. Shouting "tell the truth!", they hurled objects at the building. The number of attacks on journalists is increasing, according to Carlos Correa, general coordinator of Provea (4), an organisation for the defence of human rights, and they are being criminalised. "Although there have been no deaths, the situation is serious. Since the media bosses decided to oppose Chávez politically, it is no longer possible to have a reasonable discussion about the country's problems. But to claim there is no freedom of expression is outrageous."
"You read the newspapers, you watch the TV news and you have the impression that the country is gripped by conflict," says Jesuit Father Francisco José Virtuoso sadly. "Naturally that all adds to the tension." The popular majority is striking back in this war in which it is the target, no longer prepared to tolerate journalists who consider themselves above the law or the anti-democratic control of information.
Incidents are on the increase. The official agency Venpres described three media personalities as "narcojournalists"; the journalists in question - Ibéyise Pacheco (editor of Así es la noticia, a member of the El Nacional group), Patricia Poleo and television presenter José Domingo Blanco (Globovisión) - decided to make capital out of the accusations. After condemning their "persecution" in front of the cameras at the US embassy, they left for Washington, where they got a heroic welcome. The Venpres article, signed by a J Valeverde (5), was repudiated by President Chávez and condemned by the defence minister, José Vicente Rangel; it led to the censure and resignation of the director of Venpres, Oscar Navas. But that did not halt a campaign, in Venezuela and abroad, against a government accused of "muzzling the media".
The media has proved adept at using the self-fulfilling prophecy - both in relation to government supporters and the government. By protesting about infringements of liberty, when under no threat, and using lies and manipulation, the media provoked a reaction, sometimes inciting its victims to do wrong. Those misdeeds were then portrayed as the cause (and not the consequence) of the media's unhappy relationship with the government and much of the population.
We must condemn the attacks by the president's supporters on television units or journalists. But how could those supporters tolerate always being described as "Taliban" or as "villains"? We should protest when journalists, even if they are aggressive and completely identified with the oligarchy, are described as "narcojournalists". But those journalists had themselves bombarded the president with false accusations and portrayed him as the accomplice of Colombian "narcoguerrillas".
Led by men of influence and top journalists, the media is taking over from other players in the process of destabilisation: Pedro Carmona's employers' association (Fedecámaras), Carlos Ortega's Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, dissident members of the military, the technocrats of the national oil company (PDVSA) and a few discreet US officials (6). United in the Venezuelan Press Bloc (BPV), the media finally showed its hand when it joined in the first general strike on 10 December 2001.
"Free" opinions published in print -"Time for a change of government" or "Time to overthrow this government" (7) - were reinforced by dubious manipulation of the broadcast media. On 5 April two TV presenters gave their own commentary on a strike of petrol stations that was linked to the PDVSA conflict: "Have you remembered to fill up? Hurry, because tomorrow there won't be a drop left in the country." By encouraging motorists to rush out to buy petrol, they provoked unnecessary chaos, though the strike was only partial and the stations were still receiving supplies.
On 7 April Ortega and Carmona announced that there was to be a general strike. The editor of El Nacional, Miguel Enrique Otero, stood shoulder to shoulder with them and spoke on behalf of the press: "We are all involved in this struggle in defence of the right to information." Two days later the BPV, which had just been visited by the new US ambassador, Charles Shapiro, decided to back the strike. From then on the television companies broadcast live from the headquarters of the PDVSA-Chuao, the designated assembly point for opposition demonstrations.
"Take to the streets" thundered El Nacional on 10 April (in an unattributed editorial). "Ni un paso atrás! (not one step backwards)" responded the hoardings on Globovisión. Another TV company broadcast: "Venezuelans, take to the streets on Thursday 11 April at 10am. Bring your flags. For freedom and democracy. Venezuela will not surrender. No one will defeat us." The call to overthrow the head of state became so obvious that the government applied Article 192 of the telecommunications law. More than 30 times - for all television and radio channels - it requisitioned 15-20 minutes' air time to broadcast its views. But the broadcasters divided the screen in two and continued to urge rebellion.
On 11 April military and civilian press conferences calling for the president's resignation marked the next phase. On RCTV, Ortega called on the opposition to march on Miraflores (the presidential palace). At about 4pm, when the scale of the conspiracy was apparent, the authorities gave the order to block the frequencies used by the private channels. Globovisión, CMT and Televen went off air for a few moments before resuming their broadcasts using satellite or cable. All screens broadcast an image that had been edited to show armed counter-demonstrators firing on "the crowd of peaceful demonstrators". As a result the Bolivarian Circles, the social organisation of Chávez supporters, were blamed for deaths and injuries (8).
The conspirators, including Carmona, met at the offices of Venevisión. They stayed until 2am to prepare "the next stage", along with Rafael Poleo (owner of El Nuevo Pais) and Gustavo Cisneros, a key figure in the coup. Cisneros, a multimillionaire of Cuban origin and the owner of Venevisión, runs a media empire - Organización Diego Cisneros. It has 70 outlets in 39 countries (9). Cisneros is a friend of George Bush senior: they play golf together and in 2001 the former US president holidayed in Cisneros's Venezuelan property. Both are keen on the privatisation of the PDVSA (10). Otto Reich, US assistant secretary of state for Interamerican affairs, admits to having spoken with Cisneros that night (11).
At 4am on 12 April, to avoid bloodshed, Chávez allowed himself to be arrested and taken to the distant island of Orchila. Without presenting any document signed by Chávez to confirm the news, the media chorused his "resignation". The boss of the bosses, Carmona, proclaimed himself president and dissolved all of the constituent, legitimate and democratic bodies. Venezolana de Televisión, the only means of communication available to the government, was the first broadcaster forced to shut down when Carmona took power (12).
Ready for the coup
The press greeted the coup (though they censored any use of that word) with undisguised enthusiasm. And for good reason. Interviewing Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo and Victor Manuel García, director of statistical institute Ceca, at 6.45am, presenter Napoleón Bravo boasted that he had allowed his own house to be used to record a call to rebellion by General González González. García described his role at the dissident military centre of operations at Fort Tiuna: "We were short of communications facilities, and I have to thank the press for their solidarity and cooperation in helping us to establish communications with the outside world and pass on the instructions that General González González gave me."
"One step forward" was the triumphant headline in El Universal. Journalist Rafael Poleo, who had filed the account of the first meeting of the rebel leaders, took responsibility (with others) for the document setting up the new government. During the afternoon "President" Carmona offered Poleo's daughter, Patricia, the post of head of the central information bureau. The decree establishing a dictatorship was countersigned by the employers, the church and the representatives of a pseudo "civil society", and also by Miguel Angel Martínez, on behalf of the media. Daniel Romero, private secretary of the former social-democrat president Carlos Andrés Pérez, and an employee of the Cisneros group, read it out.
The desire for revenge provoked repression. The interior minister, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, and a member of parliament, Tarek William Saab, were arrested, and heckled and manhandled by a crowd. RCTV triggered a manhunt by publishing a list of the most wanted individuals and broadcast violent searches live, aping the hectic pace of US news broadcasts. The live broadcast on all channels of attorney general Isias Rodríguez's press conference was suddenly taken off air after only five minutes when he talked about the excesses of the "provisional government" and condemned the "coup".
On 13 April the Chávez supporters were unleashed, and officers loyal to him retook control. But the only way Venezuelans could get information was through CNN broadcasts in Spanish - available only on cable, or on the internet sites of the Madrid daily El País and the BBC in London. Announcing the rebellion by the 42nd parachute division in Maracay, CNN expressed amazement that the press were saying nothing. The freedom of information that had been clamoured for had been replaced by silence. Screens were filled with action films, cookery programmes, cartoons and baseball games from the major US leagues, interspersed only with repeats of General Lucas Rincón's announcement of the "resignation" of Chávez.
Thousands logged on to the internet and got on their mobile phones, but only the alternative press was able to beat the blackout. Popular newspapers, television and radio began life in the poor districts, and were an important source of communication and information. Short on experience, they were the first targets of the "democratic transition". According to Thierry Deronne, the presenter of Teletambores, Chávez had never asked them to broadcast his speeches.
But the anti-Chávez powers did not hesitate long after their coup before arresting editorial staff and seizing equipment, ensuring that the only way the people could find out what was really happening was via the opposition press. In Caracas, Radio Perola, TV Caricuao, Radio Catia Libre and Catia TV were searched and personnel subjected to violence and detention.
In the late afternoon of 13 April, crowds gathered in front of RCTV (then Venevisión, Globovisión, Televen and CMT, as well as the offices of El Universal and El Nacional), throwing stones and compelling journalists to broadcast a message calling for "their" president to be restored. It was an intolerable attack on the press; terrified journalists broadcast an appeal for help on air - conveniently forgetting that they were supposed to be on the rebel side. "We too are part of the people; we too are Venezuelans and we are doing our duty. It is not possible that the supporters of Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez [no mention that he was head of state] should consider us their enemies."
It was 20 hours before the state channel Venezolana de Televisión came back on the air with the help of militants from the community media and from soldiers from the presidential guard. The silence was broken and Venezuelans then found out that the situation was changing. Except for Ultimas Noticias, no newspaper was published next day to announce the president's return. The private television channels broadcast no bulletins. Globovisión alone rebroadcast the information that had been transmitted by the international agencies (13).
Although the restoration of democratic normality did not result in media repression, the media continues play victim. It gives priority to the "coup heroes", speaks of a "power vacuum" and calls for the resignation of Chávez - described as a "murderer". Openly called the "hate media", it claims to be the "coup media".
(1) Seze on www.analitica.com. (2) Gúzman claimed to have done it to show just how unreliable the Venezuelan press was. (3) "Entrelíneas", El Nacional, 15 March 2002. (4) Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en derechos humanos. (5) It was later discovered that this was the pseudonym of an unsavoury character called Rafael Kries. (6) See "Venezuela: a coup countered", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, May 2002. (7) "Overthrow the government", El Universal, 20 March 2002. (8) See Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, May 2002, and the photographs posted on our website. (9) Including: Univisión (80% of broadcasts in Spanish in the United States), Canal 13, Chilevisión, DirectTV Latin America, Galavisión, Playboy TV Latin America, Playboy TV International, Uniseries, Vale TV, Via Digital, AOL Latin America. (10) The former would like to see it in the hands of a US company close to his interests, and the latter has his eye on Citgo, the American subsidiary of PDVSA. (11) Newsweek, Paris, 22 April 2002. (12) The same applies to Radio Nacional de Venezuela and the official news agency Venpres. (13) Some journalists have resigned in disgust, like André Izarra, of RCTV where the management has imposed a ban on pro-Chávez reporting.
Translated by Julie Stoker http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=20&ItemID=2321