Under Chavismo, the Media Became the News

Chavismo has proven to be efficient in only one thing: taking over Venezuelan media, shaping the news to their convenience, turning the citizens against journalists and restricting or, well, anhilating freedom of information.

Photo: Gabriela Mesones Rojo

The rules of the game and power changed between the government and the media. The press and the journalists who propped Hugo Chávez to the presidential chair couldn’t foresee it. Those who did were ignored, and perhaps they didn’t imagine the magnitude of what would come. It wasn’t a coincidence, and at least two historical moments evidence it.

On June 27, 2001, in the context of Journalists’ Day, the National Award of Journalism was presented in Miraflores Palace. There, the late President Hugo Chávez outlined that metamorphosis. It was, perhaps, the last breath of the status quo we knew as Chávez said: “What’s happening in Venezuela is a structural movement and that has an impact, there isn’t a sphere that isn’t impacted when these structural movements of transformation take place.”

In that occasion, the president spoke of investigative journalism, which was on the trail of the Montesinos case, as part of a conspiracy, an exercise of “speculation“. Chávez never liked the check and balances that are valid, necessary and urgent in a democratic system. That’s why the critical press always bothered him.

Chávez never liked the check and balances that are valid, necessary and urgent in a democratic system. That’s why the critical press always bothered him.

Just a few days prior, on June 23 that year, he said that there was a “historic clash of forces” between the press and power.

Chávez presented journalism awards in 2001 to media outlets he later threatened, persecuted and condemned. The awards were handed over to journalists and teams from RCTV, Venevisión, Globovisión, El Nacional, El Universal, TalCual and RCR. Merely fifteen years later, those companies have been victims of censorship, shutdowns, forced purchases, chokeholds and continued punishment, of even a judicial nature. “Media outlets are enemies of the revolution,” said Chávez on October 4, that same 2001.

The story of those days led to the events of April, 2002, which centered around the press, journalists, editors and business executives. But the issue didn’t end there. Its historical consequences have been sprawling for almost two decades, up to a 2018 ruled by Nicolás Maduro where the “communicational hegemony” promoted by former Minister Andrés Izarra has been imposed on the journalistic profession, not just in terms of amount but of content.

The government understood, like none other before, that the media could be turned into a weapon. The old conception that the press had to be controlled, silenced or lured with onerous advertisement, continued entertainment and veiled threats coming from Miraflores for decades, morphed into the certainty that a war could be set up from editorial departments.

The government understood, like none other before, that the media could be turned into a weapon.

That’s why the Venezuelan State increased its presence in the national media ecosystem, consolidating and broadening its own platforms to the point of turning them into the sole outlet of their information. Then came the era of journalists reporting on what they saw in other outlets, manipulated by the official hand; gone were the days of free access to government sources, the time of restrictions to the press arrived; but also the drought of advertisement, the intensification of the struggle with media owners and editors, the idea that a camera doesn’t show what’s happening and always manipulates the truth.

In La revolución como espectáculo (2006), Colette Capriles says that one of the most obvious traits of Hugo Chávez’s government was the creation of infinite spaces of enunciation. Aquiles Esté wrote that no regime had understood “the propaganda affair” like chavistas. Alberto Barrera Tyszka has written that the only thing in which the Venezuelan government isn’t incapable is precisely with the handling of their media outlets. “Venezuela is a country left without truth,” the author of Patria o muerte (2016) said later during a conference in Medellín in the context of the Gabriel García Márquez Journalism Festival in 2017.

“Chavismo is the first government in the country that understands the capital importance of communications to model societies, and it’s a shame that it chose to apply that understanding to the wrong cause.” The epigraph comes from Venezuelan researcher and professor Antonio Pasquali, quoted by the scholar Marcelino Bisbal in the speech that he should’ve given on June 27, 2017 as the speaker of the National Assembly’s special session for Journalists’ Day.

The speech never happened because the violence carried out by the National Guard and regime assault groups forced the event’s suspension. ANTV was unavailable to broadcast either the session or the suspension, and there was no direct broadcast from any other open signal screen, only digital coverage through social networks by media outlets with limited public reach.

Since then, what has been happening in time is the loss of critical, plural and independent journalism; the restrictions against the freedom of expression and information; the scandalous takeover of public radio and television; the assault against Conatel to turn it into a more political rather than technical entity; the creation of laws that control content that the government finds unpleasant; the publicitary discrimination toward critical media; the case of RCTV; the conception of telecommunications for the construction of a socialist society; the sustained attempt to impose a different, personalistic, authoritarian and militaristic cultural model.

The media ecosystem in Venezuela changed forever when it became an archipelago of digital options, with disconnected communities and with the vanishing of traditional tools.

The media ecosystem in Venezuela changed forever when it became an archipelago of digital options, without newsprint, with disconnected communities and with the vanishing of traditional tools to stimulate the social tissue.

During Chávez’s last year in power, there were 248 reports of violations against freedom of expression and information, in addition to 51 digital attacks, which mostly constituted violations against privacy and usurpation of social media accounts, according to the 2012 Report issued by NGO Espacio Público. The document says that in 2012—an electoral year as well—there was a 21.6% increase in the number of cases compared to the previous year, when there were 139, making it the year with the highest amount of recorded violations in a decade, since 2002, surpassed only by 2009.

Mass Communication classrooms and academic literature always emphasize that journalists aren’t the news. The ways in which Venezuela has confronted its recent history has broken all conceptions, norms and unspoken rules of democracy. But now, journalists, reporters, technical staffers and the rest are a thermometer of the debacle and at same time, voices that take on a role that they never expected, for which there was no preparation possible.

Venezuela, as a society, and its journalists as part of it, weren’t prepared for authoritarianism, much less for offering a response to totalitarian vocations. We assumed we’d overcome that virus, we trusted institutional antibodies that failed. We believed that wisdom would prevail.

But chavismo knows no boundaries.

This article is taken from the prologue of the book “Cuando los medios son noticia: Los ataques a la prensa en el regimen de Hugo Chávez”, written by Marisela Castilo Apitz and Daniel Palacios Ybarra.