From friends to foes: Venezuelas media goes from consensual space to confrontational actor
Jairo Lugo & Juan Romero
Contrary to the poplar belief, the rise to power of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías in December 1998 in Venezuela was not the result of a sudden popular movement led by the masses. In fact, as Molina (2002) suggests, this electoral success reflects instead an already well-established pattern with the Venezuelan public opinion. According to some authors (Zapata García, 2001: 214) this trend was deliberated reinforced by an elaborate electoral strategy designed by certain economical and political elites.
However, it is a common and widely spread myth nowadays that Chávez went to power alone. That he went with no elite support and against the frontal opposition of the mainstream media. This myth was perhaps built upon a generalised perception reinforced by todays situation in which most of the media is openly against Chávez and openly calling for his overthrow.
This is of course an unsubstantiated perception. Instead as we know today, some of the mainstream media played a crucial role in reinforcing the electoral trend that brought Chávez to power and indeed supported him through the few first months of his administration. In fact, it has been only very recently that the media has become and agent willing to subvert the constitutional order.
This article intends to explore this rupture through the understanding of the way the previous system of consensus between media and elites functioned. The thesis takes into account the complexity of interests and elements of power in which the media operates and the way this operation was framed.
According to the elements analysed in this article, in a first stage of Hugo Chávezs participation in electoral politics he was completely excluded by the mainstream media and was therefore unable to influence the political outcomes (1993-1995), but in a second stage (1996-2000) he turned to be a challenger, and was able to use some of the mainstream media to modify the agenda and define in certain way the political outcomes. As this study asserts, he was able to do so in part, because he played by the pre-established rules of pact and consensus that defined most of the institutional relations in the democratic period.
This explains why, until recently, most of the mainstream media was, as other political institutions of the old regime, a supportive agent of the systems stability. Further on, this thesis argues that during this second stage, with different approaches and timing, both pro and anti Chávez media developed first into critical references of the emerging regime but that still played in all cases by the rules of pact. As the study sustains, it was only later that the media became a confrontation element of power able or willing to subvert the constitutional order.
This study intends to explore this thesis and analyse the circumstances and elements that motivated this process, making emphasis on the mainstream media that supported Chávez. The study recognises that this process is similar to the one that took place with other institutions and elites that also originally supported Hugo Chávezs candidacy and presidency, but argues that there are specificities, which have not been studied properly.
For most researchers and historians there were basically three institutional pacts that allowed the system to operate since 1958; this were within the parties and economics elites (the so-called Punto Fijo Pact), between State and Church (Concordato), and the one between the parties and the Armed Forces. However, as we will discuss here, there are elements to support the thesis that there was also a fourth pact between the parties and the media owners.
This last pact has been rarely acknowledged as such, since it was not a pact born in the democratic period but during the J.V. Gomez dictatorship (1908-1935) and as such, most academics have seen it as part of the system of consensus developed under the democratic period, therefore trying to analyse it through functionalistic or Marxist theories. This has prevented its understanding as an autonomous agreement and has portrayed an inaccurate view of the relationship media-politics as being completely framed by other social agreements. As it is argued in this study, this is not the case and the relationship between media and political elites deserves in the case of Venezuela a closer look.
This study accepts however that the process in which media went from supportive agents to antagonist factors that promoted or supported the abrupt end of the constitutional order is similar to that suffered by other political institutions, but claims instead that this process occurred in parallel. Therefore, it considers the assumption of this transition being only the result of the pressures of the economic groups on the media as incomplete at its best, since rejects the idea of the media as a pure appendix of this elites. It also considers superficial the view according to which this has happened because of the ideological divorce between Chávez and the former supporters of the constitutional order.
This is not to say, of course, that these elements did not play an important role in this process, but to clarify instead that there were other elements, perhaps even more important, in the equation. As the arguments that will be presented here point out, a more elaborated view is needed to understand the transition of the Venezuelan media into belligerent actors.
The paper deals with the role of the political actors, the political and economical context and the origins of the current crisis; and it makes special emphasis on how this affected the process of transition of some the mainstream media which went from being friends of the new regime to foes of Chávez himself.
The media in stand by
On February the 5th 1992 after failing to size power through a military coup and captured by the loyal forces to President Carlos Andres Pérez, the then unknown lieutenant colonel Hugo Chávez was taken in front of the television cameras. He was ordered to call his other accomplices to depose their weapons and surrender to the loyal forces. His statement ended saying that their objectives had not been able to be achieved by now. Many people interpreted this last phrase in Spanish, por ahora, as in stand by and it was quickly exploited as political propaganda, becoming rapidly a subversive phrase used by many to challenge what they perceived to be a two party system that had proved incapable of managing efficiently the enormous wealth of the by then fourth biggest oil producer in the world.
However, beyond the process of political communication defined by the media impact of Hugo Chávezs appearance on TV on February 1992, there was also a techno-political effect. In other words, Venezuelas Public Opinion saw the consolidation of the media and its symbolic elements as active constructors of political identity. Chávezs appearance on TV lasted less than three minutes, but translated immediately in the conformation of a series of identities and symbolic representations that gave cohesion and sense to an opposition to the status quo that had been largely latent. These would became later a cultural referent, which effects would be really felt from 1998.
It is important to mention, that Hugo Chávez would not be the only leader to make use and profit from this techno-political effect. In fact, this was also the case of Rafael Caldera whose discourse after the coup attempt of February 4 1992 in the Congress was broadcasted live by the media and took him to the leading position in the polls and, Aristóbulo Istúriz who as member of the Causa R party became later Mayor of Caracas. Both, Caldera Istúriz became part of the political factors that were able to profit from the institutional weakness in a scenario where the media became increasingly more compromise with the anti-politics.
The media in Venezuela became increasingly reluctant to embrace or support the traditional parties, and instead was more inclined to support outsiders. In both cases, the mediated interventions of Caldera and Istúriz took them to positions of power becoming the first beneficiaries of the institutional rupture between the political parties and the media, while in the case of Chávez, it transformed him in an icon of the political dissidence.
Chávez and the other military officers involved in the attempt became known as the red cap which is a distinctive element of certain battalions in the army- and with them an entire set of political symbolism emerged that would be later exploited. It is worth noticing that the second aborted attempt of coup on November 27 that same year failed to capitalise, in symbolic terms, their actions.
In many ways it is possible to argue that the irruption of Hugo Chávez in front of the TV cameras in February 1992 was his real first step into power. However it is important to notice that there was a huge time gap between the events of 1992 and the elections of 1998. It is also important to highlight that Chávez did not have at that time the popular support that later was able to obtain in the elections. In fact, the electoral pattern that marked his ascension to power can be better described as an already steady trend within the Venezuelan electorate. As Molina (2002) explains, his election marked a trend of continuity in terms of government alternations and eroding of traditional party loyalty that derives from endemic discontent. In fact, looking at the available data on survey polls of that period (Datanalisis, 2000), it was only in mid 1996 when a series of contextual events took place that Chávez was able to make his way into the polls as a credible option. Once this happened, El Nacional, Venevisión and partially Televén offered him their support, which became a crucial element of his electoral success of 1998. This support was agreed in principal by these key media, while El Universal, RCTV (Channel 2) and Globovisión (Channel 41 in UHF) agreed to support Henrique Salas Romer. However, none of this support would be shown openly since the media in Venezuela has always tried to maintain the appearance of objectivity and has very rarely manifest openly its partisanship. The support to the political parties or candidates during elections has been instead through positive headlines, wide coverage and a friendly editorial approach in general towards that candidate. Furthermore, the support to more than one of the leading parties in the same election was a common practice, while in many cases was dependent on specific agreements and interests for each electoral process. Therefore a media that supported a candidate or a party in one election could be supporting another in the next one. These agreements could include as a pay off: advertisement from State owned institutions, government contracts to related companies and even the placement of people designated by media owners in the Congress, embassies or in key public offices.
The links between some of the key mainstream media and Chávez were very close at the time of the 1998 elections as it could be expected. As Teodoro Petkoff, director of the daily Tal Cual wrote:
"During the campaign of 1998, Chávez received a generous treatment from some of the print and broadcast media. When it was clear he was going to win, his performance received more coverage (Petkoff, 2002:89)".
In many ways their relationship was not different from the one that the media had with other candidates in previous elections. In fact, the first appointments and political decisions made by the Chávez administration are a replica of what had happened in the past with other winner candidates and parties. After the presidential elections of 1998, Carmen Ramia, wife of Miguel Henrque Otero -one of the co-owners of El Nacional- was appointed director of the Central Office of Information, which has status of Ministry of Information. Alfred Peña, a leading journalist of that same newspaper and its former director was named Secretary of the Presidency, equivalent to Chief of Staff; and Jose Vicente Rangel who had a programme and strong links with Televén was appointed Foreign Minister. Meanwhile the government introduced the project to reform the telecommunications law, which conveniently benefited the operations and expansion of the Cisneros Group. As the main owner of Venevisión and main operator of Telcel the biggest mobile phone company in that country, Cisneros could now participate in the lucrative market of basic phones and buy or merge with smaller competitors.
Why and how did Chávez and these specific media group break as partners later is the main point of this paper; a point that deserves a retrospective and contextualise analysis if we intend to understand the very nature and perhaps future of this strange but very tangible relation.
The media in perspective
In terms of ownership, Venezuelas media does not reflect necessarily the general structure of ownership of the rest of the economy. Instead the mainstream media in Venezuela reflects in many ways the diversity of political players and overall the historical developments of each one of the groups that came into power in the twentieth century. In fact, the leading two papers El Nacional and El Universal- were created and are still owned by families without any oligarchic tradition in the country. Other big players in the print media are no different in this sense, such as the Cadena Capriles owner of more than a dozen of publications; and the Bloque de Armas, which represents the Hearst Group publications.
The two most influential newspapers (El Nacional and El Universal) had by December 1998 daily full price sale average combined of over 300 thousand copies. However these numbers are estimates by the National Association of Advertisers (or ANDA in Spanish), since both newspapers pulled out from the ABC measuring system after financial crisis of 1983, when it became clear that all print media had to take a deep dive in terms of number of copies to confront the problems of lack of paper supplies and access to hard currency.
According to the Federation of Advertisement Agencies (FEVAP), the strongest selling national newspaper is El Nacional while El Universal closely follows it. Nevertheless, El Universal captures almost a third more in advertising revenue (IVP, 2001), this last due to different factors. In the case of El Universal there is a more loyal and concentrated in the metropolitan area audience. There is also a stronger and more complete business section a very important source of advertisement- and a very traditional job search section, which guarantees a stable number of readers regardless of the rest of the content. But overall, it is widely recognised that the newspapers daily agenda has a more business friendly approach (Pellegrino, 1999). El Nacional has tried to made things up with the business sector in the past few years, and that is one of the multiple reasons why it turned now against Chávez, but there is still the strong belief that it is a left wing media, too intellectual and too depth for the vast majority.
In none of the cases, the print media ownership represents traditional economic conglomerates, as the following table shows:
Asi es La Noticia
|Created by the award wining and left wing writer Migel Otero Silva in 1943.
Editorial Ambos Mundos
|Created by the poet and writer Andres Mata in 1909.
|Created by Miguel Angel Capriles a Cuban in exile living in Venezuela in 1958.
|Bloque de Armas
|Created by Armando de Armas a Cuban in exile living in Venezuela in 1968.
The case of television and radio stations is not different and all of them operate under licence agreements given by the authorities (Cañizales, 1991). In most cases, and for TV in all cases, the licences were given thanks to close links with the government of the time and in none of the cases did the awarded groups represent any of the traditional political or economic players. The following table makes reference to the national broadcasters:
Licence was awarded
Origins of the ownership
|Radio Caracas Television (RCTV)/ Originally Corporación Radiofónica Venezolana (CORAVEN).
|1935 - Radio
1957 - TV
|William H. Phelps was an AP correspondent during J.V. Gomez dictatorship.
|Diego Cisneros was a Cuban exile that came to Venezuela after the revolution. He bought the TV station that year.
|Omar Camero was a former adviser to president Jaime Lusinchi (1985-1988).
|Venezolana de Television (VTV)
|Originally owned by Time Warner. Later was nationalised by the government.
|1996 since 1952. Originally was Televisora Nacional YVKA-TV, Canal 5.
|For many years this was consider being the Public Service Broadcaster in Venezuela. During the second government (1993-98) of the Christian democrat Rafael Caldera it was given to the Church to administrate.
|Jose Federico Ravell
|Ravell was vice-Minister of Information for the first government of Carlos Andres Pérez and later a close adviser for Jaime Lusinchi.
The situation of the regional media is some how different in terms that ownership is in hands of groups with several related industries and business, nevertheless in several cases fallow also the pattern of being in hands of economic groups without a long history in the country. Some of the regional media are particularly influential such as Panorama in Maracaibo city, El Impulso in Barquisimeto, El Carabobeño in Valencia, etc. However none of these newspapers or neither of the regional television stations can be consider having a national influence.
In synthesis, the media structure ownership in Venezuela is diverse and does not represent the traditional economic groups, or the so-called Amos del Valle (Lords of the Valley). The reasons for this are multiple; however one important element is that contrary to the common perception there has been always a sort of distrust between the political and economic elites. Both in dictatorship and in democracy, Venezuelan governments have been reluctant to award broadcast licences to traditional economic groups or support their attempt to develop print media. They have preferred instead to allocate the licence or support the efforts of new comers, preferably to groups that support them, those with no political influence or those coming from abroad, (which in a sense guarantee that they would not use it to run for office).
Venezuela is also one of the few nations in the continent to have ever nationalised a privately owned station. This happened in the 1960s when the government nationalised acquired by socialist standards- Venezolana de Television (VTV) from the Time-Warner group and transformed it into a government station (Pellegrino, 1999). There is still discussion on why this happened, but there is also some agreement that the government of that time did not want to leave it in hands of groups related to the old regime the property of such a key political asset. VTV is not however a valid informative option for the current government since most studies point out that its main audience share is within economic levels AB of age 25+, which is paradoxically the most antagonist sector to Chávez (AGB, 2001). Nevertheless the government is committed to increase dramatically VTVs budget by 18% for 2003, mainly to improve the technological platform and coverage, while the appointment of the former news editor of Unión Radio, Juan Romero Anselmi, as its director is for many a clear signal that the administration aims to turn VTV in a main news channel.
The case of radio is not very different in the sense that it operates under licence and that most of these have been awarded thanks to close links with the government on power at the time or simply thanks to bribes. Radio has a particularly good reach within rural areas and workplaces in urban areas been the most popular the non-political talk shows and the ones with only-music programming (AGB, 2001).
But beyond all, it is television that dominates the mainstream media in terms of public opinion influence. It is true that the print media, specially the national newspapers are extremely influential in terms of agenda setting (Bisbal, Marcelino and Pasquale, 2002), but it is television the most powerful media able to affect in both ways -cognitive and behavioural- the public opinion. This ability of television to impact public opinion is directly related to the way modern politics in Venezuela is driven by a mercantile and commercial logic, which is basically a result of the impact of TV on the electoral process, where personal leadership has become a commercial commodity.
In this commercialised environment, political broadcasting is very lightly regulated and there is no limit to the amount of time to be used by any candidate or political parties during campaigns. Officially the electoral campaigns start three months before the election and so should the television ads, which must cease to broadcast 48 hours before the elections take place. This is not however the practice and past electoral campaigns have started six or seven months before the actual elections. Since 1961, all parties are given free but limited time on VTV during elections, while the Presidency can call for national and simultaneous broadcastings through all channels without limitations of time or itinerary. However, in terms of getting their message across, there is very little what governments in Venezuela can do, since its has limited capabilities of media penetration within the population.
At this point is would not be hard to argue that with the emergence of techno-politics the commercial and private media in Venezuela have become the most important single agent political communication power. Therefore and only in this specific sense, the media in Venezuela can be described as an agent of power in transition. It has undergone from being a subordinate appendix of the ruling political elite during dictatorship, constrained by direct censorship, to becoming increasingly more a quasi-autonomous agent of political control during democracy, able to participate in the transaction of power while structuring the political positions of the different agents. As Pablo Antillano from the Universidad Metropolitana says:
The truth is that our eighty newspapers, tree hundred radio stations, and twenty TV stations are the most powerful factory of ever-imagined versions in which the truth ends up being constructed on a daily basis by an overwhelmed public".
In addition to this argument, perhaps it is important to mention that the media has been one of the most respectable and accepted institutions in Venezuelas political life. A study from Consultores 21 reveals that not only was more respected than the Catholic Church, but that its image was only overpass by the Armed Forces in very recent times as it can be seen in the following chart:
This perhaps explains why Chávez re-took his military uniform as early as 1999 and started using the Armed Forces through civil-military operation within the Plan Bolívar to get his message across. There are also elements to suggest that the current regime has been well aware of the over dependence on the commercial and private media.
However, the sociologist Luis Brito García (interviewed by Carvajal, 2003) recognises that the media in Venezuela has a great influence and is able to shape the perceptions of part of the population, however he emphasises that the media is not omnipotent, and as he explains:
Venezuela is fascinating in two ways. On one hand the media has adopted an extreme position as a political actor. On the other, there is a relative autonomy of one part of the public opinion in regards to that media.
This autonomy became manifest on the attempt of coup on April 2002, when Chávez supported were able to overcome the orchestrated propaganda and censorship campaign launched by the main commercial and private media.
Hugo Chávez pointed out that the attempt of coup against him on April 2002 was a mediated coup in many ways, while blaming the media for the current state of antagonism and confrontation against his government. This is a view shared by the director of Ultimas Noticias (Cadena Capriles), Eleazar Díaz Rangel (2003), one of the few editors supporting, when he wrote that the most powerful force in the attempt of coup was the media.
Furthermore, it is possible to say that the media has been a key element in structuring and amplifying the opposition against the government. This of course is not a new or unique case. There seems to be a common phenomenon that when the traditional opposition parties are unable to orchestrate an alternative to government it is the media who seems to be call to fulfil such role. It was the case during Carlos Andres Pérez second government and more recently in Britain with the role adopted by mainstream media as a consequence of the inability of the Conservative party to offer a clear opposition to Labour.
Nonetheless, what makes this particular case interesting is that it has occurred in the techno-political realm of the current climate of anti-politics in which the assumed role displayed by the media is explained operates within a relation of symbiotic dependence between media and political power. A relationship that is characterised as we explained before by the duality between the influence that the media, especially television, has on Venezuelas public opinion (Villasmil, 1980) against the hidden and tangible controls that the government has politically, legally and logistically over the media (Lugo, 1998).
This balance of power is made even more fragile by the fact that even though there are currently more than 20 television stations more than 70% of the audience is controlled by the four main commercial broadcasters: Venevisión, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) and Televén. It is worth mentioning that VTV, the government based channel, hardly reaches 5% of the population (Salas, 2003). There are also several cable TV operators, one satellite network (Direct TV) and is very common for homes in the middle and upper class to possess satellite dish which gives them access to channels all over the world. It is also important to mention that there are two main 24-hours news networks: One in television, Globovisión, and a second one in radio, Union Radio; even though neither reaches more than 10% of the total audience, both are very influential in terms of agenda setting.
In terms of print media there are only two truly national newspapers that cover and are distributed in the 21 regions; these are El Universal and El Nacional. Nevertheless, data from ANDA-FEVAP (2001) reveals that most populations in the province will rely on their own local daily paper for news and that the middle economic segment of these populations will acquire one national newspaper only twice a week and that will look instead for news in their own local media (principally radio and print).
There is however a catch to this apparent decentralised media scenario, since in terms of information; most provincial media cannot afford correspondents or news desk outside their own location. Therefore they rely on freelance services to obtain news from the capital, several of them offered by people who work in the mainstream media in Caracas so they recycle their material and, increasingly more on copying and pasting from the Internet (basically from news advances given by the web sites of El Universal, El Nacional, Globovisión and Union Radio). Finally, but only until recently, most provincial media relayed on the information supplied by the official news agency Venprés, but as several editor have manifested this is becoming less the case.
Raising the Leviathans voice
It is a paradox -that we do not intend to explain in this article- that the State in Venezuela has limited capability of penetrating and influencing public opinion by itself since it possesses a significant infrastructure in terms of media (Lugo, 1998). Two television stations, more than 30 radio stations, one news agency, the National Print Service and unlimited access to the commercial broadcasters. It has also the power to cease broadcasting licence and -with the newly establish currency exchange control- it has additionally the capability to deny dollars to buy ink and paper for the print media.
For example, the State is the biggest individual owner and direct administration of radio licences. Until 1994 the State owned only two radio stations: Radio Nacional which operated in AM and La Voz de Venezuela in SW (Pascuali, 1991), reflecting both internal and external audience aims, but both were under funded, most of their personnel were appointed through political links and they were given very little attention in terms of communication policy (Lugo, 1998: 31). This situation however changed abruptly in 1994 when the financial collapse of several banks left more than a 100 radio stations in the hands of the government whom size all banks assets after injecting several billions into them. Even though Calderas administration (1993-1998) tried to sell most of these stations which in a point were more than 120-, today the State still owns more than 30. Additionally to this, radio as a low budget media per se in terms of news production still relies heavily on the information that receives from the official news agency Venprés while most of it is financially dependant on official advertisement and on different types of subsides -soft loans, exchange of basic services for advertisement, etc- from the central and locals governments.
However contrary to what many critics of Chávez had said in terms of media control, this set of power is not new. With the exception of the radio stations, most governments in the democratic period have had this same power. In fact, the current administration has operated until now under the same legal frame that previous governments had.
In terms of the print media the State not only has been the mayor individual advertiser (IVP, 2001), and has had the power to award and rescind broadcast and telecommunications licences, but -as described before- it has been also a important influence on regional and national newspapers which have been established or maintained in part thanks to soft loans and hidden subsidises from local and national governmental institutions.
As this description indicates therefore the inability of the current or previous administrations to liberate itself from the monopolistic control of the information imposed by the commercial and private media does not derivate from a lack of media infrastructure. On the contrary it seems more probably to do with the inability to develop a coherent and effective information and communication policy.
The death of consensus
At this point it is perhaps possible to define the relationship media-state in Venezuela through the expression of symbiotic-dependence and to describe it as a complex system of interests based on series of balances and counterbalances of power. Furthermore, it is possible to say that this delicate equation between media and political actors, even though created much before the system of consensus, reflects in many ways the same spirit of the Punto Fijo Pact of 1961.
As Méndez and Morales (2001: 17-18) argue, that the Pacto de Punto Fijo, which defined the regulatory frame of the party system, was a non-democratic agreement between the elites to create a context in which the harmonic co-existence of economic and political agents was possible thanks to the political demobilisation of the country. For these authors (Ibid), the Pacto de Punto Fijo that allowed the political and economic agents to co-exist harmonically, was complemented by other two agreements: one with the Armed Forces and another with the Catholic Church (Concordato of 1964).
We argue however that a fourth agreement has been in place since the 1930s and that was re-edited in democracy. Perhaps not as explicit as with the parties and the Church, but at least very similar to the one made with the armed forces. This agreement, which was established during the dictatorship, was renewed in democracy and through its new version would exclude from media ownership traditional economic groups, political parties and the Catholic Church. This unwritten agreement would give preference to foreign investment and non-traditional players. This agreement was never formalised and its norms were instead the result of an implicit understanding that developed through the years in which each change of regime meant also a restructuring of media ownership to reflect the interest of each regime.
Thanks to the renewal of this agreement in 1961, both agents of power would recognise their influence and their limitations in a symbiotic relationship that established undeclared but very tangible rules and boundaries and that would reflect the relation that the political parties had with the economic elites. In other words, an agreement that portrayed the same consensual system that enabled this nation to neutralise -and later absorb- guerrilla groups, attempts of coup and even social unrest.
However, the system of consensus of 1961, that framed most of the relations between the agents of power, was built upon the fiscal resources provided by the oil revenues and therefore by 1998 was already agonising. As the historian and former president of Venezuela, Ramon J. Vealsquez correctly predicted in 1990: "until now the immense oil revenues had allowed the political parties to subsidise their excesses, but from now on or they become more politically creative or they will end burring the system" (Lugo, 1990).
It has been well documented (Romero, 1999; Rivas, 2002; Méndez and Morales, 2001) that with the arrival of Chávez into power the system of consensus came to a formal end and was substituted only a few months after by a state of permanent confrontation in every sphere of the public life; a new order, which would come to dominate also the relations between government and media.
In this sense, it is worth noticing that the problems between the key allied media and Chávez start emerging when it became clear that the process of marketing the re-structuring of consensual agreements made by the media was not being followed by collaboration from the Chavismo that had its own political agenda. The media owners then felt excluded from the new hegemonic regime, which catalysed the dislocation of interests. As a result, Venezuela witness a confrontation between a media that had de ability to control the access to the public and the Chavistas in government who attempted to oblige the media to follow and obey the norms and proceeding of association of the new elected president. The initial and logical reaction of the media was to take distance from government policies, orchestrating a permanent critic through their media spaces. To this the government reacted as expected: trying to pressure the media through the legal and political mechanism that had available.
Love, hate and divorce
As a manifestation of the paradigmatic shift, the honeymoon between El Nacional and Venevison ended only after a couple of months. It is worth saying that with El Unversal, Globovisión and RCTV there was never a relation, it was hate a first site. However, all of them still played by the constitutional rules for the next few months. Today the scenario looks very polarised and only the Cadena Capriles and some provisional media -such as the influential Panorama in the state of Zulia- are supportive of Chávez, while the rest are openly lobbying for an end of the regime.
This process had multiple causes, and in each case was related to the administration making a move against particular interests of the media groups, therefore breaking the consensus as explained previously. Three apparent reasons are given often to explain this rupture. In the case of El Nacional this was reflected in the sacking of Carmen Ramia, wife of one of its co-owners, from the Ministery of Information (OCI). In the case of Venevisión it is often said that it was the crystallisation of the support to the Cuban regime, and in the case of Televén the government authorisation through the National Stock Commission- to sell Electricidad de Caracas.
However, the nature of this rupture is peculiar and can be interpreted instead as part of a much deeper crisis of the model of consensus.
Venezuelas media, as in the case of many other societies, is the space of modern politics (Castells, 1997) but in this situation it has been traditionally a space for consensus were political negotiation among different elites took place. Obviously this is not to say that the nature of this political space was simply a dichotomy between open 'consensus' and 'confrontation'. On the contrary, depending on the political, social and cultural circumstances, the media and the different social/political actors engaged in a complex process of negotiation and struggle to participate of the hegemony of power. But in terms of the systems stability as final boundary, total consensus within the media at a certain time was a mayor characteristic.
In this sense the media, through its symbolic content, was able to promote agreement within the elites thanks to its ability to take the politically pre-framed debate into the public realm. Therefore, while some debate and confrontation happened in public, the actors were always able to reach agreement and consensus. In this sense, apparent contradictions were solved or at least re-framed within the media during main crisis that threaten to jeopardise the stability of the system. Even in those cases in which the political actors became total antagonist, the media would play at the end the role of consensual actor playing down the confrontation and promoting instead elements of common interests.
This happened for example in 1962 during the attempts of coup known as El Porteñazo and the Carupanazo in which radio and TV limited the coverage of the events and reinforced the compromise of all the political actors with the ideal of democracy and peace. It occurred again with the guerrilla period known as Foquismo (1961 to 1973), when in very few occasions the government had to use explicit censorship against broadcast media. Years later and once more, the media did not covered the attempt of coup of 1986 called La Viñeta, with the exception of two works published several weeks later by El Nacional and El Diario de Caracas. Another example is the perfect media orchestration during the riots of 1989 known as "El Caracazo" when the TV banned all images of the riots and start calling for peace and order through its artist, news presenters and personalities, while later surprising the killing of the people in the streets by the army (Febres, 1991). Its well discussed how during the two attempts of coup of 1992, the media played a key role and became a crucial element of stability during the process that went to the impeachment of President Carlos Andres Pérez in 1993. The media consensus pact even operated at the start of Chávez administration when Globovisión refused to broadcast a live message from an officer of the National Guard calling for insubordination against the regime. It was clear that at least at this point, the media that still played by the rules of consensus and avoided to call for the subversion of the constitutional order.
In fact, it has been only in last two years that the media has adopted a subversive position. During the events of April 11 2002 there was extensive but uncritical coverage of the brief overthrow of Chávez, while hours later there was almost absolute self-censorship of the people of the shantytowns coming to the city centre to defend the regime. More recently the media has started to broadcast live messages from insubordinate members of the military and openly support actions subvert the constitutional order.
Some observers such as the International Federation of Journalists (2002) have denounced some segments of the media as instigators of the attempt of the attempt of coup of April 2002. While other have gone as far to say that the media has in fact been playing by the rules when it has tried to overthrow Chávez, since his regime represents in fact a threat to the system of consensus. However, this argument is undermined by the fact there was initially some media support to the administration, and that even the media that was openly against Chávez still did not offer space to calls of subversion until very recently. In fact it has been only in the last two years that the tolerant enemies (Chávez and the media) have become fully aware that the confrontational nature of their relation does not have room for compromise.
As we argued before, the transition of the media to a confrontational actor can be explained through a different set of circumstances that converged in a specific period of time. No doubt that a main reason was the pressures generated on the media by the confrontation between President Chávez discourse and the main organisations of entrepreneurs and businessmen (FEDECAMARAS, FEDENAGA, CONSECOMERCIO & CONINDUSTRIA), who happen to be also the main advertisers outside the government.
However, there were also tensions within the newsroom created by a very aggressive discourse from the president against journalist and media, which intensified street-attacks against reporters and broadcast crews. This alienated an important segment of what could have been an element of opposition and resistance against the editors pressures inside the newsroom.
As said before the inability or unwillingness of the Chavismo to sustain their part of the deal allowing the media owners to participate from the new hegemony of power accelerated the rupture of any agreement. This plus the financial inability of the government to supply advertisement and subsides in the traditional scale made unworthy and deal for most of the media.
All this elements, plus specific episodes, converged in a time where traditional parties, unions and business organisations had a limited capability of political mobilisation, reflecting of course the institutional weakness that has characterised recent times. Therefore, the apparent traditional foes parties, workers and bourgeoisie- needed to act together against the increasing threat that the Chavismo represented for their status quo. However this was not possible under the old legitimising discourse of poli-classism and consensus. They needed to legitimatise their political intervention through a new type of public sophism that could validate again such social syncretism.
Unable to mobilise or to justify their actions, the traditional elites had to relay on the media and to orchestrate their actions within the call to defend democracy. The media became then again a space of consensus, but this time to expel what it consider to be an estrange body in the organism.
There are, of course, the general theories that try to explain this process through traditional views. On one side the positivistic approach, according to which the media has a compromise with democracy and freedom of expression; therefore its confrontational attitude towards the current administration is a moral and ethical crusade against a quasi dictatorship that threatens to undermine basic civil liberties. This of course is the approach that segments of the opposition and many of the Western sources used to explain what is happening.
The other approach is a more critical one. According to this, the media is not a neutral player neither the State- therefore it has activated its natural mechanisms to suppress a process that threatens to undermine the class and groups interests and privileges. This view sees the media playing a conspiracy role from the beginning and it sustains that if it did not react sooner was because it saw that the material conditions were not ready and that its is only now thanks to the right conditions that is able to size the opportunity. This of course is the predominant thesis in the official discourse and in many of the left wing analysis done in international academic circles.
In other words, while one point of view sees this confrontation as a subjective issue, the other perceives it as an objective process. However, as an attempt to develop a theory, both approaches seems to be too general and its conclusion too relative, falling short from a real comprehensive understanding of the events that lead to the current situation. There is instead the need to structure an analysis that can assess the microcosms surrounding medias behaviour while incorporating the critical understanding of the macro-political process in order to appreciate the dynamics that have provoked the transition. Otherwise, we would be missing the picture.
On Villains and Heroes
In a way, the election of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was a process of catharsis. The accumulated frustration and resentment of most of the population towards the political and economical elites erupted as a powerful volcano that remained suppressed for too many years. His predecessor, Rafael Caldera, who also came to power in an anti-politics formula, tried in vain to contain this volcano by the means he knew and trusted. He tried in vain to incorporate the emerging leadership into the pact system using the methods of political clientelism (offering them jobs, scholarships, diplomatic placements and even political participation through local elections). He tried to re-edit and re-launch the two-party system, trying to strength his new recently created party (Convergencia) and establishing an alliance with the social democrat AD. As journalist and former UPI editor in Venezuela, Pablo Bassim, puts it: "His failure was that he tried to make of his second presidency a legacy of stability, which was what everyone was expecting, but he tried to do it through the mummification of dynamic and powerful forces that were still very alive".
The contrast between a silent Caldera, who would only speak in very special occasions and a Chávez that is present in every corner of Venezuelas public life, reveals not only the personal characters of both presidents, but overall the gap between a political generation that acted through consensus and an emerging political agents that had recurred to public confrontation as a way of holding power.
This is the tangible manifestation of the nature of this emerging and still not consolidated regime, which is defined and legitimised by a public confrontational character. Romero and Lares (2002) say in this respect that since the triumph of Hugo Chávez in the presidential elections of 1998, Venezuela suffered a process of transition within the democratic system, characterised by the change of a scenario defined by the consensus of political and economical groups, to another scenario where the political question became a special expression of the public sphere. This political question is of course defined by its public confrontational nature and successive events have only reinforced within the emerging political actors their perception that it is the only way in which they can hold power.
The political discourse of the Chavismo as explained in different works (Molero 2001, Romero 2001, 2002b) has instead been characterised by the re-definition of the historical subject, changing its symbolic gravitational centre. The new discourse did not relay on the traditional argument of poli-classism adopted by the traditional parties and that translated into a idealisation of the so-called middle-class, but instead it made emphasis on the people, as its most simple construction; the common citizen in the public space. It is precisely this characteristic of the Chavism that has created more deception and antagonism within the middle sectors since they believed that they would be able to rescue some of their privileges under Chávez, and aspiration that had become manifest in the past three elections. Contrary to this, the middle and professional sectors saw that in the name of an intangible revolution the decline in their standard of leaving accelerated, something that was well captured and expressed by the media, which became regarded by the so-called middle class as the valid and legitimate vehicle to express their dissidence against the Bolivarian Project. Media owners and traditional elites were quick to see this as the perfect mechanism to create and mobilise discontent against Chávez.
Once the pact of consensus between media and the State was completely broken, the tense and confrontational relations between Chávez and the media knew no boundaries or constrains. The increasing subversive nature of the media clashed with an increasingly more authoritarian regime.
In defence of authoritarian character or tendency of Chávezs regime at least in terms of freedom of speech- we must say however that many critics have misrepresented recent history. Reporters Sans Frontiers (2001), for example has acknowledge that veiled and open censorship has occurred in Venezuela in a regular basis for many years and that pressures to editors have been a common practice much before this government, while it is commun knowledge within journalist that self-censorship has been routinely achieved through threats, bribes or indirect pressures through their editors. It is clear therefore that Censorship did not start with this administration, even though it has been perhaps the one that has spoken more openly against the media.
It is also true that many of the media owners were seduced by the idea of expanding the spaces of public participation beyond the traditional elites with whom they had broke relations and that many of them though that the new institutionality developed by Chávez would open new options. But the reality was very different and as Romero (2002a) points out, there was no space for them in the new process of hegemonic construction of power implemented by the Chavismo.
There is no evidence to suggest that is neither possible or desirable- under the current conditions for the president to re-edit the former pact and at this point some of the official discourses reveal instead that the administration has understood that is no longer possible to galvanize support from the media through a symmetrical relation as in the past. All seems to indicate instead that the government will have to empower itself and accept that the realistic objective of its information policy is not to gain support but to neutralise at least the media.
Some international factors oblige the administration to respect a certain degree of media freedom and will prevent the temptation of recurring to traditional mechanisms of control and neutralisation such as direct censorship or media closures. Therefore the administration will need to make and indeed is making- use of more sophisticated mechanisms of empowerment.
As part of the implementation of these mechanisms, the government is developing a new legal frame that could allow more control over the media. It is also directly and indirectly increasing the dependence of the media towards the government, while trying to promote a new and supportive media. In this last sense, some steps have been taken such as the launch of El Correo del Presidente, the technical modernisation of VTV and the acquisition of some print and broadcast media by political and economical groups related to the government. It is also very probable that the government will repeat what former challengers had done in the past and would promote in the near future the incorporation of foreign capital to the media sector. But even if the government is able to achieve this, it will have a relative success, since the changes of media consumption habits is a process that can take time, time that this government does not have.
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