News Analysis

Watchers of U.S. television coverage of the last couple of weeks’ events in Venezuela might be forgiven for thinking that leftist President Hugo Chavez has been trying to silence the opposition press and that the Venezuelan people have arisen en masse to protest this power grab.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether from ideology or journalistic slovenliness or both, our media are giving us a much-distorted picture of what’s going on.

Protests have indeed arisen over the decision of the Venezuelan government not to renew the 20-year license of a private television station, Radio Caracas TV (RCTV). The government, citing RCTV for numerous violations of accepted norms of responsible media behavior, decided to award the bandwidth to another broadcaster.

The protests, some of which were violent, involved several thousand people, including some elite university students. They got statements of support from abroad, including from organizations like Human Rights Watch.

The U.S. Senate passed a resolution criticizing the Venezuelan government. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also criticized the nonrenewal of the license. Pro-business publications like the Economist magazine darkly hinted that this was the beginning of totalitarianism in Venezuela.

Of course the right-wing media in the U.S. went ape over the issue.

But here is what you are not being told:

On Saturday, June 2, supporters of President Chavez hit the streets in far greater numbers — up to 500,000 people by some estimates — to support the government’s move, a fact that went unreported in the U.S. press.

At the march, Chavez, who is working with the support of the vast majority of his people to move Venezuela toward a new form of popular socialism, defied the international capitalist interests which are trying to destabilize his Bolivarian Revolution, saying, “Go to hell, representatives of the global oligarchy. We are a free country!”

On May 31, several nongovernmental organizations held a press conference in which they presented evidence they say indicates some right-wing journalists, including those at both RCTV and Globovision, have been receiving payments from U.S. government sources with the purpose of destabilizing and overthrowing the Venezuelan people’s government.

Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, responded to Rep. Pelosi’s statement with a respectful letter in which he pointed out that most Venezuelan media, being controlled by members of the old oligarchy, continue to publish and broadcast opinions critical of the Chavez government.

According to Alvarez, there are still, in private hands, 79 television stations, 706 radio broadcasters and 118 newspapers, none of which have been interfered with by the government. Even RCTV can continue to operate satellite and cable programming; only its service on the limited public airwaves has been cut off.

Alvarez pointed out that the station had on several occasions violated clearly delineated and extremely reasonable norms of behavior.

“In April 2002, RCTV promoted a coup against the democratically elected government of President Chavez,” he wrote. “After that, it participated and encouraged the sabotage of the oil industry of Venezuela, causing tremendous suffering to the Venezuelan people.”

During the 2002 coup attempt, RCTV and some others not only were open in supporting the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government, but when it turned out that the mass of the Venezuelan people were not in agreement and poured dramatically into the streets demanding that Chavez be restored to power, they refused to cover this as news and ran cartoons instead.

In Venezuela as in the U.S., the media are mostly controlled by giant corporate monopolies whose interests are opposed to the interests of the great majority of the people. These media make sure that important stories are not covered or are completely distorted. This is not “freedom of the press,” but more nearly its opposite.

Supporters of Chavez point out that moving control of the media away from the rich oligarchies, whether in Venezuela or the U.S., and into the hands of the grassroots popular movement is a step toward freedom which merits international support, not condemnation.