Hugo Chávez Frías came to power in 1999 pledging to transform Venezuela’s political culture. He has unquestionably succeeded. In more than a decade in power, Chávez used the legitimacy he earned through popular election and a series of referendums to weaken or in some cases dismantle the institutions of democratic government. His tactics have ranged from rewriting the country’s constitution to stacking the judiciary with loyalists and supporters.
But no institution has been more radically transformed than the media.
When Chávez first took office he was backed by a portion of the country’s private media. But the relationship soon soured, and as street protests mounted in 2002 many media companies, including the national broadcast networks, abandoned any semblance of objectivity and rallied beside the opposition. After Chávez was briefly ousted in a military coup in April 2002 he accused media owners of conspiring against his government.
Chávez all but vowed revenge, and since then his administration has used a wide range of legislation and regulatory measures to remake the media landscape, steadily eroding the power and visibility of the private press and expanding direct government control. The ability of the media to act as an independent check on power has been deeply compromised as a result.
A report released today by the Committee to Protect Journalists chronicles the consequences: Dozens of critical broadcasters have been pulled off the air; reporters have been jailed for allegedly defaming officials; and regulators, together with a judiciary allied with the executive, have censored coverage of sensitive issues. Public information has become increasingly difficult to access and the government is restricting reporters allowed at official press conferences.
While weakening the private media, the government has built a vast state media conglomerate composed of national broadcasters, newspapers and websites that today serve to disseminate propaganda and smear opposition journalists. The Venezuelan press was never a paragon of objectivity, but now, in many instances, it has become an instrument of government propaganda that is often used to launch smear campaigns against critics.
In the lead-up to the Oct. 7 presidential election that pits Chávez against former Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski, ordinary citizens rightly are concerned about their economic future as inflation continues to rise. They fear for their personal safety at a time when violence and crime are rampant. The deeply polarized environment, combined with serious restrictions journalists face reporting on issues of general interest, is depriving Venezuelans of vital, independent information. In the context of the electoral campaign the public is the loser.
The deterioration of Venezuelan journalism has broad implications not only for Venezuela, but for Latin America in general. Many of Chávez’s strategies to control the flow of information and stifle dissent have been emulated by his counterparts in the region like Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. These countries together with nations of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (or ALBA as they’re collectively known in Spanish) have joined forces in an attempt to bring down the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its special rapporteur for freedom of expression.
Because Chávez has used his popular mandate to dismantle independent institutions and extend his own power, each election ironically makes Venezuela less democratic, as William J. Dobson noted in a recent book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve. The corollary is that as Venezuela becomes less democratic each subsequent election becomes less legitimate.
With Chávez battling cancer, he must confront his legacy. While he focuses on consolidating the Bolivarian Revolution, Chávez’s failure to support and nurture independent institutions — including the media — has the potential to undermine the legitimacy of the upcoming elections and therefore call into question the popular mandate that has been the source of his power and authority. Regardless of who prevails at the polls, rolling back a decade of media repression and fostering a climate that is more open and more tolerant will be a key challenge for the next administration.
Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.