We must give credit to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and several of his colleagues in Latin America for doing a masterful public brainwashing job - they have somehow convinced millions of people that there is a huge world capitalist media conspiracy out there, which needs to be urgently crushed through greater government press controls.
The capitalist media conspiracy narrative is working wonders for Chavez and his fellow populist leaders in Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and other Latin American countries: it is allowing them to build the biggest government media empires their countries have seen in recent memory, while silencing critical media.
At his Oct. 9 press conference, just fresh from his third re-election victory, Chavez - who controls all government branches and much of Venezuela's media - reiterated his complaints that an alleged capitalist "media dictatorship that affects many people in this world" is painting him as an autocrat.
Hours later, when I asked Venezuelan vice-minister of foreign affairs Jorge Valero in a taped television interview whether Chavez's electoral victory was not in part due to dirty tricks and millions of "captive votes" from public employees, he responded that, on the contrary, it resulted from a "collective response against the huge mechanism of world domination that expresses itself through the big media companies."
In Ecuador, the international media conspiracy tale is one of President Rafael Correa's favorite themes. He has recently filed million-dollar lawsuits against critical columnists and closed down 19 radio stations, a television channel and several print media, while building his own state media empire. He even convened a referendum to regulate the private media last year, and won it.
In Argentina, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner last week reiterated that her media law aimed at forcing the independent Clarín media company to divest its cable television network will go into effect on Dec. 7. A day later, on Oct. 11, pro-government media mogul Cristobal Lopez completed the purchase of Argentina's biggest radio station, Radio 10, and the C5N television news channel.
According to my colleague Carlos Lauría of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy group on whose board I serve, the number of government-run media in Venezuela has risen from 3 when Chavez took office in 1999, to 15 nowadays.
In addition, Chavez has built a huge network of community radios, and the hemisphere-wide 24-hour news Telesur television network. (Curiously, at his Oct. 9 press conference, Chavez claimed that "Telesur is having more viewers than Al Jazeera, and than CNN," which seems to contradict his own theory about an alleged capitalist media dictatorship.)
According to an official Venezuelan government document leaked to the press, 52 percent of Venezuelan print and electronic media are either government-controlled or in friendly hands. And the few remaining private television networks are forced to run Chavez's speeches - more than 1,600 live broadcasts over the past fourteen years -, to the point that during the recent presidential campaign Chavez made nearly daily hour-long speeches, while his rival Henrique Capriles was only given 3 minutes a day.
In Ecuador, the number of government-run media soared from one when Correa took office in 2007, to seventeen today, Lauría says. Correa now controls five television networks, four radio networks, three newspapers, four magazines and one wire agency, not counting those run by friendly businessmen. In addition, Correa has made 1,025 nationally broadcast speeches over the past five years.
In Argentina, Fernandez de Kirchner has indirectly either bought or co-opted most radio and television networks through government subsidies and official advertising.
"Throughout the region, we are seeing an unprecedented concentration of media in government hands," says Lauría. "These government-controlled media networks often work as propaganda machines, and as platforms to smear critics."
My opinion: For any well-informed reader, the capitalist media conspiracy theory sounds like a joke.
Never before have the media been so fragmented like in today's world of 500 television channels, millions of websites, Twitter, and Facebook. And never before in recent memory have private media companies been so weak: I don't know of any major U.S. or European media company that hasn't had huge layoffs in recent years.
Yes, there is a growing and increasingly dangerous media dictatorship in Latin America. But it's in hands of power-hungry populist leaders who are building formidable government media empires and silencing the opposition press. They claim that their countries are threatened by an evil capitalist media dictatorship, when in reality it's the other way around.