This was written by Anibal Romero from Simon Bolivar University, longer than I usually like but worth posting.
Governments around the world routinely blame their country’s media for emphasizing the negative and distorting reality. The Venezuelan media are accused of outrageous bias against the government, of waging “war” against Chavez, of excessive politicization that impedes their ability to function independently. Critics, including foreign correspondents new to Venezuela and here but for a week or two, complain that “Venezuela‘s media are united against the government.” Some say that the Venezuelan media lords are engaged in a concerted, even conspiratorial campaign to slander the Chavez regime, or at a minimum whip up discontent and unrest. As RCTV director Marcel Granier noted in a press conference with the foreign correspondents, one cannot walk into a movie near the end and presume to assign equal responsibility to contending protagonists – the preceding plot shaped that outcome. One cannot accurately evaluate the current state of relations between the media and the government without considering their evolution since 1998. How many foreign observers can recite the litany of government-sponsored aggressions against the media? How much have they heard of President Chavez’s ratings and railings against the media during his 130 “Alo, Presidente” programs, his countless cadenas, his insults and threats directed against individuals by name? How many know of his abuses and manipulations of the tax authorities and Conatel to pressure media coverage? His use of Disip spies to harass and paid thugs to attack reporters? Venezuelans have heard these threats. Venezuelans have seen the violent Circles unleashed on April 13, on November 4, again on December 9, and on numerous other occasions. Do not forget that this same government accused the Washington Post, the New York Times, Madrid‘s El País, the Associated Press and other international media of conspiring against him through their negative coverage – as far back as 1999! Chavez sees all critical media coverage as a conspiracy, one of his countless oligarchic “enemies” of the grand Revolution to be confronted and defeated. Because he is not democratic, he can never conceive of the role that independent media must play in a democratic society – the critical watchdog ready to alert the public to government abuses. Venezuelans know that most in the media in fact supported Chavez during his 1998 campaign. It has been only during the past two years that the majority of Venezuelan media have come to view Chavez as an irreconcilable foe of freedom of expression. Venezuelans know that, even now, it is simplistic and false to accuse the independent media of monolithic opposition to Chavez. Even those media openly opposed to the government, such as Globovision and El Nacional, open their spaces to government viewpoints, invite government officials to interview and debate shows, and print opinion articles by pro-government writers. Recent foreign news accounts criticize the Venezuelan media’s “obsessive” coverage of the Altamira killings and the ongoing national civic strike. What should independent media do in the face of such events – ignore them? The nation faces dramatic, historic circumstances. The media reflect that reality. Should we prefer the insipid coverage of the state media and its parade of ministers extolling the Revolution’s economic advances, its servile stance before corrupt and mendacious government officials, its steadfast refusal to acknowledge even the existence of an opposition? Much of the criticism points at certain aspects and practices in Venezuelan journalism. But these are characteristics of journalism here, not innovations designed to attack Chavez. Some complain, for example, about the denunciations aired through media reports. Perhaps if our judicial system functioned adequately, the people would not use the media to make such accusations. True, Venezuelan journalists will publish accusations based on one source, where a U.S. newspaper might not. But there is some irony in this government’s complaints, when Vice President Rangel built his so-called journalism name upon such anonymous accusations of corruption. This practice existed long before Chavez, and will survive after he leaves. The same is true of other criticisms of Venezuelan media: that their coverage is sensationalistic, that it is a stage for opposition complaints and discontent, that it is politicized and partial. It’s not so much that the media have moved into the political space once occupied by the parties, as many commonly charge. It is more accurate to say that politicized Venezuelans – and Chavez has done little else during his presidency but divide and politicize this country – had no option to air their views except by moving into the media’s space, once Chavez completed his destructive swathe through the Venezuelan political landscape. Already new forums are emerging, in the streets and in civil society, and these are becoming the avenues of political activity. North American journalists believe they are “objective” and “neutral.” If so, why did groups such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Accuracy in Media (AIM), and the Media Research Center arise? Why do Republicans criticize the “liberal bias” of U.S. media? Why do Democrats complain of the coverage by Fox Television? Does the Washington Post treat Democratic and Republican politicians in the same way? A recent Newsweek article describes the excessive political protagonism of The New York Times. Americans know the political biases of their media, and evaluate the media coverage accordingly, just as Britons expect The Guardian to give a different slant to
news than does The Times. Venezuelans can do the same. Yes, Venezuelan media often take sides. Venezuela‘s is an advocacy journalism, not a self-proclaimed supposedly “neutral” or “objective” journalism, which does not in fact exist. But Venezuelan media have long been this way. Chavez did not complain when journalists swarmed to give him a media stage and reported his views approvingly; he cannot justly complain now when those same media, with the same criteria, now criticize him. Venezuela’s democracy is at risk, threatened by the revolutionary “project” of a megalomaniacal, demagogic, authoritarian “leader” who far too often has shown his undemocratic bent. Venezuelan society is fighting to protect its democracy from that danger. Venezuelan journalists are part of that society. Is it morally superior to remain aloof from such a contest? What if the issue were South Africa‘s apartheid system, Pinochet’s human rights violations, or the United States‘ own racial segregation? Should the media blandly report both sides equally? Which is the more ethical behavior: neutrality in the face of wrong, or taking a stance based on one’s beliefs? According to the code of professional ethics by the International Catholic Union of the Press, the journalist is obligated “to contribute as much as he or she can to the struggle against . . . totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.” The code of ethics of the Venezuelan National College of Journalists (Article 43) declares, “The journalist has the obligation to fight without cease every regime that violates the principles of democracy, liberty, equality and justice.” Foreign journalists can make their choice, since Venezuela matters nothing to them. Venezuelan journalists may make a different choice, since it is their country at stake. Respect their right to make their own decision. Venezuelan journalism is different from North American journalism practices. I am sure it has its weaknesses. But it has its strengths as well: a vast diversity of media ownership, a wide range of information choices, and a determination to discover and report difficult news – or have we forgotten the floods of December 1999, when the government insisted all was well, and only the media’s tenacity allowed the truth of the disaster to be known? Venezuelan media’s most impressive and most valuable strength is what we see highlighted today – its absolute refusal to bend to government pressure, its defiance of violence and the threat of violence. Venezuelan journalists are marked above all by courage. Even war correspondents rarely face a situation when they are the intended targets of the bullets. Venezuelan journalists face this danger every time they cover a pro-government gathering.
Finally, remember the nature of the independent media in a democratic society. A democracy is best served, thought Thomas Jefferson, by many media competing among themselves. If the people have free choice, they will reward those media that best inform, analyze, and yes, entertain. Those media that perform poorly will fall in the public’s esteem; others will rise. The only true judges are the people, and the only true measure of a media’s work is that media’s credibility in the eyes of the
people. Repeated opinion surveys show the Venezuelan media at or near the top of the country’s institutions in terms of credibility. Who presumes to place his personal judgment above the collective one of the people? What matters more: the Chavez government’s complaint that the media are unfair, or the overwhelming majority’s belief in the media’s trustworthiness? The private media most critical of the government enjoy the highest circulation, the largest audiences, the highest television ratings. State television languishes at the bottom of the ratings; Chavez’s many attempts to print a newspaper have been met with dismissive scorn by the public. In a democratic society, isn’t it the people who are meant to determine how well the media do their job? Then accept the Venezuelan people’s judgment.
The time will come, after Chavez has gone and the political climate has cooled, when professional Venezuelan journalists will have leisure to reflect on their performance during these years. The most perceptive – the most professional – will recognize and admit their mistakes and work to correct them. A balanced judgment, however, will praise Venezuelan media for defending democracy when Venezuela‘s other institutions were too weak to defend it. Venezuelan reporters will be hailed as courageous and resistant in the face of base threats and terrifying violence. And Venezuela‘s outstanding media professionals will, I am sure, strive to become even better. I hope those foreign observers – not all of them journalists – who so quickly leapt to judgment will also reflect, and correct their mistakes.