A January 2 article in Editor and Publisher gives the impression that the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) is defending freedom of expression in Venezuela.
But a careful review of the facts indicates that the IAPA is not defending press freedom, but rather taking sides in a partisan struggle, in a politically polarized country.
In 2004, when I testified at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Venezuela, there was a conversation among the witnesses afterward that summed up the role of the private media in Venezuela. I noted that the Venezuelan media supports the opposition, and another witness, a political scientist who was no fan of President Hugo Chavez corrected me: "The media is the opposition." She was right. The major political parties were so discredited and weak that political leaders followed the lead of the media. This was true during the April 2002 coup -- the world's first "media coup" -- which was backed by the United States, and also in the devastating 2002-2003 oil strike. During the strike I watched the private TV stations, which then had an 80 percent share, call on people all day long to get out in the streets and try to bring down the democratically elected government for the second time in eight months.
Today, the media is more diverse because state TV has expanded, and some of the biggest opposition newspapers (El Universal and El Nacional) lost some of their market share because their strident opposition ran up against the government's popularity and success. But the private media is still solidly partisan, and still has a bigger share of the overall media than their opponents in the state-run media. Some have moved closer to a Fox News modus operandi, following some of the norms of modern journalism while ignoring others. But they are still a major opposition force.
A private media as exists today in Venezuela would not be tolerated in the United States, where we have a Federal Communications Commission and rules that would prevent it. For example, two weeks before the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, the Sinclair Broadcast Group of Maryland, which owns the largest chain of TV stations in the U.S., decided to broadcast a film that accused candidate John Kerry of betraying U.S. prisoners in Vietnam. Nineteen Democratic senators sent a letter to the US FCC calling for an investigation, and some made public statements that Sinclair's broadcast license could be in jeopardy if it carried through with its plans. Sinclair backed down and did not broadcast the film.
In Venezuela, the government decided in May 2007 not to renew the broadcast license of RCTV, the largest TV station. The international media tried to make this look like an act of censorship, but in fact such a station would not get a broadcast license in the U.S. or probably any democratic country. In addition to its activist role in the oil strike described above, the station also used faked film footage during the April 2002 coup to convince people that the government was murdering people in the streets. This deception played a major role in the coup, which was reversed when hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans - not shown on Venezuelan TV -- took to the streets to defend their democracy.
If the IAPA is concerned about press freedom in the region, they might want to meet in Colombia, where a journalist recently had to flee the country after President Alvaro Uribe denounced him and he immediately received death threats. Colombia has actual death squads that kill government opponents; Chavez has also criticized journalists, but nobody has had to flee the country as a result. Of course, Colombia cannot deny a broadcast license to an opposition TV station, because there aren't any in that country.
Better yet, the IAPA could set up a non-partisan panel of experts to compare the state of press freedom and diversity in Venezuela with the rest of the region. This is what the Carter Center did, in response to widespread but completely unfounded allegations of electronic fraud in the August 2004 recall referendum -- which the panel investigated and then dismissed.
An objective study would find that Venezuela's media is among most oppositional in the hemisphere, without censorship. Of course the state-run media is also partisan. It is not a perfect system -- I would prefer objective reporting on all sides. But the two opposing sides provide more diversity and choice for the public than prevails throughout most of the hemisphere (including the United States), where media oligopolies dominate and sometimes swing elections for the right -- as in Mexico and Costa Rica most recently, or Brazil before 2002.
By taking sides in Venezuelan politics, without investigating the facts of the situation, the IAPA discredits itself as an avowed advocate of press freedom.
This was published by Editor and Publisher on January 7, 2008.