World Press Freedom Day: Concern for Venezuela

by Rick Rockwell

When it comes to concern for free expression, Venezuela was on the lips of many at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) convened a special panel on the eve of World Press Freedom Day. The panel included Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, an investigative reporter for La Nacion of Costa Rica. Herrera singled out Venezuela several times for criticism during the two-hour session. Herrera included Venezuela on a list of countries that “don’t sincerely believe in the laws on transparency and press freedom.”

Among those countries also coming in for criticism: Russia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Belarus, Yemen, Bolivia, and Guatemala. But Venezuela was mentioned as much or more than the rest.

The concern is President Hugo Chavez and his move to close RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest television network. (Please see "Chavez Takes the Gloves Off Against RCTV.") But that is only the latest move in what some see as an organized campaign against free expression.

During the session, Herrera went so far as to say that in Venezuela and Bolivia, although those countries appear to have democratic forms, such as elections, that the authoritarian tendencies of the state are apparent, at least to journalists.

Herrera was just one member of a five-person panel assembled by the new Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), a part of the National Endowment for Democracy. A crowd of about 75 people packed a meeting room to hear the panel discuss the state of free media in the world and why the media matter to the construction of democracy and civil society. This panel discussion was the first event sponsored by the new center.

One of the panelists, Daniel Kaufmann of the World Bank told those assembled that although press freedom had made advances in some regions, a study of the past dozen years of indices that measure impressions of freedom show no actual advancement on a worldwide scale. He urged those assembled – including representatives of the State Department, various think tanks, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – to strongly consider multinational approaches to promoting free expression instead of relying solely on the U.S. government.

Kaufmann, Herrera, and other panelists endorsed the idea of establishing an international agency, with powers tied to international legal institutions, which could conduct investigations and seek justice globally on behalf of journalists who are murdered, kidnapped or attacked. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists 56 journalists as murdered for pursuing their work in 2006.

Although the Organization of American States (OAS) maintains a special rapporteur on free expression and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) has intervened in media freedom cases in the hemisphere that may not be a total solution. Herrera won a landmark case for free expression through the IACHR system, which changed Costa Rican law, but that case took almost a decade to resolve. Herrera noted “the system is only as good as the states that respect it. And the problem again is in Venezuela.”

Chavez has threatened to unilaterally walk away from any international agreements that empower the IACHR if the court intervenes on behalf of RCTV. If Chavez does so, Herrera said, that would truly show the authoritarian side of the current Venezuelan government.

(In the photo, left to right: Daniel Kaufmann, World Bank; Myroslava Gongadze, Voice of America; and Mauricio Herrera of La Nacion. Photo by Rick Rockwell.)

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Joann said...

Nice observation, thanks.

Justin Delacour said...

The notion that freedom of expression doesn't exist in Venezuela is absurd. In fact, I would say that there's a hell of a lot more freedom of expression in Venezuela than there is in the United States.

The difference between media in Venezuela and that of the United States is that there is a huge variety of media in Venezuela. Walk up to any kiosk in downtown Caracas, and you have your choice of picking up El Universal (rabidly anti-chavista), El Nacional (rabidly anti-chavista), Tal Cual (anti-chavista), Ultimas Noticias (mixed perspective) or Diario Vea (pro-chavista). In fact, it is well understood that the opposition continues to dominate the printed media. Unlike Americans, Venezuelans have ready access to a true "marketplace of ideas," which ranges from pro-imperialist (El Universal) to anti-imperialist (Diario Vea). On television, they can tune in to Chavez's "Alo Presidente," or they can tune in to Globovision's "Alo Ciudadano" (rabidly anti-chavista).

In the United States, on the other hand, every major newspaper in the country bashes Chavez. The op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times routinely bash Chavez. Despite the fact that Chavez enjoys overwhelming popular support in his country, major U.S. media --controlled by the American ruling class-- virtually never offer perspectives sympathetic to Chavez's government.

Now, once again, notice the difference. Venezuelans do have ready access to perspectives sympathetic to the Washington establishment (El Universal, Globovision, etc.). Americans, on the other hand, do not have access to perspectives sympathetic to the Chavez government.

The Chavez government refused to renew RCTV's broadcast license because RCTV participated in the coordination of a failed coup. No democratic country in the world would tolerate that.

You might want to ask yourself why an NED-sponsored event is attempting to single out Venezuela and Bolivia as violators of freedom of expression. In reality, this has nothing to do with freedom of expression and everything to do with Washington's anti-leftist politics.

Rick Rockwell said...

Thanks for the variety of comments.

--J.D.: You read between the lines quite well.

You might note the point you made about RCTV's license has also come up in a variety of posts here, including: ”Chavez Takes the Gloves Off Against RCTV;” and ”Venezuela: Politics, Propaganda & Polarization”.

A similar media conspiracy would not be tolerated in the U.S. and Chavez has waited years to settle it in a legal fashion.

However, his threats about the IACHR are the more troubling aspect. Are his words just part of the Chavez rhetoric machine? The IACHR has been one lever journalists have used for change in the hemisphere.

Justin Delacour said...

"However, his threats about the IACHR are the more troubling aspect. Are his words just part of the Chavez rhetoric machine? The IACHR has been one lever journalists have used for change in the hemisphere."

What Chavez is saying here is that the OAS is politically biased against his government and that the IACHR essentially does the bidding of governments that are controlled by big capital. That's largely true. It's highly ironic, for example, that Chile's Senate denounced the Chavez government for not renewing RCTV's broadcast license. Chile is a country with very limited freedom of expression. All major media in Chile are controlled by big capital and are hostile to the left. The truth of the matter is that Venezuelans have ready access to a much greater variety of political perspectives than Chileans.

Remember that the so-called "press freedom" NGOs are controlled by media owners, and many governments within the OAS toe the same line because these governments are largely beholden to big capital. Never mind that none of these other countries offers viewers and readers the same variety of perspectives that Venezuela does.

The dominant tendency is for "press freedom" organizations and the OAS to define "press freedom" as complete business control over media. If the state gets involved in any way with providing readers and viewers with a broader array of perspectives, it is suddenly denounced as violating the freedom of the press.

However, if private media fire journalists for political reasons and heavily restrict the array of perspectives available to the public (as Venezuelan private media have done), the "press freedom" organizations don't have anything to say about this. For them, "press freedom" is the freedom of media owners --NOT journalists-- to do whatever they damn well please.

In reality, the Venezuelan government has expanded freedom of expression by broadening the array of perspectives available to the Venezuelan public.

Rick Rockwell said...

My concerns relate to the rule of law and free expression. If Chavez is going to give up on the OAS and the IACHR for the reasons you state, that they are dominated by the capitalists of the hemisphere, then that does send a message. But he can’t have it both ways, participating when it is convenient and withdrawing when a ruling goes against him. What does that say about his views on the rule of law?

The IACHR has a strong track record on media freedom, although it is entirely too slow to act and review cases. This system has ruled not just in favor of big media but often takes the cases of the alternative press (such as Zeta in Mexico) and advances them against states. That’s an interesting point, because the OAS is made up of states, but the IACHR has proven it has real concerns for human rights.

I would also point out that groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists are not always beholden to the media owners. CPJ has been reporting for years about how ordinary journalists in Venezuela are trapped between state media and the politically powerful media owners who certainly do have their own agenda. You might want to see their report from 2002, called ”Cannon Fodder”.

Chavez has done quite a bit to open up alternative and community media. However, we need to be straight about his relations with the media as a whole. Most observers of press freedom issues, this one included, are concerned when the considerable mechanisms of the state are put behind the ideas of one man with few checks on his authority, no matter how enlightened. State media are not necessarily propaganda machines but Chavez’ rhetoric raises concerns. Let’s see if Chavez is sincere about creating a BBC-style entity to control RCTV’s television frequency and promote other media, buffered from his control. So far though, that record is mixed.

Also, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the OAS, Dr. Ignacio Alvarez has cited Venezuela for problems with violence toward journalists, a repressive legal system, and censorship among other problems in his report for 2006. Alvarez, by the way, is from Venezuela.

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