Under Chávez: Media Harassed with Online Hacking, Phone Tapping and Censorship
Presidential elections will be held on October 7th this year, and like each time that an election approaches, actions that threaten the privacy of citizens are intensified. An example is the tapping of telephone calls, which is punishable in the National Constitution. The tapping happens in two steps: First, the telephones of opposition leaders, media directors, and other dissidents are tapped and recorded. Next, their conversations are shared on the main state channel, Venezolana de Television, or channel 8. In various programs the hosts present the taped content at their pleasure, thereby politicizing private content. The program La Hojilla, for instance, released the content of a recording between presidential frontrunner María Corina Machado and her mother to try to disprove her claims of being shot at during a rally in a popular neighborhood west of the capital. Her claims had been profiled by independent media, and even by and official outlets.
- Journalists in Prison
- On August 20, the newspaper 6to Poder published an article titled “Las poderosas de la revolución bonita” (The Powerful Women of the Beautiful Revolution), in which several high-ranking female judges and officials in President Hugo Chávez’s administration were described as having specific functions in a “cabaret directed by Mr. Chávez.” The story was accompanied by a photo montage that superimposed the officials’ heads onto the bodies of cabaret dancers.
- As a result Leocenis García, 6to Poder’s editor was held for nearly three months. He had been on hunger strike for two weeks to press for his release and the withdrawal of the charges against him.
In another instance, the aforementioned program, La Hojilla—from which President Chávez himself has announced government measures—recently created a scandal when the host of the program, Mario Silva, called Miguel Henrique Otera, the editor of the daily publication El Nacional, “a son of a bitch.” Otera went to court to sue Silva.
After many weeks of deliberation, a judge determined that the statement launched against Otera was not defamatory, nor injurious, nor offensive, nor did it adversely affect the honor of the editor and his mother, and to restrict the use of the phrase would undermine Silva’s freedom of expression. The judge went so far as to rule out the videos submitted as evidence because they were not certified by the National Telecommunications Counsel (CONATEL), an agency as acquiescent to the Executive branch as the judiciary is. Not surprisingly CONTANEL repeatedly refused to certify the videos.
The lack of separation between powers is one of the recurring criticisms that have been made against Chávez’s government.
Paradoxically, weeks back, Denisse Bocanegra, a Ninth District/Circuit Judge, ordered the temporary closure of the weekly 6to Poder. Bocanegra also declared a custodial sentence against 6to Poder‘s president-editor, Leocenis Garcia, for the alleged crime of contempt. The charge was for publishing a photomontage that showed the heads of several branches of government as cabaret dancers. With this illustration, the weekly publication attempted to call attention to the officials’ state of docile prostration before the president of the Republic. The image showed members of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General’s Office, the Public Defender, the National Electoral Council, and the General Comptroller of the Republic, all of whom have been submissive to the interests of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV)—supposedly the main tool for the establishment of 21st Century Socialism.
The use of state media—which by definition should have the character of a public service—purely in the interests of perpetuating the head of power, is not disguised; it’s open and deliberate. The goal for state media was announced by the Minister of Communication and Information when the president of Telesur, Andrés Izarra, was instructed to establish an “information hegemony” in the hands of the Revolution.
“The situation surrounding freedom of expression becomes more dramatic if one considers that the government is the country’s most powerful advertiser.” – Gregorio Salazar
In pursuit of that hegemony firm steps have been taken, like the January 2010 closing of the highly-rated and insightful Radio Caracas Television, the oldest station in the country. The station did not have its radio license renewed and the government took control of its entire network of repeaters and antennas without the paying a dime. Thirty-two radio stations were closed two years ago with various allegations against them, and at the same time an order was issued preventing the exchange of information between the capital and the rest of Venezuela’s radio stations.
- Phone Tapping the Opposition
- The phone tapping happens in two steps: First, the telephones of opposition leaders, media directors, and other dissidents are tapped and recorded. Next, their conversations are shared on the main state channel, Venezolana de Television, or channel 8. In various programs the hosts present the taped content at their pleasure, thereby politicizing private content. The program La Hojilla, released the content of a recording between presidential frontrunner María Corina Machado and her mother to try to disprove her claims of being shot at during a rally in a popular neighborhood west of the capital. Her claims had been profiled by independent media, and even by and official outlets.
- This video depicts the attack against Machado during the presidential primaries.
The situation surrounding freedom of expression becomes more dramatic if one considers that the government is the country’s most powerful advertiser. That status was recently enhanced when an aggressive policy of nationalization put banks, steel mills, the national telephone company, electric companies, cement factories, supermarket chains, and other companies that were big advertisers into the hands of the government. Now the goverment controls the distribution guidelines of all these advertisers and rewards and punishes the outlets, increasing censorship and self-censorship.
In several of the major stations journalists critical of government management have left. A recent example of this is journalist Marta Colomina, of Unión Radio, whose program had high ratings and was considered an icon of the radical opposition.
Meanwhile, private media journalists now have restricted access to information sources from the official sector, at the whim of the officials. That’s the case for reporters from the television news network Globovisión, who can’t access many official institutions, and for reporter Andres Rojas, from the newspaper El National, who was blocked access to the headquarters of Petróleos de Venezuela. Likewise, those reporting on the National Assembly have restricted access to the session chamber and must get the information via a TV screen placed outside the chamber. To uphold such a measure, unprecedented in the history of parliamentary journalism in Venezuela, members of the previous legislature—made up only of Chavista members—amended the Internal Regulation and Debates of the National Assembly, restricting the number of sessions, and limiting speaking time for new members. The opposition has 65 parliamentary members of the 165 total yet was not supported by any of the three leaders of the Assembly. It’s worth noting that the opposing forces are in the minority— despite having received the most votes in legislative elections—after the electoral body, controlled by Chávez, modified the polling stations.
It’s unknown how far the Revolution will go in its gradual and persistent siege on the media and journalists. But at this point the majority of Venezuelans are well aware that remaining on the stage of public opinion via independent media is not an assured path on the road map of the Revolution. Chávez said many years ago: “The biggest stumbling block is the media revolution” and called on all journalists to be “an ethical revolution.” Later he reaffirmed: “If not for the media, I would have 80% popularity.” He has certainly forgotten the statement he made after the two failed coup attempts of 1992, when he humbly admitted: “I am a child of freedom of expression.”
Gregorio Salazar is a Venezuelan journalist, contributor for the Sunday Edition of the newspaper Tal Cual. Follow him on Twitter: @goyosalazar