Venezuelans take to the polls on Sunday in what many commentators are describing as the most important election in a generation – not only for the oil-rich nation but also for the entire continent. Despite reports of an alarming increase in attacks against the media that have constricted open debate, public opinion may not be as one-sided as official statistics suggest. With rising discontent and a polarised electorate, the stage is set for a dramatic run-in this weekend that could have reverberations for Leftist governments throughout the Americas.
If Public TV were sole barometer for electoral opinion, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles would have abandoned his campaign months ago. Coverage of incumbent President Hugo Chávez in the public media has eclipsed that of his unifying challenger, with years of government manoeuvring having succeeded in turning the state’s media apparatus into nothing short of a pro-Chávez propaganda machine. This is despite strict rules limiting both candidates to only three minutes of airtime per-day. The last private station to have sparred with the government, Globovisión, was relieved of over US$2 million following a Supreme Court decision to uphold fines many perceived to be in direct retaliation for the channel’s critical coverage. Despite the setback, the channel has continued its pro-opposition stance.
“Two themes have marked the months of campaigning,” says Marianela Balbi, Executive Director of Instituto de Prensa y Sociadad Venezuela (IPYs). “Harassment and intimidation of the media through a sharp increase in recorded attacks against freedom of expression – for which there is a high level of impunity - and the flagrant abuse of public media to the detriment of the opposition candidate.”
A growing number of Venezuelans, however, are less than enthusiastic when it comes to accepting the constant stream of propaganda that is a hallmark of President Chávez’ 14 years in power. Interminable speeches and constant government performance updates have allowed him to flaunt coverage rules and become an almost omnipresent feature on broadcast media. The consequences of growing insecurity, economic crisis, widespread administrative corruption and a lack of investment in infrastructure have also severely dented his self-assured vision of ‘21st Century Socialism’.
According to Balbi, there has been a noticeable change in atmosphere over recent weeks. The electoral surveys largely conducted by pro-government sources and heavily weighted towards the incumbent, consequently fail to reveal the true nature of voting intentions. “Our impression is that there are many voters who, through insecurity, fear or reluctance to publicly state their preference, are part of a new trend that pollsters are simply failing to record; the ‘undecided’,” Balbi says. The implication is that the election is a far closer call than polls suggest.
Despite general appeals from Capriles to respect democratic freedoms, neither politician has directly addressed freedom of expression in their campaign rhetoric. Should he emerge victorious, the opposition candidate has declared that Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) – banned by President Chávez in 2007 for supposed involvement in the 2002 coup d’état - would see its license renewed. Otherwise, it has been business as usual for the pro-government media, with open vilification of the opposition and marginalisation of the independent press a daily reality for the Capriles campaign.
Countrywide, threats to freedom of expression are on the increase. IPYs reported 173 press freedom violations between January and September 2012, compared with 94 in total throughout the whole of 2011. 58-percent of these attacks were perpetrated by state agents, with the two most violent areas registered as Caracas Distrito Federal and Barinas province.
Briceida Morales, IPYs’ Barinas correspondent, confirms that recent attacks have increased tension around the election process. “The murder of two Comando Venezuela activists (the name given to the organised team behind Capriles’ election effort) has been linked to pro-Chávez supporters, understandably causing major local discontent here in Barinas,” she says.
Independent media in President Chávez’ home state are particularly vulnerable. The Barinas government – headed by the President’s brother, Adán Chávez – has systematically intimidated and harassed radio, TV and written press that it does not control, an assertion to which Juan Omar Arévalo, founder of La Verdad de Barinas, can testify. In May 2012, Arévalo - at the time a columnist for La Prensa newspaper known for regularly denouncing corruption by government officials - was dropped after representatives from the regional government met with the son of the newspaper’s owner. “When Adán Chávez came to power in 2009, La Prensa was cut off from official advertising and denied interviews and information from state representatives,” Arévalo says. “The regional government is willing to apply financial pressures on newspaper owners as a means to ensure obedience.”
More subtle forms of indirect- or soft- censorship have had most impact on regional media that are regularly subjected to the arbitrary power of local officials. Their private fiefdoms are a direct consequence of widespread corruption that the Chávez revolution has failed to eradicate. Economic pressures have not entirely replaced ‘old-fashioned’ physical intimidation, however: on 12 September, IPYs confirmed an attack on Agence France-Presse photographer, Geraldo Caso Bizama, who was beaten and had his cameras snatched by red-shirted government supporters as he waited to photograph Henrique Capriles at Puerto Cabello airport in the central state of Carabobo.
To a certain extent, however, the PSUV has recognised that its public image will be a factor in Sunday’s result. Miguel Henrique Otero, publisher of national daily El Nacional, believes the government is taking extra care not to be seen to be persecuting independent journalists – at least directly - during the election period. Some are interpreting this as a sign of just how close the vote could be. “They [the government] are avoiding being linked with physical attacks or judicial procedures that could cause an outcry and would be costly during the electoral campaign. Even trials that were currently underway have been put on hold until after the election.”
This should not imply President Chávez has relaxed his opinion of the independent press. “If he mentions freedom of expression at all, it is to denigrate the independent press and to denounce journalists as CIA agents,” Otero says.
The imbalance in public media coverage – notably television, which has a much wider penetration but curiously less audience share compared to private TV – will certainly have resonance with those already disenchanted with President Chávez. Whether the same can be said for the millions of devoted Chavistas is less likely, but it is amongst the unaccounted ‘constituency of the undecided’ that the election will be won or lost. This is where the opposition hopes the blatant, systematic absorption of public media outlets into the organs of state propaganda will leave room for the critical press to stake its claim and lead the call for change.
“We’re confronted by a strange hybrid of a dictatorship that likes to play with elements of democracy,” says Teodoro Petkoff, Director of Caracas-based national daily Tal Cual. “Political parties exist but are weakened by Chávez’ laws. There is no pre-publication censorship, but the media is subject to constant harassment… We’re not afraid and have shown along with other critical media such as El Nacional and El Universal that we have a margin for action.”
Come Sunday, opposition supporters and independent media alike hope this margin becomes the majority and with it freedom of expression in Venezuela sets the benchmark for a new kind of democracy.
Andrew Heslop is WAN-IFRA's Press Freedom Editor. Research and interviews by Rodrigo Bonilla.