Venezuela: `The democratisation of the mass media has begun'
By Kiraz Janicke
Caracas, August 3, 2009 -- Venezuelanalysis.com -- The head of Venezuela's telecommunications agency (CONATEL) and minister of housing and infrastructure Diosdado Cabello announced on August 1 the immediate closure of 32 privately owned radio stations and two regional television stations, because their broadcast licences had expired or they had violated regulations. Cabello said the recovered licences would be handed to the community media. The minister said many of the stations were operating illegally and had failed to register or pay fees to CONATEL. Decisions are still pending on a further 206 stations.
Nelson Belfort, president of the Chamber of Radio Broadcasters and the Caracas-based Circuito Nacional Belfort, which owns five of the closed radio stations, described the move as a government "attack" that aims to limit freedom of expression. He said the CNB would appeal the decision.
However, Cabello explained that the measure is within the framework of the current law and that the licences are being revoked for violating regulations. "I challenge those who operate the Circuito Nacional Belfort to provide a document showing that CONATEL has authorised them to operate the 102.3 frequency. They are saying that the station is theirs and it's not true," Cabello declared. "They say that we are revoking concessions and that is not true. The state is simply recovering the concessions that were being used illegally for more than 30 years. It is an act of justice that has to do with giving power to people", he said.
The minister denied the government is trying to limit freedom of expression, saying those affected can continue transmitting their programs through the internet as the measure only applies to the use of the state-owned airwaves.
Cabello said that powerful families in Venezuela who had "swindled" the people had acquired many of the radio stations illegally and constituted "media latifundios" (a reference to large, privately owned estates). Twenty-seven families controlled more than 32% of the radio and television airwaves. Many of those affected own 10 to 20 or stations, the minister added.
New reforms to the telecommunications law aim to break up "media latifundios" by limiting ownership of radio or television stations to three per private owner, according to Cabello. Under the reforms broadcasting concessions are designated as non-inheritable property, and are therefore non-transferable to family or colleagues in the event of the death of a concession holder.
The minister warned that those who continue to operate illegally without permits will be subject to sanctions under the telecommunications law. "There are various penalties, including confiscation of equipment and secondly they will be subject to suspension, for five years, of activity in telecommunications and can go to jail if they repeat these actions. We will apply the law regardless of their surname, regardless of who their families are", he said.
In relation to a call by the private television station Globovision to protest in the streets against the measure, Cabello responded, "If you want to protest do so, but do not try to subvert the constitutional order, or call violent protests."
Around 200 people gathered to protest the decision outside the offices of CNB on August 1 and on August 3 a small group of journalists rallied in front of CONATEL.
However, many Venezuelans share little sympathy for the private media due to its role in the April 2002 coup that briefly ousted President Hugo Chavez from power. Private television and radio stations collaborated directly with the coup regime and imposed a media blackout, broadcasting cartoons and soap operas.
On July 23 the National Association of Free and Alternative Community Media (AMCLA) held a rally in Caracas calling for radio and television airwaves to be handed over to the people. Then on August 2 several hundred people rallied in front of CONATEL in support of the government measure.
Mireya Bolet, a councilor and resident of Chacao who attended the rally, said, "I'm totally in agreement with the measure that minister Diosdado Cabello has taken of placing the airwaves in the hands of the Venezuelan people."
President Chavez said on August 1 that the 34 stations were operating outside the law and have been recovered and would be handed over to community media.
The measure should be supported, Chavez argued, because the "radio stations now belong to the people and not the bourgeoisie". He stressed that the people must be the owners of the strategic means of production, and said that the Bolivarian government is also working on the recovery of other spaces.
Community media: The thriving voice of the Venezuelan people
The 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was written and ratified by the people themselves, setting a societal precedent of democratic participation. The constitution contains articles that grant new rights to Venezuelans, such as Indigenous people's rights, universal access to education, healthcare, housing, employment, political participation and many other rights that make the Venezuelan constitution one of the most progressive in the world in the area of human rights.
Article 58 specifically states, "Communication is free and plural and must adhere to the obligations and responsibilities under the law. Every person has the right to objective, true and impartial information, without censorship...." Article 108 of the constitution ensures that all communication media, public and private, must contribute to the social development of citizens. The same article guarantees public access to radio, television, library networks and information networks in order to permit universal access to information. Public access channels and community-based media are rights that, for the first time, were ensured under the 1999 constitution.
The Organic Telecommunications Law, which was passed in June 2000, states that there are three types of broadcast media in Venezuela: private, state and community. The law gives legal recognition to community broadcasting, enabling it to receive special tax breaks. In order to be recognised as a community broadcaster, the programming has to meet the certain criteria. Principally, the station must be non-profit and dedicated to the community, with the requirement that 70% of its programming must be produced within the community. Also, there must be a separation between the station and its programming, which means that the station itself may only produce 15%, leaving the remainder to be produced by community volunteers. In addition, the station must provide training to community members so the production of media is accessible to everyone. The law also states that the directors of the community media cannot be party officials, members of the military or work for private mass media.
Although the constitution of Venezuela recognises community media, prior to the April 2002 coup against the Chávez government these small television, radio and newspaper resources did not receive much attention from the state. Active support was not provided.
Before Chávez was elected president, participating in community media was a clandestine activity and a victimised form of freedom of speech; homes and offices that housed community radio stations were often raided and operators feared for their lives. Community media stations have since multiplied, amplifying the voices of individuals and communities, increasing community communication and cohesion, fostering cultural awareness and political participation, and increasingly meeting the positive freedom of speech rights of Venezuelans. A new form of participatory communication based on local experiential knowledge is gaining popularity and influence.
Despite the strong foundation community media has in the Venezuelan constitution and laws, community media is still a relatively new voice evolving into an active forum for the democratic and revolutionary process of the Venezuelan people. Community media has become a necessary alternative because it is made and controlled by the people.
After the failed coup attempt, the government realised how crucial community media is to the people and to the state. It became apparent that the state media cannot be the only alternative to the private media because of its relatively low ratings and its consolidated nature, which make it vulnerable in a coup situation. When Channel 8, the state-run television channel, was taken off the air during the coup in April 2002, most Venezuelans were denied accurate coverage of events. The coup was defeated with the help of community media stations and activists; they rallied their communities to take to the streets and demand their voices be heard.
In stark contrast to the corporate media that creates a dominant ideological framework, community media is an instrument of ideological formation that harmonises with the democratic, social and economic progress occurring in Venezuela. Many Venezuelans formerly denied access to the media are now beginning to control their media and create positive change. Communities are telling their own stories, sharing their struggles and exposing their truths that had been excluded and silenced for so long. Community media has become a tool to battle against corporate media control. Blanca Eekhout, a founding member and director of community run CatiaTV in the Catia barrio of Caracas, speaks of the film movement connecting her community:
The next step in the process was decisive: the activists in the struggle for water, in the asamblea popular del agua, began to use film as a tool for their struggle. The camera became a weapon: we would tape officials coming to the community and making promises, and use the film to hold them accountable. This film movement started to become the cables of a network to connect the community. A network of barrio news was created, based on creating and passing these films.
CatiaTV and other community TV stations engage in the struggle for liberation from the corruption of private media with a critical, self-critical and class-conscious perspective because participation comes from within the communities. According to the CatiaTV Collective, "community media works to democratize communication, affecting the necessary separation of the medium and the message".
Community media activists created a National Association of Alternative and Community Media (ANMCLA) in response to the extreme difficulties the community media stations faced when trying to obtain authorisation through the National Commission of Telecommunications (CONATEL). Carlos Carles, a journalist with Radio Perola in Caracas, said that CONATEL in presenting what validates an alternative radio station:
proposed techniques of demonstrating statistical data. Against this, we proposed local knowledge, oral narrative, historical memory, and the everyday work of the community. As a result of this difference, we entered into a major debate, and we completely rejected the legal component of the proposal made by the Chávez government.
With ANMCLA, a community can authorise a station and legalise it themselves. There is no such thing as an illegal station because everyone has the constitutional right to communication and freedom of expression.
Community media is democratic media. Vigorous citizen participation is needed from the bottom up and it operates according to the needs and wants of the public. A clear difference is understood and made between citizens and consumers; the viewer is seen as a "protagonist" rather than a consumer, the prominent portrayal of viewers in private media. The community media movement promotes public ownership and control of resources such as public rights over the air waves, the radio and TV spectrum and communication infrastructures are supported. Democratic media concern themselves with the civil and human rights of all media participants -- media producers must be free from government and commercial interference and free to innovate and present controversial issues. Because the programming comes directly from the community, the content is truly democratic and inclusive.
In addition to providing a meaningful space for community communication, community radio and television stations can be a space to keep local culture and traditions alive. Paraguaipoa, the first indigenous community radio station located in the state of Táchira, is now one of nine indigenous community radio stations in Venezuela. All programming on Paraguaipoa is either in Wayuu or provides bilingual programming for accessibility and the preservation of language. The radio station shares a building with one of the first Indigenous primary schools which places an emphasis on traditional Wayuu culture, language and traditions. The school has two weekly radio programs in which students regularly create their own shows. Ángela, a Wayuu member who has a weekly radio station, captures the essence of the role community media plays:
Our children turn on the radio, and they hear their aunt, their friend's mother, their older sister and her friends. They hear stories from the mouths of those who know the community and what we need. And they hear our language. All of this makes the children proud and eager to participate, and it gives our own community some of the power we lost to the lies of the media stations.
The private media fails to report the great successes of community media because, despite their small size, these stations pose a serious threat to those who are in control of the information that mainstream Venezuela receives. Venezuelans are making their own news, reporting their own stories and are unmasking the lies and manipulations that the corporate media has controlled for so long.
Community media is a strong, promising and essential step toward democratising Venezuelan society, but the road there isn't necessarily a smooth one. There are many challenges that lie ahead. To begin, community media sector is still small -- one that the majority of Venezuelans do not take part in. Venezuelans must reject this dependence on private media sources and begin to participate within their community.
Without the direct participation of the people, there is no alternative voice to the dominant media in Venezuela. And a capacity to coordinate these guerilla media resources must be strengthened. Community radio and television stations are incredibly effective in covering issues affecting the community and facilitating community communication and organisation, but not all stations cover national and international issues. This is why the network of cooperation between community radio and television stations in Venezuela is so important. Through sharing programming and air space with stations throughout the country the stations, which often have a regional focus, are able to provide more comprehensive coverage. Exchanging knowledge, information, resources and ideas is crucial in furthering and strengthening the community and alternative media movement.
True freedom of speech
There has been some criticism over government funding of community media. Because many stations were only legalised under Chávez, and the majority receive governmental funding, many have voiced concerns of government intervention or pressure concerning content. ECOS radio, the station for Barrio Pueblo Nuevo in Mérida, occupied an abandoned building for three years before it was expropriated by the government and they received the title. Now, they share the space with the barrio's community centre, often using the radio for community organising. Although the station has benefited from the expropriation of their building, the legalisation of their station under the radio and telecommunications Act, and the donation of equipment, ECOS is in no way under the control of Chavez.
We believe it is important to work for the revolution that is working for us, but we often express criticisms of el proceso bolivariano...of course the state has played a large role in the implementation of the social programs, but there are many movements, many great things that come directly from the community here and that is what she share here at ECOS.
This sentiment has also been expressed by Chávez. When Catia TV was officially legalised, he urged the community media centre to speak out on issues important to the community and hold the government accountable to its promises, welcoming criticism.
Community media stations are ensuring true freedom of speech and expression in Venezuela. The media conglomerates that are trying to take this democratic process out of the hands of the people can be fought and defeated with the awakened, aware and united voices of the Venezuelan people. As activist Eva Gollinger states:
The case of Venezuela evidences the first time that the media, as a powerful, private actor, has waged war against the people in order to advance its own agenda. Public access to media and diversity of voices have been usurped by the private media moguls in Venezuela propagating their own political and economic aims.
Community media in Venezuela is fighting back. The private mass media's monopoly on the power to manipulate public opinion has been threatened. The Venezuelan revolution is based on the principles of inclusion, participation and protagonism; on spreading what used to be reserved for a few to the entire population, from political representation and participation to social services such as healthcare, food and education, to the ability to participate in the media.
As individuals work together to learn to use equipment, collaborate to create radio shows and proceed together with the long process of experiential learning, the self-sufficiency of the community grows. In creating a community voice organically from those who have lived and breathed and struggled there all their lives, a sustainable means of communication media is established. Voices formerly silenced by the corporate media emerge on their own terms, articulating the reality they are creating for themselves through participatory communication. They are deciding what the important issues are for their own communities and framing their own debates. The democratisation of the media has begun.
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License: Published under a Creative Commons license (by-nc-nd). See creativecommons.org for more information.
By the Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, London
August 4, 2009 -- There has been much uproar in the international media in recent days as various radio stations in Venezuela have been closed and a “Draft Law against Media Crimes” has been presented to the Venezuelan Parliament by the Public Prosecutor last week. As usual, much disinformation has guided the debate around these topics. This fact-sheet should clarify the issues and rectify the imbalanced reporting of the mainstream media.
CLOSURE OF 34 MEDIA STATIONS
The National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) ascribed to the Ministry of Popular Power for Infrastructure and Housing (Mopvi) announced the closure of 34 Venezuelan media stations as they operated outside the margins of the Telecommunications Law as ratified in the year 2000.1 The mainstream international media tries to portray the closure of these stations as if it were the result of a deliberate decision taken by President Chávez, when in fact it is the consequence of the rightful application of the law. Here are the facts:
- Conatel and Mopvi are currently in a process of data revision, updating information on Venezuelan television and radio broadcast concessions. This process is being carried out under utmost transparency and the public has continuously been informed about all decisions taken by the responsible state institutions.
- The data-revision process brought to light that the 34 media stations in question were clearly not complying with the law because of one or more of the following failures: the expiration of the broadcast-concession and/or the lack of renewal of the concession within the time period determined by the law; the passing-away or the renunciation of a concession holder and; the lack of the lawful transfer to a new concession holder.
- In that context Diosdado Cabello, Minister for Infrastructure and Housing, faced those opposing the measure and said "I challenge those who operate the Circuito Nacional Belfort to provide a document showing that CONATEL has authorized them to operate the 102.3 frequency. They are saying that the station is theirs and it's not true…They have started to say that we are revoking concessions and that is not true. The state is simply recovering the concessions that were being used illegally for more than 30 years. It is an act of justice that has to do with giving power to people". 2
- Nonetheless those affected by the measure can continue broadcasting their programs through the internet as the regulation only applies to the use of the state-owned airwaves.
- According to Venezuelan law, the 34 stations had to stop broadcasting immediately. Cabello, stated in a recent press conference that authorities went to inform the 34 stations about the incompliance with the law, but they closed the doors in front of them. Cabello said “there is no way to close the doors to the truth”.
- In other cases, administrative processes were opened. Decisions are still pending on 206 more stations.
- The 34 media-stations (32 radio and 2 television)3 have not presented any evidence whatsoever that would put into question the decisions made by the authorities. They have the right to take their case to the Supreme Court.
- Furthermore it is worth noting that despite these 34 stations being off the public airwaves and an estimated 200 being under revision, there are still more than 450 radio stations operating with rightful concessions in Venezuela4, many of them in clear opposition to government policies.
- Another aspect that has not been mentioned in the international media is the fact that people in Venezuela have rallied in favor of the measure. On July 23, the National Association of Free and Alternative Community Media (AMCLA), rallied in Caracas and called for radio and television airwaves to be given to the people. On Sunday several hundred people convened in front of CONATEL in support of the government measure. In that context one person mentioned "I'm totally in agreement with the measure that minister Diosdado Cabello has taken of placing the airwaves in the hands of the Venezuelan people." 5
DRAFT LAW AGAINST MEDIA CRIMES
The closure of the 34 broadcast stations is completely independent from the discussions of a “Draft Law Against Media Crimes” that has been presented to the Parliament by the Public Prosecutor last week and which is yet to be discussed in the Parliament. Even before discussing the draft law in the Parliament, it has already received harsh criticism from the international press. Critics have mainly focused on the following two aspects of the proposed law: First, that journalists could face prison-punishment for “publishing material deemed to harm state stability” (BBC World) and second, that the law would strongly limit the freedom of expression. Here are the facts:
The law is in no way limiting the freedom of expression but rather ensures the subsequent imposition of liability, according to Article 13 of the Inter-American Convention of Human Rights.6 In fact, the proposed law sustains itself in both, the Venezuelan Constitution and the Convention of Human Rights. For example, Article 13 of the mentioned convention also says that “any propaganda for war and any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitute incitements to lawless violence or to any other similar action against any person or group of persons on any grounds including those of race, colour, religion, language, or national origin shall be considered as offences punishable by law.”7 Article 58 of the Venezuelan Constitution says that “Everyone has the right to timely, truthful and impartial information, without censorship, in accordance with the principles of this Constitution, as well as the right to reply and corrections when they are directly affected by inaccurate or offensive information.”8
The law will establish what is to be considered a crime. 9 According to Article 3 of this draft, among the actions or omissions that might be considered a crime are the following:
Advocate against social peace, security and the independence of the nation;
Advocate against the public order, stability of state institutions, mental health and public morale.
The Public Prosecution office explains clearly that while other rights of the Constitution are protected by the Venezuelan Criminal Law, the right to receive truthful and impartial information does not enjoy this kind of protection, which means that perpetrators who violate this right go unpunished. For example, Article 60 of the Constitution foresees that everyone has the right of protection of one’s honour and reputation. This right is protected by the Criminal Law, which establishes sanctions for those who commit the crime. The proposed Law Against Media Crimes intends to protect the right to receive truthful and impartial information, by establishing clear rules of punishment for those who violate these rights.
Already back in 1966 the renowned Venezuelan writer and intellectual Arturo Uslar Pietri stated that "Today we are confronting the danger that these [media] companies convert themselves into grand opinion factories; something that could be very dangerous for a country, as the possibility to determine public opinion might end up in the hands of three or four rich persons who could say: Let’s fabricate this type of person, let’s destroy this other one, let’s make people hate this idea and like the other one. This is an immense danger for democracy and we should not contemplate it with romantic ideas. … We have to set a limit to the power of these plutocratic fabricants and opinion-manufacturers which could convert into the country’s dictators through their economic power.” 11 What Venezuela is doing today has been a concern of intellectuals already decades back, and given the words of Arturo Pietri, Venezuela through the proposed law is in fact enhancing democracy and certainly not limiting it.
Interestingly, just those who most criticize the proposed law today are those who years ago would approve a constitution that foresees the clear punishment of ‘criminal expressions’. Eleazar Diaz Rangel, journalist and editor of the popular Venezuelan newspaper, Últimas Noticias, pointed out that “the Constitution of 1961 that they approved, guaranteed that freedom in Article 66, but clearly stated that those expressions which constitute a crime are subject to punishment according to the law”. It furthermore said that “anonymity is not permitted, just like the promotion of war, the offence of the public morale or propaganda that would provoke the disobedience of the laws.”12
Finally, we should not forget the destructive role the media has played in the 2002 coup d’etat against the democratic government of Hugo Chávez. In fact, the coup was orchestrated and directed by the private media. The support that Globovision, RCTV and other private media outlets gave to the coup has been reported by various independent human rights organizations, such as PROVEA.13 Venezuela is only one example of where media-terror can lead to. In Rwanda the media was a main actor in the civil war in the 1990s and Kofi Annan made clear that “the media in Rwanda was used to disseminate hatred, to dehumanize the people, and what is even worse, to guide the genocide towards certain victims… Three journalists and media owners were found culpable of genocide, instigation to genocide, of conspiracy and of committing crimes against humanity.” He insisted, “We have to find a way to respond to these abuses of power”.14
“If someone thinks that this enormous power that justifies wars, violence, coup d’etats, and chaos around the world should not be regulated…this means we will always live vulnerably to any kind of aggression”15…asserts the Public Prosecutor
London, August 4, 2009
Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
1 Telecommunication Law, June 2000. http://www.tsj.gov.ve/legislacion/LT_ley.htm
4 Fact-Sheet, Venezuelan Embassy Washington D.C. http://www.embavenez-us.org/factsheet/Recent-Media- Events_FS-US.pdf
6 Fact-Sheet, Venezuelan Embassy Washington D.C. http://www.embavenez-us.org/factsheet/Recent-Media- Events_FS-US.pdf
7 American Convention of Human Rights. http://www.oas.org/juridico/english/treaties/b-32.html
8 American Convention of Human Rights. http://www.oas.org/juridico/english/treaties/b-32.html
9 Constitution, 1999 (Spanish) http://www.tsj.gov.ve/legislacion/constitucion1999.htm
10 “Draft Law Against Media Crimes” (in Spanish), retrieved August 3, 2009, http://www.scribd.com/doc/17868174/ProyectoLeyEsp ecialDelitosMediaticos
12 http://www.diarioalternativademocratica.com/noticias/4 550-diaz-rangel-no-es-primera-vez-que-se-intentalimitar- libertad-de-prensa.html
13 “Diaz Rangel: No es la primera vez que se reclama limitar la libertad de prensa”, RNV, August 2, 2009. http://www.rnv.gov.ve/noticias/index.php?act=ST&f=2 &t=104128
14 Annual Report 2001-2002. (Spanish) http://www.derechos.org.ve/publicaciones/infanual/200 1_02/derecho_lib_exp_inf.htm#01
16 http://www.rnv.gov.ve/noticias/index.php?act=ST&f= 2&t=104034