Nicolás Maduro continues Hugo Chávez’s campaign against the media
EVERYWHERE he looks nowadays, Nicolás Maduro sees conspiracies. At least a dozen plots to assassinate him have allegedly been detected since he became Venezuela’s president in April. Mr Maduro recently expelled three American diplomats for supposedly conspiring with the opposition, business groups and unions to wage “economic war” and overthrow the government. Some plots may even be real: there are rumours of discontent in the armed forces, on which the president is lavishing time and money. But publicly, at least, the opposition media are Mr Maduro’s prime suspects. “We know exactly which newspapers are plotting a coup,” the president declared in September; and “everyone knows which are the pro-coup TV channels.”
Media conspiracies have been a staple of government propaganda since 2002, when Mr Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, was briefly ousted after mass demonstrations cheered on by Venezuela’s four main television channels. That led the government to adopt a two-pronged strategy explicitly aimed at achieving “media hegemony”. It has vastly expanded the state’s media interests, from which all vestiges of dissent have been expunged; and it has gradually closed, browbeaten or infiltrated almost every independent outlet.
Of the four independent television channels one, RCTV, was eliminated by the government’s refusal to renew its licence in 2007. Venevisión and Televen avoided the same fate by toning down their coverage and eliminating controversial opinion programmes. Globovisión, a 24-hour news channel which had given vociferous support to the opposition, was in April bought by a businessman close to the government, after its previous owners said official harassment had destroyed its financial and journalistic viability. Its main anchors have left and its news output has declined. Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader now ignored by Globovisión, has taken to broadcasting via the internet.
But the neutering of Globovisión is apparently not proceeding fast enough for the president. Last month Conatel, the broadcasting regulator, threatened the channel with a heavy fine for an investigative report into the scarcity of food and other essentials. This came after Mr Maduro said reports on shortages constituted “war propaganda”. The president called on the public prosecutor and the courts to take “special measures” against media whose output caused unnecessary “anxiety”. He has set up a new, army-led body to determine what information should be blocked on “national-security” grounds (despite a constitutional ban on censorship).
Radio is faring no better than TV. In 2009 Conatel revoked the licences of more than 30 stations on trumped-up technicalities. Twenty-four were recently relaunched as pro-government outlets. The news that more than 200 other stations were under investigation caused many to drop all current-affairs programmes and concentrate on entertainment. Unión Radio, the country’s top news network, has capitulated by replacing many of its presenters with government functionaries.
Newspapers and magazines continue to be more politically diverse, though their circulation is small. The government has occasionally used the courts to fine and censor them, and has starved opposition newspapers of public-sector advertising. Most have survived—but they face a new threat. The foreign-currency regulator, Cadivi, has denied them (and their suppliers) the dollars they need to import paper. Half a dozen regional outfits have had to suspend publication. Meanwhile the National Assembly recently approved 47m bolívares ($7.5m) to allow government newspapers to meet their import needs.
One of Mr Maduro’s favourite complaints is that independent media “censor” the government’s achievements and exaggerate bad news. Like Mr Chávez, he frequently obliges all radio and TV channels to carry his messages live. He has also vowed to make them transmit a 30-minute “truth bulletin” twice a day. Wags say they look forward to hearing genuine murder statistics, or accurate figures for Venezuelan oil production. “One edition of a news bulletin that contained only the truth”, tweeted Laureano Márquez, a humorist, “would bring the government down.”