Venezuelans will vote in a referendum, on 15 February, on constitutional amendment sought by President Hugo Chávez on an end to limiting terms of office, in particular that of the head of state, in a campaign that has become mired in tension and seen frequent assaults on the media.
Reporters Without Borders is releasing an inventory of the president’s broadcast speeches - known as “cadenas” - delivered throughout the year, along with partial results of a study of the coverage of the referendum campaign by the main broadcast media, public and private.
“It is not for Reporters Without Borders to pronounce on the objective of the referendum, the result of which is a matter for Venezuelan citizens. However and taking into account what is really at stake, whether president Chavez will be allowed to run again after 2012, we note that polarisation of the media has widened still further to a point that interferes with calm debate and exposes journalists to greater insecurity.
Chávez has responded to an opposition campaign that confuses ‘unlimited re-election’ with ‘presidency for life’, by monopolising public debate through his ‘cadenas’ which are of doubtful interest and worth. An election campaign, an ideal time for pluralism of opinions, should allow an equal share of airtime, which the state is supposed to guarantee,” the organisation said.
Article 10 of the law on social responsibility in radio and television (Resorte law), adopted in November 2004, provides the government, in practice the head of state, with the theoretical right to requisition for his live speeches all terrestrial media at the same time and for an unlimited period. Public or privately-owned, these media are obliged under threat of a fine, even of “official suspension” to connect to the frequency of the main state channel Venezolana de Televisión (VTV). The president also uses this channel to present his own regular Sunday programme “Alo Presidente”.
The suspension of “Alo Presidente” during the campaign for regional elections on 23 November 2008, and for the forthcoming 15 February referendum, was not extended to the presidential “cadenas”. Between 1st January and 19 December, Chávez made a total of 154 of these speeches, going as far as three in one day during a visit to Miranda state in northern Venezuela, on 4 November 2008. If the number of “cadenas” is slightly down on 2007 (164) and 2006 (182), the length ran to 190 hours in 2008, against 119 in 2007 and 92 in 2006. In hourly record, the 2008 “cadenas” ran 66 hours more than those in 2004, year of the vote on the Resorte law, during which the Bolivarian president made 375 speeches on air.
Sometimes dedicated to commemoration, more often to propaganda and almost always to invective against the enemies of the Bolivarian revolution, the presidential “cadenas” came at the average rate of every other day at the end of 2008. It was during this period that the head of state began his campaign for popular ratification of unlimited re-election. It was also during this quarter that Chávez replied to critics of the “cadenas”. “Anyone who wants to make ‘cadenas’, let him become president! Is it my fault if the presidents of the fourth republic did not make ‘cadenas’?”, he said during a talk on 30 October 2008 at Teresa Carreńo theatre in Caracas. Between his first inauguration on 2 February 1999 and 19 December 2008, the Venezuelan head of state will have spoken on air 1,816 times for 1,179 hours, the equivalent of 49 full days.
The extreme personalisation of the referendum obviously explains the extreme imbalance in coverage by the public and private media. This is evident in the results of a study released on 6 February at the national journalists’ college (CNP) in Caracas, by the media monitoring group (GMM), of researchers from the Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB) and University of Göteborg (Sweden). The GMM analysis was of 803 sequences on seven TV channels, and 477 on four radio stations from 22 January to 4 February 2009. The television part of the study is particularly illuminating.
On privately-owned Radio Caracas Television (RCTV, deprived of its terrestrial licence since 2007), 91% of sequences were in favour of the “No” vote against 3% for “Yes” and 5% were seen as “neutral”. It was exactly the opposite on VTV (Yes 93%; No 0%; Neutral 7%). Public channel Televisora Venezolana Social (Teves), which took over RCTV’s terrestrial frequency, devoted 100% of its coverage to “Yes”. The only terrestrial channel critical of the government but limited to Caracas and its region, privately-owned news channel Globovision leaned strongly towards “No” (59%, against 7% for “Yes”) with 34% neutral. Results were better balanced on private news channel Canal i (Yes 42%; No 37%; Neutral 21%) and the two privately-owned channels Venevision (Yes 44%; No 49%; Neutral 7%) and Televen (Yes 39% ; No 39%; Neutral 21%). Favourable, as were RCTV and Globovision, to the short-lived April 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez, these last two channels, have since revised their editorial line to keep their terrestrial frequencies.