10/03/2013 | Of his many legacies, be it for the good or for the bad, Hugo Chávez can be credited for having triggered a continent-wide government drive to modify the balance of power between governments and the media.
And still, Chávez only became a reformer by the force of need, years after his grand media entrée in February 1992, when the then lieutenant colonel had his one minute of fame (literally) when he himself announced to his followers across the country on national television that the coup he had been orchestrating had failed — “for now.”
The TV show with his rendition was meant to humiliate him but instead boomeranged to catapult him to the public limelight. “For now” is a headline you don’t want to read the day after you have quenched a coup attempt.
Once in power, Chávez thought his histrionic telly-tailored personal charisma would be enough to keep him on the good side of public opinion. An official count claims that during the 13-and-a-half years he regularly hosted his Aló, Presidente television show, Chávez spoke to the people of Venezuela for 1656 hours and 44 minutes, i.e. 69 days of air time. There’s more: 8020 Venezuelans spoke to the President live and the show was staged in 259 different locations in Venezuela and seven times abroad (the Bolivarian official statistics include other more curious details, like the fact that the late President apparently quoted 539 books during his show). Aló, Presidente created a Chávez personality cult, but in a somehow participatory media environment.
A mirror to the pre-Chávez Venezuelan party system largely failing to represent a vast majority of Venezuelans than would later be politically infatuated with Chávez, the media establishment soon turned its back on the colourful leader, who they believed to be just a short-lived interregnum until things would come back to normal. That was the media spirit behind the anti-Chávez coup of April 2002, which would ultimately become the real turning point for media policy — at least symbolically — for many countries in the region. Chávez did not have a communications policy other than himself, something that would change dramatically (and many too drastically) after 2002. The now classic documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PL8jcYYmRMo ) filmed by an Irish crew that happened to be in the Miraflores Palace during the failed coup catches some of his government officials regretting, some to the verge of tears, not having built a communications machine of their own during Chávez first years in office.
It is a bit of an exaggeration to call the April 2002 events a “media coup.” There was also armed military marching on the presidential palace and civilians shot on the streets of Caracas. But the mainstream Venezuelan media played a shameful role in both ignoring the will of the voting masses and siding with the golpistas. A Caracas television host opening his morning show and lively announcing that “We have a new President” with a smile on his face sourly flashbacks to Buenos Aires newspapers’ headlines suck as “New Government” at the start of the 1976-83 military dictatorship. From that starting point, it is easy to argue that the media establishment sometimes gave governments tagged as “populists” good grounds to move forward with their media reform frenzy. Some of these governments may be taking it too far.
The chavista communications policy that followed included the erection of an ample network of State-run television and radio channels (including the regional network Telesur in partnership with other countries in the region, Argentina among them) and a heads-on collision with the mainstream media of Venezuela, which reached a climax in 2007, when his government decided not to extend the licence of broadcaster RCTV on grounds that it had incited the 2002 coup.
The result is not different from the one you see in Argentina after almost five years of media war: a highly polarized press picture that makes it difficult for Venezuelans to get anything close to unbiased information.
The Venezuelan mediascape has rippled in many other countries in the region, where leaders have also felt the need to push for reforms of varying intensity. Argentina and Ecuador are the prime examples of that, but there are moves in other countries like Mexico and Brazil, where leadership is said to be more moderate than Presidents Cristina Fernández de Kirchner or Rafael Correa.
Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto, dubbed as a darling for the television giant Televisa during his presidential campaign last year, has agreed with opposition parties to draft legislation to liberalize the country’s highly concentrated telecommunications and broadcasting business. The negotiators writing the text said this week the bill is 90 percent ready to be submitted to Congress.
In Brazil, the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) followed up on comments critical of the press by former President Lula da Silva to call on President Dilma Rousseff to “democratize” the country’s media spectrum via legislation. The President has so far been reluctant to move forward. Lula urged union leaders under the PT wing to set up its own media to avoid the filter of the mainstream press.
Far from climaxing, the long bout between popular leaders and the media establishment in Latin America may only be starting.
Marcelo J. García (@mjotagarcia) is a former Herald writer and coordinates the Communications Department at the Society for International Development (www.sidbaires.org.ar)