Radio Chavez: The Press and the President of Venezuela

Article excerpt

DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENTS: CPJ ON PRESS FREEDOM ISSUES

Editor's note: The following article is excerpted from a special report in `Attacks on the Press in 2000," published March 2001 by the Committee to Protect Journalists and available online at www.cpj.org.

"For your information and related purposes, we are pleased to advise you that today, Wednesday December 6, 2000, at 8 p.m., a speech from Sir President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela will be transmitted from the Ayacucho Hall in Miraflores Palace...."

While some heads of state dodge or repress the media, Venezuela's president is on the air more often, it seems, than Regis Philbin. How are the long-winded diatribes of the man The Washington Post once called "The Next Fidel Castro" affecting the country's press and politics?

Hugo Chavez Frias, Venezuela's garrulous president, seems to find it impossible to contain himself. His weekly call-in radio show, "Alo, Presidente," averages four hours of conversation with adoring followers, interspersed with soliloquies from the chief executive on topics that range from the joys of having a girlfriend to "the revolutionary process in the universities."

But one weekly radio show is usually not enough. When Chavez wants to talk, television and radio stations nationwide must listen -- and preempt their regular programming. Chavez has used his unlimited airtime to promote the wonders of Venezuelan coffee and to rally his supporters to the polls. He has urged private capital to invest in the state aluminum sector, told everyone what a fantastic day he just had, and revealed the alleged truth about 46 cases of alleged corruption in his government. Chavez is a mesmerizing speaker, and the cadenas, as his impromptu radio and television shows are called, have been wildly popular.

Can a democratically elected president control the media and diminish democracy by sheer volume of his tirades? Chavez doesn't censor the press, but his diatribes have undermined the credibility of the press enough to make local journalists vulnerable to legal - and even physical - attacks.

Shortly after he was elected just over two years ago, the Miami Herald predicted that Chavez would be a "pragmatic, democratically elected autocrat" along the lines of deposed Peruvian president Alberto K. Fujimori. But noticeable differences have emerged: Fujimori relied on his intelligence chief to conduct a relentless campaign of harassment against the independent press that did not stop short of violence. Chavez, on the other hand, uses his ability to broadcast directly to his supporters as the key to what he calls the "Bolivarian Revolution." And in the process he marginalizes all other institutions, including the press.

The charismatic Chavez is a former paratrooper who took part in a failed coup attempt in 1992 and then won a landslide victory in the December 1998 presidential election. He has exploited his popular support to pass referendums that dismantled Venezuela's political infrastructure and transferred power to the presidency, all in the name of "participatory democracy." And he has maintained a consistently antagonistic attitude toward the media.

Chavez has been compared to another big talker in the hemisphere: In November, when The Washington Post called the Venezuelan leader "The Next Fidel Castro," they warned that Chavez, "a strongman who controls the biggest oil reserves outside the Middle East ... seems intent on spreading his brand of antiAmericanism throughout the region. A miffed Chavez denounced the Post piece as "full of lies," and added, "We're obligated to maintain ... our relations with the United States, which are condemned to be good." (The United States is not only the largest client for Venezuelan oil but also a leading investor in the country's domestic economy.)

Chavez adores Castro outright. During the aging revolutionary's five-day visit to Venezuela in October, the two leaders signed a deal in which Venezuela agreed to sell oil to Cuba at a discount in exchange for medical services and other in-kind payments. …