On June 27, Journalist Day in Venezuela, the late Hugo Chávez received the Simon Bolivar Prize for Journalism for the “democratization of communication.” According to Lil Rodríguez, a member of the National Journalism Prize Foundation, “he gave back the voice to those who [were] oppressed in the world, and for his role as a journalist, during his constant battle against all the lies in the media.”
Only in Venezuela, a prize for free speech goes to the leader of a regime that has achieved the extinction of critical thinking in the media. In the thirteen years he held power, he gradually forced every media station to change its editorial line in favor of his Bolivarian revolution, because if they questioned anything of his vindictive process, they would be categorized as traitors of the fatherland, fascists, and envoys of the US Empire.
After more than a decade with our Comandante Supremo, the “diversity” of our Venezuelan television media has been reduced to state-owned television stations broadcasting nationwide that permanently promote the revolutionary government while other channels barely question Venezuela’s problems. Instead, they show soap operas, movies, and cartoons all day long. In other words, whatever it takes not to meddle in politics and remain on the air.
In Venezuela, where there is no distinction between the state, its functionaries, and the Venezuelan United Socialist Party, the political control of every institution gets more and more evident. It just happens that when a radio or television station criticizes any governmental decision, suddenly they face administrative procedures and absurdly high fines, up to the point that they can’t renew their broadcast license.
This was the case of RCTV in 2007, a nationwide television station very critical of the government and whose broadcast license was revoked. You also have Globovisión, the television station that was most critical of the government but didn’t even have nationwide coverage — yet it was a threat to the government’s credibility. The owner had to sell the station to a more government-friendly investor, due to the fines and its exclusion from digital television. They knew they wouldn’t get their license renewed.
This entire recap about a moribund free speech describes what we are living today: a controlling regime in decline after a fraudulent election and in the absence of the Comandante Supremo, increased questioning of the type of leadership the Chavismo followers have inherited, and a growing number of unanswered social demands that were once the main political flag of the revolution.
The problems are exacerbated when a society living in an institutional, economic, political, and social crisis, has no way of informing itself. If you turn on any of the state-owned channels, at any time, you will learn what other wonders the revolution has achieved or see a rerun of Chavez’s best historical speeches in his dominical show, Aló Presidente, or probably both. Do not expect to learn why the electricity went out in an entire town once again, why there are thousands of people protesting in the main freeway of the capital city on a Monday morning on your way to work, or why suddenly you can’t find the main items of a basic food basket in any supermarket.
This leads you to question what type of country you are living in and under what regime you are subsisting.
Social media has become the latest and more effective way to communicate nowadays, especially under repressive regimes — such as during the protests after the Iranian elections in 2009 and 2010, also called the Twitter Revolution. However, it has also become a double edged sword. That was proved the week after the presidential elections on April 14th.
During the protests caused by the nonrecognition of the electoral results by the opposition, the state-owned media showed how the “fascists” and “rightists” opposition envoys were attacking innocent people and destroying community centers, including burning out several CDI’s (Integral Diagnostic Centers, or in other words, government clinics attended by Cuban doctors). But if you turned to the internet media, you found videos, photos, and news coverage by regular people who were witnessing the rallies and telling a different story than the one on television: people from the opposition protesting peacefully with cacerolas and being detained by the police, the CDI’s in perfect conditions, and an opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, calling for a nonviolent solution.
On the other hand, the fact that internet media users could be anonymous and unaccountable for what they reported increased the presence of misleading information. In the end, nobody could believe anything they saw or read. That week was characterized by uncertainty, disinformation, and chaos.
A journalist is supposed to satisfy the need of information, to be critical and objective towards problems and their different views. To take the Simon Bolivar Prize for Journalism seriously is difficult in a society where journalists have to promote a political party or face the repercussions.
It has been proven that there is no space for political criticism in Venezuela and therefore, no free speech. However, while some can easily turn off the television or change the channels and turn away from what the state-owned media show, our daily lives and problems won’t allow us to look away from the unfortunate reality our fragile country has become.