The Blog

Hugo Chavez vs. the Media

The Venezuelan strongman tries to crackdown on his country's journalists while Jack Kemp shills for him in America.

6:40 AM, Jun 9, 2003 • By THOR HALVORSSEN
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Caracas, Venezuela

EARLIER THIS YEAR, the U.S. media was atwitter with coverage of the protests against ousting Saddam Hussein. At the same time, just weeks before the war in Iraq began, a record-setting one and a half million Venezuelans marched in protest against a law proposed by the president of Venezuela, Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez. Simultaneous marches against Chavez took place across the world. It was the largest peaceful protest in Latin American history.

These protests did not register even a blip in the international and U.S. media. There were no page-one articles or photo-spreads about this widespread rejection of the Chavez regime. That the international media failed to cover these events is particularly dispiriting, since the protest was organized specifically to support the Venezuelan media, which has been tirelessly exposing human rights violations by the Chavez regime.

Despite being followed, harassed, arrested, tear-gassed, fire-bombed, shot at, and even killed by Chavez supporters and party members, journalists here have bravely persevered in their jobs and serve as the only effective check to arbitrary government power. Given that the courts, congress, military and the executive branch are firmly under Chavez's control, it's little wonder that in poll after poll, the Venezuelan media ranks as the most respected institution in the country.

Since January, using a presidential decree, Chavez has interrupted regular television and radio broadcasts on 60 separate occasions, forcing all media to transmit his hours-long tirades and pro-government propaganda.

And Chavez now seeks to formalize his control through the "Media Contents" law, a bill that controls TV programming by defining time slots suitable for children. The law assumes that children will be watching television for 18 hours a day and prohibits the broadcasting of news or any content with violent images or political language except between 11:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. For example, live footage of Chavez militia members shooting at innocent protesters, would be content unsuitable for children.

IN ADDITION to controlling the programming, the law criminalizes any content that "promotes, condones or incites disrespect for the legitimate authorities and institutions." Known locally as the "gag law," it states explicitly that mocking or criticizing the president and his henchmen is illegal. Broadcasters face million-dollar fines, loss of their broadcast licenses, and even jail time for noncompliance. If this column was published in a newspaper or read on television here in Venezuela, it would be in violation of the proposed Chavez media law.

When journalists expressed opposition to the law's barefaced censorship, Chavez responded: "That's just like drug traffickers opposing anti-drug laws or criminals complaining about crime-fighting."

And to further control the media, Chavez has imposed exchange controls. No Venezuelan citizen may purchase foreign currency without government permission--an act that renders the local currency worthless for import transactions. As a result, any television company that needs to purchase electronic equipment or any newspaper editor wishing to order newsprint paper or buy ink must petition the currency control agency that is, conveniently, headed by a man who assisted Lt. Col. Chavez in his failed 1992 coup attempt.

TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, some American elites are actively shilling for the Chavez regime even as the media crackdown proceeds. Jack Kemp, notably, has been busy opening doors for the Chavez government. Recently Kemp and the Venezuelan ambassador visited the Wall Street Journal's editorial board in an unsuccessful attempt to charm the paper away from its anti-Chavez stance. Since that visit, the Journal reported that Kemp has been trying to broker a complicated deal to fill the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve with Venezuelan oil via an intermediary company--Free Market Petroleum LLC--on whose board Kemp sits.

Since hooking up with Free Market Petroleum, Kemp has visited with Chavez and his ministers in Caracas. Surely he must have noticed Chavez's brutality here.

American elites should be helping pressure the Chavez regime and publicizing its anti-democratic doings in Venezuela, not seeking to profit from collaboration with it.

Thor Halvorssen is a human rights and civil liberties activist. He grew up in Venezuela and now lives in Philadelphia.