Anti-Venezuela Spokespeople Misrepresent Reality Of Press Freedom In Venezuela

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This column was published by The Guardian Unlimited
on August 4, 2009.
Update: It appears that the proposed media law referred to in
The Guardian debate below is not going anywhere in the
Venezuelan Congress; it is not clear that it was ever under
serious consideration.
DENIS MACSHANE ATTACKS the British left for defending
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez against an onslaught
from the media, “New Cold Warriors,” and right-wing
demagogues throughout the world. His rhetorical trick is
to tar the left with a new media law currently being debated
in the Venezuelan Congress, which he says “would
impose prison sentences of up to four years for journalists
whose writings might divulge information against ‘the stability
of the institutions of the state.’”
Of course this is a bad law. There are a number of bad
laws on the books in Venezuela, and in fact numerous
countries in the region have “desacato” laws which make
it a crime to insult the President. Do MacShane’s targets—
he mentions Ken Livingstone and Richard Gott—
support such laws? I would bet serious money that they
do not. So his main line of attack is misleading if not
downright dishonest.
MacShane also misrepresents the reality of press freedom
in Venezuela. In fact, there is a much more oppositional
media in Venezuela than in the United States, and a
much greater range of debate in the major media. This can
be seen simply by looking at the most important media in
both countries. In the U.S., for example, not even the most
aggressive right-wing commentators such as Rush Limbaugh
or Sean Hannity would present the idea that the
President should be lynched. But Globovision, one of the
largest-audience TV networks in Venezuela, had a show
where a guest did just that.
This is not an isolated example in Venezuela. The media
there routinely broadcasts reporting and commentary that
would not be allowed under FCC rules here. And the vast
majority of the media in Venezuela is still controlled by the
right-wing opposition. This fact was buried in a footnote
in Human Rights Watch’s highly prejudiced and misleading
230 page report on Venezuela. The footnote acknowledged
that RCTV, which lost its broadcast license for a long
list of offenses that would have landed its owners in jail in
the United States, still has a cable audience that is bigger
than all of the Venezuelan state television combined.
If the United States had a media like Venezuela’s, President
Obama could never have been elected. That’s because
the majority of Americans would have believed, as those
beholden to some right-wing sources do, that he is a Muslim
who was not born in the United States. Think of Fox
News and the Washington Times as the vast majority of the
U.S. media—that is the reality in Venezuela, only the
media is more political and less accurate than our biggest
right-wing outlets.
What happens when our major media threatens to step
over the line and become a political actor? They almost
never do it, but two weeks before the 2004 U.S. Presidential
election, the Sinclair Broadcast Group of Maryland,
which owns the largest chain of TV stations in the U.S.,
decided to broadcast a film that accused candidate John
Kerry of betraying U.S. prisoners in Vietnam.
Nineteen Democratic senators sent a letter to the US
FCC calling for an investigation, and some made public
statements that Sinclair’s broadcast license could be in
jeopardy if it carried through with its plans. Sinclair
backed down and did not broadcast the film.
The Venezuelan media is not so restricted as in the U.S.
Of course that does not justify this new proposed law,
which is terrible. But neither does it justify the widespread
misrepresentation of the reality of press freedom in
Venezuela. (Even if this new law were to pass, it would
have little or no effect, since it would not be enforced and
would probably be ruled unconstitutional by the country’s
Supreme Court.) Venezuela is not Colombia, where journalists
have to flee the country in fear of their lives when
the President denounces them.
MacShane is taking advantage of the fact that after 10
years of media misrepresentation with no significant countervailing
force, anyone can say anything about Venezuela
and Chavez and it will not be challenged. A group of Latin
America scholars recently bought a full-page ad in the
Colombia Journalism Review to call attention to outright
fabrications by the Associated Press.
My congratulations to the British left for not caving to
this crude McCarthyism. We need more courage like that
in the world.

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