On October 7, 2012, the Venezuelan people will have the opportunity to elect a new president. In the months leading up to the election, Venezuelans are sure to hear plenty of campaign rhetoric from the unabashed President Hugo Chavez, but the question is: How much will they hear from the opposition?
Globovision, a television channel that is reportedly “the only channel in Venezuela that takes a staunchly anti-government stance,” has been fined more than $2 million by the country’s National Telecommunications Commission, Conatel, for allegedly “violating broadcast regulations” when it showed footage of a riot at the El Rodeo II Prison in the Venezuelan city of Guatire. According to Conatel, among the opposition station’s offenses is the repeated broadcasting of interviews with inmates’ family members and the addition of the sound of gunfire to clips. The director general of Conatel claims that the broadcast “promoted hatred and intolerance for political reasons.”
Restrictions on media freedom are nothing new in Venezuela. In 2007, Chavez’s government shut down the station Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) due to its “support for a brief coup in 2002.” Like Globovision, RCTV was known as an opposition station. During the 2002 coup, RCTV showed footage of protests, while other private and state-owned media outlets reserved their coverage mainly for interviews with government officials and soap operas, according to The New York Times.
The story didn’t end with the closing of RCTV. In 2010, Globovision co-owner Nelson Mezerhane received a phone call from Chavez, who allegedly told him, “I need for you to fix this Globovision. This cannot go on like this. Fix it or take the consequences.” Mezerhane declined, only to have his bank taken over by the government and his home invaded by Venezuelan security forces shortly thereafter. Mezerhane is currently living in the United States, where he is awaiting news on his request for asylum. Adding fuel to an already volatile situation, his attorney “believes his case…has disappeared into a bureaucratic black hole along with dozens of other high-profile Venezuelan political asylum cases” in order to prevent the U.S. from having to provoke Chavez.
Meanwhile, the fate of Globovision hangs in the balance. The station has called the fine “unpayable,” asserting that it is just the government’s way of closing down Globovision. Members of the international community insist that “the fine [is] an abuse of power by the government.” Yet the government is not slowing down. Just last week, Venezuelan soldiers removed equipment from a radio station that the National Telecommunications Commission said “[had] been operating without government authorization.” Venezuelan human rights leader Carlos Correa said that for other outlets, “[seeing] that a critical media outlet is punished steers others toward self-censorship.”
Whether Globovision can survive the fine has yet to be seen. What is certain, however, is that this record of doling out heavy-handed punishments to opposition stations is likely to influence the broadcasting decisions made by Venezuelan media in the future and give Chavez an unfair advantage in his bid to keep the presidency.
Jen Gieselman is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm