Chávez’s TV wars

| Oct. 19, 2011 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by Financial Times

In Venezuela’s perpetually politically charged climate, it is easy to find those willing to bash the government. This popular pastime of Venezuela’s chattering classes was given more ammunition to work with this week after an opposition television network was fined $2.1m and the Supreme Court ruled that a popular politician is able to run for president but not hold office if he wins.

Leopoldo López was banned in 2008 from public office on charges of corruption though was never tried. Last month, the Inter-American Court for Human Rights ruled in his favour, yet the country’s Supreme Court has defied the decision, insisting that he is free to run but not free to take any public office should he win.

López has remained defiant, though doing so may end up a Pyrrhic victory for the opposition. “I am a candidate,” López said. “I will run and I will win the primaries.” The decision to stand, however, is likely to split the vote within an already fragmented opposition – to Chávez’s ultimate benefit in next October’s presidential elections.

Many see the decision by the Supreme Court as one more example of the government’s clamp down on its enemies. The media has also suffered, especially since a failed 2002 coup attempt against Chávez. Major network RCTV, a vocal supporter of the coup at the time, saw its license revoked in 2007 and many stations have curbed their criticism of the president since.

The latest victim is Globovisión. The last staunchly anti-Chávez network free to air was fined $2.1m on Tuesday for its coverage of a fatal 27-day long prison riot in June. At the time, Chávez appeared weaker than usual as he went off the radar while undergoing treatment in Cuba for what turned out to be the cancer that has plagued his last few months.

That lack of face time on Venezuelan television was replaced by horrific images of inmates’ friends and family in anguish outside the jail. Many supporters became disillusioned with Chávez’s inability to control the worsening situation.

According to the government, Globovisión’s coverage “fomented anxiety” in Venezuela’s citizens as well as politically-rooted “hatred and intolerance”. Guillermo Zuloaga, president of the network, called the fine an “attack by a government that has only fear of freedom of expression”.

The hefty fine for Globovisión – 7.5 per cent of the channel’s gross revenue in 2010 – is thought by critics to be aimed at bankrupting the network. Zuloaga has been previously detained by military intelligence and had his home raided.

While the government claims that its moves are legitimate, the cases of Globovisión and López will only make it easier to criticise Chávez’s government during a campaign period when he is likely to retaliate with even more severity as he attempts to win over his core support, disillusioned with electricity outages, high inflation and the region’s highest crime rates.