Any crackdown on media freedom is harmful to democracy in any country at any time. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez' abuse of power is particularly egregious since the ongoing and intensifying crackdown takes place in what is the most important electoral campaign of the last 14 years in Venezuela. Presidential elections are to be held on October 7, 2012.
Hugo Chávez’ biggest efforts to thwart media freedom—in terms of impact on democracy—are threefold. First and most importantly, the inappropriate abuse of the public media spectrum for political gain significantly restricts freedom to equal representation and equal access to the airwaves, including both radio and television in Venezuela.
Second, the long-standing intimidation of private media outlets—heightened in the current electoral season—essentially forces them to: broadcast the government line; curb political discussion altogether; or face the consequences. See the Marta Colomina interview with César Miguel Rondón from earlier this year for anecdotal evidence of this crackdown.
The third type of media crackdown is the disproportionate application of regulatory restrictions and fines on Globovisión, and more generally, on all opposition-oriented private media. This administrative persecution is another clear example of the threats to press freedom in Venezuela, and a blatant attempt to influence the electorate by controlling public media and limiting access to pluralistic information.
Among these three overarching threats, the abuse of public media has the greatest impact on election freedom and fairness, according to Monitoreo Ciudadano (Citizen Monitoring). Additionally, while intimidation and the withholding of advertising dollars from independent or otherwise private media is nearly impossible to prove or prosecute, the illegal use of state TV for political gain is by its very nature documented.
Abuses of state media in the current election campaign are abundant, documented and irrefutable. Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan state media infrastructure are unabashedly utilizing state resources as part of his re-election campaign. In addition to being anti-democratic in nature, such use is also prohibited by the Venezuelan Constitution as well as other domestic and international laws.
Imagine President Barack Obama delivering a televised speech to the U.S. public. Now imagine that the complete transmission of the speech is mandatory for all U.S.-based television and radio stations. Yes, all major networks and cable channels must carry the speech in its entirety. Imagine now that Obama's speech goes on for several hours and focuses on the supposed "evils" of the Republican opposition and the virtues of his own candidacy for reelection. Imagine that he exercises this power several times each week, and always at 8:45pm on Sundays, just before Mad Men airs, for example.
Whereas such partisan control and abuse of public and private airwaves is unthinkable in the U.S. and in most other established democracies, it is commonplace in Venezuela. While Hugo Chávez cries foul and cracks down on any sort of dissent or attack from private media, he illegally utilizes all powers of the state to attack his opponent and drive home his campaign message.
This year, Venezuelans have seen this abuse rise above all previous levels. The president went so far as to inaugurate his reelection campaign team in one of many “National Blanket Broadcasts” promoting his candidacy. Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has also spoken out, stating clearly that Chávez illegally utilizes the National Blanket Broadcast (cadena nacional) for political propaganda.
These National Blanket Broadcasts, however, are not the only way in which Chávez abuses public media. Check the website of any government news outlet—practically any day of the week—and you will find political propaganda masquerading as news stories or more blatant direct advertising for the president's political party, the Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV).
The third type of abuse evidenced by video and audio recordings of state television and radio is the transmission of only pro-Chávez commentary and programming. Even when not commandeering private media, the Chávez campaign machine makes full use of a network of more than five state television channels and 500 radio stations, including Venezuelan Television (VTV) and the National Venezuelan Radio network (RNV). Numerous examples of this abuse can be seen on the Monitoreo Ciudadano YouTube channel.
In Venezuela, regulation of the election campaign is the responsibility of the National Electoral Council (CNE). In the current election cycle, the CNE has not yet assumed its responsibility to ensure fair and equal access to public media, claiming that the election campaign has not yet officially begun. While it is true that according to the CNE official electoral calendar, the “official” campaign has not yet begun, this excuse does not legitimatize the shirking of the CNE's responsibility of regulating and sanctioning the illegal use of public funds. Utilizing public office or public resources for political gain is illegal in Venezuela, regardless of when it happens, before or after the “official" campaign start date.
If neither the National Electoral Council nor the Supreme Court are willing to denounce and stop this obvious abuse of power, then citizens and the international community are left with no alternative other than to speak up themselves and demand free and fair elections in Venezuela. Now, before it is too late, the Organization of American States (OAS) as well as domestic and international election observation organizations have an obligation to denounce Hugo Chávez' abuse of public media in Venezuela's presidential election campaign. If they are unwilling to do so, Venezuela's presidential elections in October will be neither free nor fair.
*Andrés Cañizález and Roberto Velásquez are guest bloggers to AQ Online. They are based in Caracas, Venezuela and work at Monitoreo Ciudadano (Citizen Monitoring), a citizen initiative and NGO dedicated to monitoring and exposing the abuse of power and public resources in Venezuela. Citizen Monitoring uses the Twitter hashtag #AbusoPoder (Abuse of Power) to register complaints, and tweets in English (@StateMedia) and Spanish (@YoMonitoreo).