VENEZUELA
Written by Hannah Schädlich

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Profile

  • Area: 916,445 square kilometres
  • Population: 30 million
  • Capital: Caracas
  • State form: presidential democracy
  • Official language: Spanish, indigenous languages
  • Religion: Christian (98 per cent)

Flag of Venezuela

Analysis
Abstract
Venezuela is in a process of transformation since the era of former president Hugo Chávez began in 1999. In conjunction with the Bolivarian Revolution the country has a new constitution, which amongst others guarantees freedom of speech and expression as well as media freedom. Nevertheless journalists can’t work under autonomous conditions as the media depend on the economic situation and the political orientation of their owners. Especially the strong Venezuelan dependency on petroleum export and the large oil groups’ influence on the advertising market have to be mentioned. Particularly because of a new telecommunication law, since 2004 media structures and media content are changing. As in the other Latin American countries private media were dominant in Venezuela in the past. Since the presidency of Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, more and more state-owned media are established. They compose a counter-flow to the opposition subsidiary private media. Therefore, the media reflect the two competing positions of governmental support and opposition, which define the Venezuelan society. The two contrary realities, which are produced by private and public media cause the general loss of credibility of all traditional media offers in Venezuela. Nevertheless, the state influence mainly arises from oil possession instead of laws. Therefore the government indirectly controls the media in Venezuela. This explains Venezuelas’ assignment to Clientelism in our typology.
Communication policy and regulations
The Venezuelan media system is dominated by private media offers and was ruled by a slight number of elites for quite a long time. But after Hugo Chávez became president in 1999, many things changed. On the one hand Venezuela got a new constitution, which contains two articles about freedom of the press and freedom of information. The constitution determines everyone’s personal right “to express freely his or her thoughts, ideas or opinions orally, in writing or by any other form of expression, and to use for such purpose any means of communication and diffusion” (Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Article 57). Furthermore it is related to the media in so far as it gives them the right to publish “timely, truthful and impartial information, without censorship, in accordance with the principles of this Constitution” (Article 58).

To see how these rights are accomplished it needs a closer look at the media acts. One event of the past had a special role in the evaluation of media regulations in Venezuela. In 2007 the media regulator CONATEL (Comisión Nacional de telecommunicaciones) decided not to renew the licence for RCTV – the private managed, most government-critical channel of the opposition (Hellinger, 2007: 30). This decision was harshly criticised by international organisations like Human Rights Watch (2012) because the absence of RCTV restricted the diversity of opinions. Following the telecommunication law of 2000 licences are renewed for shorter periods in general now. Additionally the granting occurs along openly comprehensible argumentations and includes the government as well as the opposition. Nevertheless the granting of licences is somehow exploited for power struggles (Hetzer, 2012: 57).

The new telecommunication law (Ley de Responsabilidad social en Radio y Televisión) of 2004 allows harder sanctions of transgressions and regulates the so called Cadenas Nacionales – a break of audio-visual media by official bulletins of the president, which have to be broadcasted on all national TV and radio channels at the same time. These ladder networks are a characteristic of all Latin-American countries and have a long tradition in Venezuela (Daniljuk, 2012: 88). In the past the Cadenas Nacionales were an important instrument for communication in crisis situations. NGOs charge them to be an abuse of governmental power because nowadays they are broadcasted more often (Cañizález, 2008: 47). Monitorio Cindadano is an NGO that documents every Cadenas Nacionales to show the grievances of the Venezuelan media system. According to their homepage the current president Nicolás Maduro broadcasted Cadenas Nacionales for 557 hours since his assumption of office in 2012 (Monitorio Cindadano 2016).

For the private TV channels those breaks mean big economic harm because they don’t receive any financial compensation for the airtime. In the past the Cadenas Nacionales were a compromise between the government and the private media because at this time nearly all media were private and the government wouldn’t have had many opportunities to communicate with the citizenry. Nowadays the state owns many TV channels and other media, which is why the Cadenas Nacionales don’t play such a big role anymore. This was confirmed by a freelance journalist who worked in Venezuela till 2013 saying in an expert interview, that the law determines the duration of those breaks for every week and month, so that the possibilities for abuse are much smaller than before.

The 2004 Ley de Responsabilidad social en Radio y Televisión, amended in 2010, does not only regulate the Cadenas Nacionales but also media content. Especially, war propaganda, disrespect of authorities and promotion of assassinations are forbidden (Freedom House, 2015a). Critics charge the law to restrict media producers very much and to lead to self-censorship because of stricter sanctions. With this law the government would have more abilities to control distributed information (Cabrera & Silva-Ferrer, 2011: 350). But not all observers of the Venezuelan media system think that the law means a single restriction. The freelance journalist Malte D. argues that even if it’s possible to take action against single journalists, the law can improve public debate and its standards and lead to a more neutral coverage because, for example, the defamation of public officers is forbidden. Concerning this matter one should know that the Venezuelan system of justice is very inefficient. In many sectors exemption from punishment nearly obtains (Human Rights Watch, 2015). The freelance journalist Malte D. said more precisely that till 2005 defamations and detraction didn’t have any consequences, which is why many journalists were quite partisan and aggressive. Another outcome of the telecommunication law is youth protection respective violent and sexual content in TV shows. Therefore he argues that in general the law hence leads to a democratisation and civilisation of journalism and media culture.

Venezuela in the media freedom rankings
In contrast, in the World Press Index 2016 of Reporters Without Borders, Venezuela was ranked 139 out of 180 countries, two positions worse than in 2015. RWB explains the worse score with the harsh reactions of president Maduro to demonstrations and protests and further interventions in the private media (Reporters Without Borders, 2016). According to Freedom House, Venezuela has a “not free” press. In 2015 the score declined from 78 to 81 (with 0 as the best and 100 as the worst score) because of similar reasons as Reporters Without Borders mentioned (Freedom House, 2015a).
Media offers
Market structure
The Venezuelan media landscape consists of public and private media as well as of community media. In the past, the private media were nearly the only media offers and still assume a dominant role. A special characteristic of those private media is that only a few large scale manufacturers rule the market. According to a freelance journalist working for amerika21, about two hundred people who all know each other or even are related, own all of the private media. This high media concentration leads to a self-serving work of the private sector, which is controlled by a small elite and has close relations to certain parts of the economy and even to politics. As all over the world, private media in Venezuela strongly depend on audience rates and advertising revenue. That’s why they orientate themselves towards audiences with purchasing power. Therefore the content of those offers often lacks of information but provides a lot of entertainment, sensationalism and telenovelas (Boris, 2011: 29; Artz, 2012: 542).

Media offers
TV is Venezuela’s most important mass media channel. The major private TV channels are Venevisión and Televen. As the BBC reported in 2012, both channels used to be very critical of the government, but reduced their criticism during the last years (BBC, 2012). Furthermore, in 2013, the most important news broadcaster and one of the last critical broadcasters on air – Globovision – was sold to business men, who have ties to Nicolás Maduro (Kraul & Mogollon, 2013). Because of the dominant private media, the state had only little chances to be heard in the public. That’s why the former president Hugo Chávez created public, state-owned media after his election in 1999. More state-owned media lead to a major influence of the state on the media system (Boris, 2012: 38).

Via all the new media offers, the government tries to create a counter-flow to the private media. This leads to another essential feature of the Venezuelan media system: it reflects society’s division in two opposing parties: the socialist supporters of former president Hugo Chávez and current president Nicolás Maduro and a multifarious opposition, which consist of right-wing conservatives, left-wing liberals, Christians and trade unions (López-Maya, 2011: 46). The private media assist the opposition whereas the public, state-owned media logically follow the ideology of the government. This causes a strong political parallelism in the media and increasing polarised opinions in the general public (Daniljuk, 2012: 81).

In this context the media are heavily used as an instrument for legitimation and advertising. That’s why especially the newspapers lost credibility during the last years. El Universal and El Nacional were the formerly most important daily newspapers each with a circulation of about 350.000 (Daniljuk, 2012: 79). Even if accurate data of newspapers circulation are difficult to find, one can state that their loss of credibility led to a loss of circulation. In 2010, both newspapers reached a circulation of only about 80.000 issues every day (publicitas, 2010). Additionally the media serve as business sectors for investors (Hetzer, 2012: 60). Cabrera and Silva-Ferrer (2011) also refer to the problematic construction of two contradictory, polarised media realities via the unequal coverage of public and private media (p. 345). The perception of those two realities in the public differs a lot. The interviewed TeleSur journalist believes in an equal impact of both sites and the freelance amerika21 journalist said that it would create diversity because the public TV channels provide special interest programs for information and education. Otherwise, the intervention of the state in the media market through public media offers was harshly criticised as being manipulative. For example, the government-critical student Juan Carlos M. (2015) said that the state would have a major impact and tried to use the media as an instrument for its purposes. Those opposing perceptions can be interpreted by the contrary positions the interviewees represent.

Even if the government tries to provide a counter-flow to the private media, public media offers are less relevant to the audience, whereas the private ones are still much more important. A good example is the number of radio stations: 67 private radio stations are seen alongside 37 community and six state-owned radio stations (Boris, 2011: 35). Although public TV channels are freely receivable whereas the private channels aren’t, this doesn’t lead to a higher usage of the public ones (student Juan Carlos M., 2015).

Regarding media offers, financing has to be considered as well. Public media are state-owned and therefore government-financed. In contrast, private media purchase their financial means by adverts. The Venezuelan economy extremely depends on the export of mineral oil. Nearly the complete population lives on petroleum sales. One of the major oil corporations PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela) is owned by the state, so that the state has an important role in the economy and simultaneously is the major advertiser. PDVSA even places more advertisement on the Venezuelan media than international groups like Coca-Cola or McDonalds’. Therefore, the state gives indirect subsidisation to the media and hence can put economic pressure on them and influence them (Boeckh, 2011: 398).

Besides the private and public media, there exists a third media sector: the community media. These platforms are local and collective organised and get state funding since 2002. Fuentes-Bautista and Gil-Egui (2011: 257) argue that this is why they face difficulties like “striking a balance between their dependency on government funding and their need to maintain legitimacy by criticizing government initiatives that neglect or negatively affect the communities they serve”. Most of the community media organisations define themselves as a component of social change in their community and a producer of alternative content to the mainstream media (Fuentes-Bautista & Gil-Egui, 2011: 268). In 2014 there were 244 community radio stations, 36 community TV stations and 120 community newspapers (Freedom House, 2014). These platforms create more diversity and are a possibility for people to be heard. A Venezuelan sociologist called those media a complementary public sphere. For the community media the internet is very important because there, they can publish a range of self-organised magazines with less effort.

Internet
According to the BBC, there are regulations by law that apply to the internet. For example the media regulators CONATEL can get access to ominous websites, whereas Social Media are not affected by those regulations (BBC, 2012). Another restriction of the internet is the low speed, which is one of the slowest connections in the world. In 2007, the government nationalised the major telecommunication provider CANTV, which provides about 80 per cent of the internet in Venezuela. Therefore, the government can somehow control peoples’ access to the internet. Nonetheless, about 57 per cent of all Venezuelans regularly use the internet (Human Development Reports, 2015) and an increasing internet usage also has been a goal of former president Hugo Chávez. Therefore, he introduced a number in initiatives like internet cafes for free usage all over the country (Freedom House, 2015b).

The high usage and production of media content on the internet enable the Venezuelans to have a high media competence. Moreover, it leads to a political and social process of emancipation. Besides the community media, local radio and TV stations are of major importance for the public. Those local stations have a strong connection to the local audience and therefore a good interaction to hundreds of people and a high potential for mobilisation. These connections create media competences and social and political competences once more (Artz, 2012: 549; sociologist Dario A.).
Journalists' autonomy
Political parallelism
The Venezuelan policy as well as the society is split in two opponent groups: the supporters of former president Hugo Chávez and the opposition. This dichotomy is reflected in the Venezuelan media as well, so that there is a strong political parallelism, which also has an impact on the journalistic practices. The interviewed TeleSur journalist said that related to certain events some journalists are favoured by the press officers. Often they are chosen because of their political preferences and the political orientation of the owner or editor of their broadcaster or newspaper. Even the financiers can have an impact on the press officers’ choices. That means, that the access to information, which is essential for journalistic work depends on political and economic networks of the journalists.

Consequently, the political parallelism limits journalists’ autonomy. According to Dinges (2005) many journalists indicate that they would have lost their way because they used the media to mediate their editors’ ideology instead of objective information (p. 53). Nevertheless, the TeleSur-journalist said that even if there are regulations by law about the content of entertainment programs and sensationalistic journalism, there are no rules that restrict her work. She still believes in her task to report responsibly. The freelance journalist Malte D. shared this view when he said, that the criteria for good quality journalism did improve with the telecommunication law (Ley de Responsabilidad social en Radio y Televisión). However, there are also critical voices, who fear that the state becomes the most powerful sponsor, fancier and owner of the media, so that more and more governmental actions restrain the development of autonomous journalism (Cabrera & Silva-Ferrer, 2011: 356).

Journalists’ role perceptions and reputation
The political parallelism also influences journalistic culture, which is dominated by opinions, commentaries and political tendencies. This is a typical characteristic of media in Latin America in general (Hetzer, 2012: 54). Media production in Venezuela is used as a resource for the dispersion of the owners’ interests. They operate as voice of the government and the opposition and follow the goal to influence public opinions, foster the division of the country and control perceptions (Cabrera & Silva-Ferrer, 2011: 362). Despite of that, TeleSur-journalist Magda G. (2015) sees her task as journalist to inform others about what happens in the world and provide them with background information. That’s why research plays an important role.

Regarding reputation in the society, all media – public and private – suffer. The student Juan Carlos M. said, that the state is the more powerful player who tries to exploit and manipulate the media. He said: “Today we have a war between people who want their voices to be heard and people who just want power”. The fight between the government and the opposition left its marks on the image of the media and their journalists in the general public. During Venezuela’s process of transformation, the traditional mass media lost credibility because of their partisan and biased coverage (sociologist, Linz). The student Juan Carlos M. said that he does not “fully trust in any media, because all of them (…) manipulate the information.” The loss of credibility also arises in the loss of newspapers’ circulation. The champion dailies El Nacional (most important government critical communication medium; Auswärtiges Amt 2016) and El Universal lost more than fifty per cent of their run because even if they claim to be neutral they still report along their old ideology (Daniljuk, 2012: 79). Because of that, the society has its own alternative community media, which are produced and highly used by the people and have a high ability of mobilisation (sociologist, Linz). These platforms are local and collective organised. However, they also get state funding since 2002. Formal these media are independent and organised by voluntary engagements in registered associations (Daniljuk, 2012: 84).

People who work in leading positions of political parties, institutions of the government or private or public media are not allowed to produce media content for the community media platforms (Schiller, 2011: 114). Nevertheless, some journalists of private or public media give their information to the community media because they are afraid to publicise them under their name. Many journalists in the traditional media find themselves under oppression because they work in a position where they depend on what the owners and editors want them to inform about (student Juan Carlos M.). These platforms create more diversity and are a possibility for people to be heard. As an example the website aporrea.org can be mentioned because it serves as an important source of information for the Venezuelans.

The student Juan Carlos M. reasons this by the bigger trust people have in internet content and social media. Another important feature of these community media is that they train their journalists concerted. People can learn how to produce content and how to use the structure of the media. With this requirements the community media serve as an instrument of communication because people learn to communicate with each other, as well as to educate and mobilise others (sociologist, Linz).

Journalists’ education
Normally, students have to study for five years at a university to become a journalist. Nevertheless, many people do not follow these standards and work without an appropriate education. Furthermore journalists are not paid fair as measured by their hard work in connection with researches (TeleSur journalist, Caracas). The difficulties of finding a job are other problems that downgrade the journalistic working conditions. Because of that many young journalists leave the country with the hope of better prospects abroad (student Juan Carlos M.).
Sources
This country report is largely based on a seminar paper composed by Lukas Angerer and Miriam Hummel at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich in 2015. All interviews have been conducted by them from December 2014 to February 2015. The author thanks Mr Angerer and Ms Hummel for their work, without which this country report wouldn’t have been possible.

Interviewed experts (remote via Skype, email, written questionnaire)
  • Dr. Dr. Dario Azzellini, Institute of Sociology at the Johannes Kepler University of Linz, dissertation and documentary films about the Venezuelan media (December 22, 2014)
  • Malte D., freelance Journalist for amerika21 and others (December 19, 2014)
  • Magda G., Journalist for TeleSur; (February 06, 2015)
  • Juan Carlos M., Venezuelan citizen, student of engineering science at Universidad del Zulia in Maracaibo (February 16, 2015)
References
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Related Links
Recommended citation form
Hannah Schädlich: Venezuela In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. http://mappingmediafreedom.de/venezuela (access date).

Venezuelans demonstrating for peace