Venezuela: Journalism and self-regulation in need of a new revolution
By Gregorio Salazar
Since the approval by referendum of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, on December 15, 1999, which created the so-called Fifth Republic, a process of political, economic and social revolution has overwhelmed the oil-rich country creating historic divisions and political turmoil in which media have played a central role.
This process, masterminded by Hugo Chavez Frias, who died in March 2013, was to create a vision of 21st century socialism. It began with a process of accelerated legal reforms of property rights and attempts to control the oil industry but led to deep polarisation within society and the creation of two sides of roughly the same size.
In 2002 the fractures led to open conflict and an infamous coup attempt. The divisions continue to this day. In the most recent presidential election, in April 2013, the chosen successor to Hugo Chavez won by just 223,000 out of a total vote of 15,000,000.
The role of media and journalism has been crucial in these turbulent times. In the conflict of 2002 some 19 people, including a photo journalist were killed in Caracas. This attempted coup, in which some media were actively engaged in seeking the overthrow of Chavez, marked the breaking point in media-government relations and placed journalists at the heart of the political confrontation, where they remain today.
These circumstances create an almost impossible task for self-regulation, respect for journalistic ethics and commitment to transparency and good governance across media.
Today the media, both private and official, work in the shadow of the Chavez Government’s decision to create a “new communication order” in response to the “media plot” around the coup. Later this would become what they term “communication hegemony” or what; some observers might call in line with a concept developed by Umberto Eco as “media populism”.
Chavez and his supporters understand that revolution cannot be conceived without the overwhelming use of media, especially television, and without controlling influence over all communications. This became an essential sine qua non condition for the “Bolivarian project”.
The media landscape 15 years on is very different one from that of the second half of the 20th century, an era of private media domination. Chavez adopted a two-pronged strategy. He invested huge political effort and money in building the biggest government media platform ever known in Latin America and, at the same time, he put in place a concerted campaign to overcome private media or to control them.
A researcher from Andrés Bello Catholic University, Marcelino Bisbal, lists the impact of the assault on media and journalism:
- strong intervention from the State;
- exclusion of political and social actors in Government media;
- laws limiting free expression and the right of communication;
- elimination of dissident voices;
- closure of media;
- restricted access to public information;
- direct and indirect censorship, encouraging a culture of self-censorship;
- intimidation and threats to media and journalists;
- official ban on public advertising for critical media; and, recently,
- denial of foreign currency to import newsprint and other materials.
As if this wasn’t enough, Chavez used his discretional presidential power, even up to his last national broadcast on December 8, 2013, to commandeer radio and television airtime whenever it suited him and without consultation. Using these methods he challenged his critics, including media labour unions in the private sector, and created fresh political and ideological hostilities with all his opponents.
To create its own information landscape the government has used three strategies. First, it uses the law to isolate the main television station and dozens of radio stations with technical obstacles over dates of concession, use of the radial electric spectrum, failures in the license documents, or problems over property rights all of which effectively blocked national radio broadcasting of dissident voices.
Secondly, it controls the flow of vital public advertising and starves private media that don’t toe the line of much-needed resources. The government has transferred power from the private to the public sector. In the private sector 4.200 companies have closed down since 1998. And many of the service companies, industries and banks which used to be important media advertisers belong today to Government, by way of purchase, confiscation, or expropriation.
Government controls their allocation of advertising to media and does so in a biased and politically driven way. At the same time, the economy has been hit. Venezuela is the country with the worst-performing economy in Latin America.
The third strategy is to encourage the purchase of media by its political friends or others who are ready to seek favours from the state and government. This has led to massive ethical problems and conflicts of interest that have encouraged media self-censorship.
New owners and new censorship
To understand the media crisis and the impact of political polarisation it is useful to analyse the case of Globovision, the country’s first 24-hours news channel. After the controversial closure of RCTV in 2007 and seeing the other channels opt for a moderate editorial approach, Globovision quickly became the iconic voice of opposition, the only audiovisual counterweight to the government’s attempts to control the communications landscape and to smother voices of political opposition.
The network worked hard to maintain its independent stance and was repaid with high levels of audience support, even if only in the cable system to which it was virtually reduced.
But after years of pressure in April 2013 it announced it was being sold. In an open letter to the public and to its 500-strong workforce, the main shareholder explained the reasons for selling up:
“We are economically unviable because our income no longer covers our cash needs. We are politically unviable, because we are in a totally polarised country where an all-powerful government wants to see us fail. We are legally unviable because our licence is expiring and there is no chance of renewal, on the contrary, we are stalked by government institutions, backed by the Supreme Court which cooperates with all what can harm us.”
This catalogue of obstacles may well mean see off other media that refuse to come within the orbit of government influence. The Government approach to Globovision sent out a clear message, it provided a threat and a voice of opposition that had to be crushed.
The press revealed shortly after the sale that two of the new owners have already made profitable and rewarding business with government. Soon emblematic shows that reflected the old Globovision perspective were eliminated or suffered censorship. This caused one of the partners to resign and led to a stampede of reporters and anchors to the exit.
The channel has opted for a quieter life. It has abandoned its critical stance and investigative journalism. It brandishes a new torch of balance that contrasts with times when they used to insist that any bias was justified in defence of pluralism and the survival of democracy. Not surprisingly, their captive opposition-minded audience is gone as the network now emphasises a new editorial approach that favors the government.
Next in the firing line was the sale of the Capriles Chain, a 70-year old company that owned the highest number of daily papers across the country. An unknown organisation, Latam Media Holdings, a part of the British Hanson Group was the reputed buyer for, it was reported, more than 200 million dollars. Immediately the Board was occupied by renowned politicians from the ruling party, increasing the scope for government influence. And even more than it had been in the past.
In 2003 the Chain separated from the Bloque de Prensa Venezolano and in the process obtained great advertising benefits for the daily Ultimas Noticias. Now cases of direct censorship appeared, and most of the editorial chiefs and several journalists resigned or were fired.
In July of 2014 came the turn for legendary daily El Universal, founded in 1909. The purchasing company, Epalisticia, was especially created for the purpose and was found to be operating from a modest apartment in Madrid. It paid around 100 million euros and appointed a new director, who talked of impartiality, but then cut links to some 30 journalists and writers known to be critical of the government and censored editorial cartoons for good measure.
The decision to use news provided by the official agency AVN instead of reports prepared by a correspondent on a serious union battle in the national steel company enraged journalists who denounced the action in some free space for trade unions articles that the national union, the SNTP has in some dailies.
All of these cases have provoked debate inside journalism, where there is now work on a collective defence of the ethics code; criticism over incidents of censorship, made through social networks; and discussion on alternative ways to get news to the public through, for instance, personal blogs. In this way, journalists of the Ultimas Noticias Group, and journalists at the economy tabloid El Mundo, and El Universal are closing ranks against censorship and to protect the public’s right to know.
As foreign correspondent Phil Gunson explains: “Media are treated as merchandise that can be bought and sold just like any other product. There are new invisible owners talking through their spokespersons. There is little effort to say who the owner is. When the merchandise is information and we don’t know who is sending the message, we can’t tell whether there is bias or what is the intention guiding the message”.
Journalism in a land of divisive politics
Venezuelan journalists have as basic organisations the Colegio Nacional de Periodistas (CNP), the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Prensa (SNTP) (National Press Workers’ Union). and the Círculo de Reporteros Gráficos (CRGV) (Graphic Reporters Circle). The Colegio, created by a law in 1972 (23), establishes a compulsory register of professionals and is the main body for self-regulation of journalism according to the Venezuelan Journalist Code of Ethics (CEPV, Código de Ética del Periodista Venezolano), which is backed up by law.
For their part, journalists working in the official media are not free to join these traditional bodies and have created several groups of their own which routinely back up the government’s communications strategy and who freely criticise their colleagues still able to work in the independent and private media.
The code of ethics dates back to 1976, and it acquired for both sides in the polarised media society an unusual importance. In the prologue of an official reprinting it notes that “The exercise of the profession in recent years reveals a situation of persistent violation of the Code of Ethics”. And regarding media it states: “Private media companies have assumed a political role which is not their responsibility, adulterating in their action the dynamics of communications and the flow of information and weakening the right of Venezuelans to receive truthful and timely information as required by the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in its articles 57 and 58.”
As the revolution began to overwhelm media, the ethical imperative of impartial and balanced journalism was put aside. As sociologist Marycler Stelling explains: “In Venezuela we are living times of confrontation of two distinct projects, but it is also a time of symbolic violence, through elections. I believe that we are at war, and during war everything is valid. But in Venezuela the battles are being fought on two fronts, through the ballot box and through the media.”
She adds that although the media battle front is a form of symbolic confrontation, in which political armies use information as their weapons of choice, but there are casualties. “We are the victims,” she says. “The receivers, as citizens our right to information is limited and disrespected”.
The programming of official media to propaganda has seen a new intolerance of public complaints, particularly when voiced through private media. Anything that does not fit with the official vision of reality is summarily denounced as “a campaign”.
Everywhere censorship is at work. And those who go “off message” are quickly dealt with, even on the government side. The show Contragolpe (counterattack) on government channel VTV, and hosted by Vanessa Davies, emblematic journalist and member of the official party PSUV, was shut down after an interview with Vice-President Rafael Ramírez in January 2014 because her questions over the economic crisis needled the Vice President.
The protests over this censorship came from the traditional media groups and associations, but not from her fellow partisan colleagues. Nevertheless, Davis continues to belong to the PSUV and is director of the state daily paper Correo del Orinoco.
Likewise, Nicmer Evans, a young political analyst and identified with the official party, who has criticised economic policies was censored recently in several media and his accounts in Twitter, Facebook, and electronic mail were hacked.
Radio journalist and CNP ex vice-president, Alonso Moleiro says: “The journalists of Chavism see themselves, above all, as political militants before they are journalists. They don´t hide it: they assume it very proudly. They approach facts already with an answer in their heads. They don’t have the slightest interest on refreshing their points of view with different ideas or opinions. They are completely convinced that the best way for humanity is to follow the lines they have chosen.”
What hope for ethical journalism and editorial independence?
Given this range of problems, both internal and external, it is difficult to see how ethical journalism, motivated by individual conscience and a broad sense of public responsibility for pluralism and free speech, can flourish in the political conditions of Venezuela.
But as part of this investigation, a group of journalists and media experts covering different specialties was questioned about the validity of self-regulation and the professional independence of Venezuelan journalists. Here are some of the responses:
e César Bátiz, director of Poderopedia web: “The concept of self-regulation is not recognised in Venezuela, which does not mean that there is no consciousness regarding social responsibility of media and journalists or respect for the Code of Ethics in the Professional Exercise. More worrying, is when it comes to media self-regulation, the interests of media owners and managers is more important than those of the journalists.”
- Eduardo Orozco, ex-President of the National Guild of Journalists: “The idea of “self-regulation” is mandatory, especially in audiovisual media, for fear of the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television,” but it has been seen as initiative of journalists with the code of ethics of as an important point of reference in professional work. But the efficiency of self-regulation very much depends on the strength of organised journalists”.
- Eligio Rojas, Últimas Noticias: “I think that self-regulation does not exist as a value for the Venezuelan journalist. There is resistance, for example, to grant the right to a reply. I do not see in the colleagues any attitude of humility for accepting errors or bias in presenting facts or manipulation. We think that we are doing everything right”.
- Elvia Gómez, Political Editor of El Universal: “There are two fundamental texts in Venezuela: The law on the exercise of journalism and the code of ethics. However, for over a decade, self-regulation works in an unequal manner; it represents the professional norms obeyed mostly by journalists serving media in the private sector, but it is widely unknown by those serving media under the influence and control of the state”.
- Néstor Garrido, director at the National Guild of Journalists: “There are general notions about ethics, usually transmitted mouth to mouth, and not understood from direct knowledge of the code. Basic topics like balanced news, right of reply, verification of sources, or prohibition of bribes to hide or promote information are known to everyone. However, I observe that the majority has only a vague notion about what they mean”.
- Luz Mely Reyes, Director of Daily 2001: “Self-regulation is almost nonexistent. Prior to 1998 there were attempts to persuade journalists to work on self-regulation mechanisms, but with of polarisation and politicisation of media, this way of protecting quality journalism and the right to information is not established as policy in Venezuelan media or journalism. Self-regulation just doesn’t exist in Venezuela, either as a working system or established policy in media. Instead, what I see is that media enterprises adjust to suit their interests and decide to publish or not to publish certain topics according to their self-interests.”
- Magaly Ramírez, professor Andrés Bello Catholic University: “I consider that our social responsibility and reporting is not subject to ethical analysis before publication to measure the impact on the community when certain information, political or socially sensitive, is published. Self-regulation is often mistakenly thought to be a form of self-censorship, it is a process that works according to what suits at any particular moment and as a result is not efficient here”.
- Carlos Correa, Director of the NGO Espacio Público: “We do not have a code of ethics which is alive, and which is actively discussed. That has a lot to do with the hyperpolarised context that the country is experiencing, where an “anything goes” attitude is installed.
- Phil Gunson, international correspondent: “There are many colleagues with a very clear understanding of ethics. That has saved us from worse. And to the surprise of some who thought that Venezuelan press was bad we now find that in the British press, despite having many good newspapers, also has very bad ones. Many Venezuelan journalists, maybe thanks to their university professors, have a clear understanding of ethics and in many cases much more than media owners”.
- José Pulido, teacher, chronicler, writer: “Although in media and among journalists self-regulation is based on respect for human rights, the National Constitution and the code of ethics, it is also true that an arbitrary and threatening political and social reality makes it difficult to follow this through and when they do it irritates violent people and those who don’t like these playing by the rules”.
Inside media: Maintaining standards
Over the years only three newspapers in Venezuela have had a Readers’ Defender, an internal post that aims to maintain quality in the name of the audience: El Diario de Caracas, El Nacional and Ultimas Noticias. In El Nacional it was created during 2014, when its pagination was reduced due to lack of foreign exchange for paper import, but the post was not kept for their digital edition. In 1998 the paper’s style guide was also published preceded by some ethical guidelines called “editorial policy”.
Later on, the post of Defender was adopted by the daily Últimas Noticias. Journalist Sebastián de la Nuez, who held the post, recalled the central lines of his work: “It was about encouraging self-criticism, to encourage respect for ethics and to support self-regulation. We were looking to encourage participation and to help develop a critical approach from citizens. It was also a way of improving the daily’s relationship with public”.
Sometimes he came up against the editors as in 2004, when Special District Attorney Danilo Anderson was killed, when the daily adopted the term “terrorism”, for which, according to La Nuez, there are still no clear definitions.
Today, the work of the reader’s defender of Ultimas Noticias, the only one still functioning in the country, deals mainly with formal aspects of language. This daily and El Universal have style guides which include some ethic guidelines.
One key issue for editorial guardians is the question of right to reply which, in Venezuela, has some surrealistic aspects. The debate became heated during the first attempted coup d’état in 1992 by Hugo Chavez. A constitutional reform proposed the inclusion of two new articles: limitations to media property and another one dedicated to the right to reply.
This sparked a massive backlash which led to the reforms being withdrawn. In 1998 Chávez took over the proposal for a new Constitution and finally approved by referendum in 1999, in which text the Right to Reply was consecrated: “Article 58. Communication is free and plural, and implies duties and responsibilities indicated by the law. Every person has the right to timely, truthful and impartial information, without censorship, in accordance with the principles of this Constitution, as well as the right to reply and rectification when that person is directly affected by inaccurate or scurrilous information. (…)”.
In 2000 a columnist criticised by Chavez in his marathon Sunday programme Aló, Presidente claimed his right to reply. It was not granted, so he tried an Appeal for Constitutional Protection. In June 2001 the Supreme Court ruled that “…the media have no right to reply, neither those who habitually exercise journalism in them nor those who maintain columns or programmes in them, or those who through “announcements” cause a reaction in the contrary”.
This contradicts Article 58 of the Constitution, which says that right belongs to “every person”. Here are some thoughts from journalists on the right to reply:
- Eligio Rojas, legal advisor of Últimas Noticias: “The right to reply should be taken by journalists as a kind of watchdog. It’s a space not only for the responder, but also for the journalist to think about how things can go wrong. It helps us to be humble and reminds us that we do not know everything. Its inclusion in the Constitution is a way of granting fundamental rights: honor, dignity, reputation, the free development of personality, among others. Despite this journalists are not open-minded about granting it”.
- Néstor Garrido: “Despite being a constitutional right, the right to reply is not granted frequently. I think that most requests come from Government entities to private media”.
- César Batiz: “Although it is a concept with certain recognition among the public at large, its impact did not change significantly after being included in the Constitution”.
Summing up: obstacles on the road to ethical journalism
In Venezuela the work of media and journalists is set in a highly political and polarised social reality which poses enormous ethical challenges for all media – both journalists working in the private sector and those working for the state information system.
The frustrations of recent years and the failure to maintain standards has led many journalists to take sides, while some struggle to maintain their ethical balance, others have moved into militant journalism, or what is known as “barricade” journalism. However it is termed, the quality of independent editorial media coverage is diminished.
Although the code of ethics of the Venezuelan journalist exists and is the major reference point for any talk of media self-regulation it does not figure in the daily working environment of journalists. It can be used to combat the worst forms of censorship when they arise, but on the whole it is not widely observed in journalism.
At the same time the one clear protection and constitutional right of the audience – the right to reply – offers an important opportunity to rectify the worst of unethical conduct, but the right has been dramatically reduced by a decision of the Supreme Court and if it exists at all it is mainly being used by government officials to try to counter the critical opinions and reporting of some journalists in the private media sector.
Inside journalism, the notions of transparency and good governance are barely recognised. Newspapers and other media do not set themselves ethical benchmarks and subject themselves to principles of good governance. In editorial work the self-regulating notion of the Defender of the Reader is almost entirely absent from journalism and in the only newspaper where the post still exists, it is not seen as a form of self-regulatory.
The situation inside media is made worse in times of economic downturn when the need to maintain a flow of official advertising becomes a top priority for media managers. As a result there is less risk-taking in journalism and lower levels of criticism of government policy and actions.
Not surprisingly, then, there has been a recent trend towards purchase of media by business people related to government which has multiplied the instances of censorship and created an editorial atmosphere in which self- censorship thrives. This further strengthens the government’s political project to create an information and communications landscape which is compliant and largely uncritical.
If this grim situation is to change it will take a fresh revolution, less of a political upheaval, but more of an internal, professional revival inside journalism and media at all levels. There is a need for more media solidarity to respect ethics, the independence of journalism and the values of pluralism and free speech. Until then the challenge of creating an ethical media system based on principles of self-regulation will remain.