Each country has its own media ownership structure. In some countries, media outlets are owned by the government. In others, media are privately owned and function much like any other for-profit, capitalistic enterprise. Regardless, media ownership plays a fundamentally vital role in the type of information that media supply to their communities. Who owns what can mean the difference between receiving news or being left in the dark. By taking a look at the press in Venezuela, we can see how who owns the media can affect the public's access to news and information.
May 27, 2007: The telecommunication crisis in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela started in 2001 when the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) from Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela promulgated article number 209 of the “Constitutional Law of Telecommunications.” This law allows the government to close any media platform when it judges it necessary to the interests of the nation. From that moment on, the president began to criticize all national media which opposed the government and started to censor them. In May of 2006, this process culminated with CONATEL’s decision not to renew Radio Caracas Television Channel’s (RCTV) license. RCTV is the oldest national channel in Venezuela and, not incidentally, one of the most popular, and the one that most evidently showed its opposition to Chavez’ administration. Hugo Chávez declared that the reason behind the closure was that RCTV would have supported the coup intent against his government in 2002.
From the moment the decision was made public, RCTV started to cover the consequences of this resolution. It was “meta media coverage:” they were reporting about their own situation.
Marcel Granier, the channel owner, declared through his channel that the reason for censorship given by Chávez was “arbitrary and illegal” and that it showed the way in which the president was controlling and abusing the media and the free press for his own benefit.
Different international organizations (such as the Human Rights Watch and The Organization of American States, OAS) started to defend the value of the free press and tried to begin a dialogue with CONATEL and Hugo Chávez. They intended to make him aware of the benefits of free access to information among the Venezuelan citizens. Chávez and William Lara, the manager of CONATEL, did not heed their advice and finally did not renew the license.
RCTV had its last transmission on May 27, 2008. Thousands of Venezuelan citizens reacted against the government’s decision and protested in the streets, not only because of the end of one of the most important and oldest Venezuelan TV channels but also because they were defending the freedom of expression in their national media.
The most important Spanish newspaper, El País, also covered the events which led to a student rebellion. In its edition on May 28, one of its headlines read “Caracas becomes the national scene of violent manifestations against the end of RCTV channel: Venezuelan students from different universities have expressed their concern about the future of the freedom expression after the end of the RCTV channel.” El País published these pictures below.
On the same day, the newspaper printed an article about the students' claims and also about the answer of the government to their demands. The headline was “Violent incidents: the people, soaked by the police, have dispersed after singing the national anthem at the CONATEL building. According to police sources, some of them have thrown stones and bottles to the police agents.”
While El País published these images, Venezolana de Television, the most important and recognized government television network, showed a completely different event. The video clip which was transmitted was titled “Small student mobilization supporting RCTV.” The video showed just a few students dancing in the streets. The news presenter assured the viewers that the students hadn’t spent much time protesting, and she didn’t say anything about the police reaction against the student rebellion. Also, almost all the recording was from the air with none coming from the streets.
During the last day of RCTV transmissions its employees (news presenters, actors and directors) offered a special last program. They demanded freedom of expression for the media. One of the most emotional moments was while a TV presenter started praying to God to be the “only one who can control our lives.” All of the workers were shouting “Freedom, Freedom!” and saying that the transmissions were going to return soon.
All of them were defending the value of a free press. On May 28, El País published the picture below.
After RCTV ended its transmissions, TEVES, a new government channel, took over its signal. RCTV started to broadcast through cable.
In this case mentioned, the limitation of the freedom of the press is evident in two areas. On the one hand, the government decided not to renew the license to a television channel for political reasons and thus promoted a monopolization of content in the media and favored the existence of one version of the facts. At the same time, RCTV’s director took a similar stand by using his media platform to defend the necessity of his channel. Both owners took advantage of a stable audience to spread their thoughts with evident biases in information management.
The coverage given by government and opposition media to the protests against Chávez’ decision can also be analyzed. Even in this case, where there seems to be little space for opinions, there are differences between the way pro-government and pro-opposition media treated the facts. The contrast among the informative treatment of media opponents and media defenders of the Government could have been more effective if RCTV had still been broadcasting (the protest happened one day after the last broadcast). That lack of different positions influenced the choice of El País, a newspaper recognized within the Spanish speaking community for its high journalistic standards, for this comparative analysis.