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Prime time not ready for civil discourse in Venezuela

As the presidential campaign heats up, state media 'are doing totally unacceptable things' in attacking Chavez's opponent, an analyst says.

August 29, 2012|Chris Kraul and Mery Mogollon
  • Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles greets supporters at a campaign rally in Caracas, Venezuela.
Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles greets supporters… (Ariana Cubillos, Associated…)

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — It's prime-time TV in Venezuela and the host is saying that opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, whose grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, is a Nazi and Hitler cultist.

"You can say what you want about your ancestors, but you are a Nazi," host Miguez Perez says of Capriles, who has Jewish ancestry but is a practicing Roman Catholic.

The program is not some renegade gossip show but one earning pride of place on Venezuela's state-owned VTV channel, which is seen as closely reflecting the views of leftist President Hugo Chavez.

The discourse may have reached a new low on the program, called "Cayendo y Corriendo," or "Falling and Running," but insulting Chavez's opponents is standard fare on Venezuela's six state-owned TV stations.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, August 30, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Venezuelan political coverage: An article in the Aug. 29 Section A about biased coverage of opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on state-run television misspelled the last name of Carlos Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalists as Luria.

Later the same night, the country's most famous -- and inflammatory -- talk show host insults Capriles using a profanity meaning fool. Host Mario Silva, who frequently gets on-air phone calls from the bombastic Chavez commenting on the day's events, has also been known to call the opposition candidate stupid and a thief.

With the presidential campaign for the Oct. 7 vote reaching a fever pitch, viewers of state media are getting an increasing barrage of anti-Capriles propaganda that media experts say has gone unchallenged by Conatel, the broadcast regulatory agency, or by CNE, the national electoral commission.

"The state-owned media have really crossed the ethical line and are doing totally unacceptable things," said Andres Canizalez, a media researcher director at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. "What they say has less and less to do with [Capriles'] political positions and more about personal insults."

The irony for many here is that Chavez shut down the privately owned opposition channel RCTV in 2007 for allegedly biased antigovernment coverage. In speeches leading up to the decision not to renew its broadcast license, Chavez described RCTV as "coup plotters."

This year, Conatel levied a $2.1-millon fine against Globovision, the one remaining TV opposition channel, for promoting a climate of "illegality" during news coverage of prison riots last year. Although they disputed the fine and said their riot coverage was simply good journalism, the station's owners paid it rather than be forced off the air.

In an interview during a campaign swing last week, Capriles told The Times he has made a conscious decision not to lodge any formal protests, nor respond to the avalanche of attacks.

"I'm someone who thinks that those who don't measure their words pay the consequences," Capriles said between campaign stops on Margarita Island. "I think Venezuelans are tired of the politics of insults and that they are going to make the government candidate pay the price on Oct. 7. He's going to lose the election."

The attacks come as press freedom advocates step up their criticism of the Chavez government. According to an advance text of a report to be issued Wednesday by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Chavez has used an "array of legislation, threats and regulatory measures to gradually break down the independent press."

In a telephone interview, Carlos Luria, CPJ senior program coordinator, said Chavez uses state media to go after not just opposition figures but critical members of the media as well. He gave as an example "Falling and Running" host Perez accusing the often critical Ultimas Noticias newspaper of publishing a crossword puzzle containing encrypted code words to incite an assassination plot against Chavez's brother Adan, the governor of western Barinas state.

The day after Perez broadcast his charges, Venezuelan police went to the newspaper's offices to interrogate the crossword's author, Naphtali Segovia, which Luria said was a disguised attempt to intimidate dissident media.

"What we are seeing here is a government that is undermining the institutions of democracy," Luria said. "It's attacking the press in an attempt to control the flow of information and stifle dissent and critical voices."

Since Chavez survived a coup attempt in April 2002, he has built up a state media apparatus that includes six TV channels and more than 100 radio stations. In addition to RCTV, the government has closed 54 independent radio stations since 2009, Canizalez said.

"He's done it to challenge the influence of private media and he's been investing heavily in it" with government resources, Luria said.

Chavez also has passed laws since he took office in 1999 that have forced independent media to interrupt normal programming to carry his speeches.

Luria said the special broadcasts now total more than 2,000 and although they are not supposed to involve electioneering, they often have a campaign flavor, particularly now with the election approaching.

Researcher Canizalez said that, monitoring the VTV morning show "All Venezuela" from July 1 to Aug. 15, he saw a "double standard."

"We counted 37 political interviews, of which only three were of the opposition," Canizalez said. "When it's pro-government people, the interview tone is friendly. When it's the opposition, the hosts are aggressive, like in an inquisition."

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Kraul and Mogollon are special correspondents.

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