By Mariana González Insua
Hugo Chávez' tight grip on Venezuelan media threatens to reach new levels. The Venezuelan leader's recent announcement that every country needs to regulate the Internet and the launch of his "guerrilla" communicational campaign have sparked fears that his control over the media might be extended to the online world.
Chávez' dominance of traditional forms of media in Venezuela is unquestionable. Not only does the Venezuelan leader have his own weekly show, but he is the brain behind Telesur and Radio del Sur, television and radio channels aimed at exporting the Venezuelan "socialist" model beyond Venezuela's borders while reinforcing Chávez' message at home. However, what has caused even more alarm are his outright attempts at media censorship, which have sounded warning bells both in the Latin American country and abroad.
Earlier this year, Chávez shut down RCTV on allegations that the opposition television channel had refused to broadcast Chávez' speeches. This move followed Chávez' decision to close down 34 radio stations, in an effort to "democratize" Venezuela and replace some of the broadcasts with new transmissions carrying his "socialist" message. Less than a month ago, opposition television network Globovision's owner was detained for comments he made about the Venezuelan President.
Chávez' media presence is not limited to the traditional media landscape. The leader's radio and television initiatives have their own corresponding webpages and, in addition, Chávez has flooded the web with sites that seek to promote his message. He even has his own Facebook page.
But while successful at establishing a strong presence in cyberspace, Chávez has not been able to prevent the opposition from spreading its own message through the Internet, a source of considerable irritation for the Venezuelan leader. The opposition's avid use of social networking sites, and the popularity of its Twitter tag during the protests over press freedom in late January, led Chávez to lash out against the famous microblogging site, calling it a "tool of terrorism" (Ironically, less than three months later, he opened his own Twitter account). Noticiero Digital, an online news service, was the next victim in Chávez' string of attacks for featuring false rumors (posted by users) on the death of two of Chávez' ministers. Even sites that are critical of both the government and the opposition, like the popular El Chigüire Bipolar (a Venezuelan website of satirical videos and photo montages of political figures), have been lambasted by the President and his supporters.
In the wake of the incident with Noticiero Digital, Chávez declared: "The Internet can't be something free [...] every country has to impose its rules and regulations." While he later denied his intentions to control the online space, Chávez announced he would start blogging from the Presidential Palace, establishing this "own trench on the Internet," he would inaugurate new Internet Centers for people to access the web freely and he would launch the "Communicational Thunder" campaign (creating "guerrilla groups" to propagate Chávez' message through different media, including the Internet). The blogger-cum-President's measures thus re-ignited the opposition's fear that the proposed telecommunications reform, which would establish one point of entry for the Internet controlled by the state a la Cuba, might become a reality.
Currently, the Internet is the only "free" medium where the opposition can express itself. The television and radio sphere is clearly controlled by Chávez, and competing messages hardly pose a threat to the Venezuelan leader's dominance of traditional media. BBC Spanish broadcasts do not air in Venezuela, and its English version as well as CNN en Español, can only be seen through cable networks. VOA has a number of radio and TV programs but this handful of short programs are no match for Chávez' ubiquitous media presence. If the Venezuelan leader were to control the Internet, the opposition would hardly have any room left to breathe.
Upper class Venezuelans, who for the most part oppose Chávez, are financially able to access cable TV, and as adept users of social media they can see a different reality of Venezuela and the world than that portrayed by the state-controlled media. Poorer Venezuelans, traditionally staunch supporters of the President, however, are mostly subjected to the leader's message. Opening Internet centers, carrying out "Communicational Thunder," tweeting regularly (he gained more than 79,000 followers the day his account was created) and regulating the Internet would allow Chávez to exercise virtually complete control over a large portion of the population.
Denying the opposition the cyber component of their protests will not eliminate demonstrations. In fact, it might cause them to multiply. Applying restrictions on the Internet will not prevent the opposition from getting its message out, either. It will only be a matter of time until a Venezuelan counterpart to Cuba's Yoani Sánchez emerges. Finally, the truth is that actions speak louder than words: Chávez' inability to prevent power shortages and to do away with poverty, among other domestic issues, will continue creating problems regardless of the message the Venezuelan leader is able to convey through the media.
Mariana González Insua is a first year student in USC's Masters of Public Diplomacy program. She is originally from Argentina and recently completed a Masters in Latin American Studies at Stanford University.
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