Hugo Chavez vs. the Online Media Environment

By Melanie Ciolek

President Hugo Chavez has a long history of dominating the media environment in Venezuela, using radio and television to belittle his critics and project his political agenda to national and regional audiences. His administration has referred to the closures of privately held radio and television stations as efforts to "democratize" the media. Now facing the ultimate democratic media environment--an online space featuring millions of independent actors--he seems unsure how to compete.

Chavez recently threatened greater regulation of the internet after the Noticiero Digital website published false rumors about the death of a government official, but he has also discussed blogging himself and asked his supporters to be vocal online. With these developments and rising internet penetration in Venezuela, what opportunities or challenges are created for Chavez, his domestic critics, and external actors? There are signs that restricting the online environment may only strengthen challenges to Chavez's political dominance. The tense political climate also complicates how international actors can participate in the media environment, whether through online or traditional sources.

In the last decade Venezuela has seen impressive growth in access to online and mobile technologies, in part due to the Chavez administration's efforts: 31 percent now have access to the internet (compared to 5.8% 11 years ago) and roughly 80 percent own a mobile phone. A significant portion (68%) of internet users actually come from lower-income demographics, the beneficiaries of Chavez's social welfare policies. At the same time, the rising popularity of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook seems to have largely benefited Chavez's opponents.

After the government revoked the television broadcast license of long-time Chavez critic RCTV, the anti-Chavez Twitter "trending topic" #freevenezuela was among the top four receiving comments worldwide in February 2010, while seven of the top 10 most-followed Twitter accounts in Venezuela belong to Chavez's critics. With opposition activists using email, texts and Facebook to organize protests, Chavez has noticed these trends and accused social media tools of facilitating a "conspiracy current" against him.

Unlike the traditional media environment, where Chavez is able to use strict regulations and state-supported outlets like Telesur to spread his anti-imperialist and social equality agenda, the online environment prevents Chavez from exercising control. The absence of restrictions on online content has allowed Chavez's opponents and other perspectives to flourish. The popular satirical website El Chigüire Bipolar, recently profiled by both the New York Times and Reuters, pokes fun at Chavez, Venezuelan politics, and other Latin American leaders and is just one example of alternative voices exerting influence in the online environment. Even with his attempts to rally his supporters online and his charismatic leadership, it seems unlikely that Chavez will be able to dominate the online landscape without limiting freedom.

If the Chavez administration decides to crack down on Internet freedom to reduce dissent, it risks upsetting an already tense situation in Venezuela. Chavez won't face a showdown on the political battlefield until parliamentary elections in September, but the fight for online influence plays out against a backdrop of troubled economic conditions and recurring energy crises that make it increasingly difficult for him to tout the benefits of his "Bolivarian revolution." Previous attempts to ban access to social media have demonstrated a tendency to generate instability. Given that his opponents already use social media not just to voice dissent, but to organize physical protests against his policies, it seems likely that restrictions would stimulate further unrest.

As for external actors like international media organizations or foreign governments, attempting to actively participate in Venezuela's online space may prove too controversial in such a polarized political environment. Chavez has a tendency to criticize any comments the U.S. makes about Venezuela's affairs, such as its recent arms agreement with Russia. Any overt efforts to increase influence in Venezuela's online environment would likely be branded as outside interference by the Chavez administration and may further motivate him to restrict internet freedom.

With international press organizations already struggling for access in Venezuela's constrained media environment, they may find it difficult to establish credibility in the online sphere. Although Voice of America plans to expand its radio and television broadcasts to Latin America, its ability to reach audiences in Venezuela is limited. Other international news sources like BBC Mundo can still be accessed online, but it is difficult to estimate their impact in such a deeply divided political climate. At the same time, not much currently prevents the Venezuelan diaspora or other interested individuals outside the country from participating in the online discussion.

Chavez's inability to control the online media environment in Venezuela forces him to confront the voices of his critics in ways he has previously managed to avoid. His supporters may become more influential in the online space over time, but for the moment he faces a contested atmosphere which could heavily influence the political future of Venezuela and the region. If Chavez's administration chooses to respond to dissent by restricting online freedom, it will likely push an already volatile situation even further from his control.

Melanie Ciolek is a first year student in the Master of Public Diplomacy program at the University of Southern California, and interns for the public diplomacy evaluation project at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. Before arriving at USC, Melanie worked for the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) in Washington D.C., a global public opinion research think tank which manages the WorldPublicOpinion.org project.

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