June 1, 2002

 






 

 

 

 

 

History in the Making

photos by Oscar Sabetta/Getty Images

Above, National Guard soldiers throw tear gas at members of the opposition of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez April 11, 2002 behind Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela. Police and armed Chavez supporters marched with 150,000 opposition protesters near the presidential palace resulting in the death of at least 12 people and 110 wounded, officials said.

Chavez is pictured below.

Venezuela's Watergate:
How the press ousted a president

by Angel Gonzalez

What television gives, television takes away - and Venezuela's influential news media know that. According to Miguel Henrique Otero, publisher of Venezuela's foremost daily, El Nacional, television is at the heart of the incredible series of events that led to the 48-hour ousting of President Hugo Chávez from power.

The shot that temporarily ended Chavez's presidency in April didn't come from a an assassin, but a cameraman who filmed a government supporter firing wildly from a rooftop into an unarmed crowd. When the video was broadcast, Chavez interrupted its transmission, improvising an address to the nation as his opponents and sympathizers battled outside Miraflores. After media operators figured out that the president was buying time, they split the screen - one half showed Chavez saying that nothing was happening, and the other half showed images of the violence in the streets.

The hand of an advisor appeared on the screen as he passed a slip of paper to Chavez. He immediately ordered the suspension of all broadcasts on the grounds that the networks were in a conspiracy to overthrow the government. The channels blacked out one by one. But a few minutes later, images refilled screens - Venezuela's budding autocrat had been deposed. (The role of the Bush administration in the whole fiasco was still being debated as this goes to press).

The dethroning of Chavez was just another chapter of a long, stormy relationship between a mercurial figure who used and abused the media and Venezuela's free and resourceful press. The courtship evolved from the telecast inception of the Bolivarian Revolution to the opposition against an increasingly autocratic regime - one that many feel became too zealous in its role.

Venezuela is a televisual country, prone to the spectacular. With more than 83 televisions percapita, it's also one of the main television content producers in the hemisphere, exporting soap operas and beauty contests all over the world.

So it's no wonder that Chávez entered national life through the television set. In the dawn of Feb. 4, 1992, the then-unknown lieutenant colonel attempted a coup against democrat Carlos Andrés Pérez. After the coup was stopped, Chavez addressed the TV cameras, declaring that the fight against corruption was over.

The rebellious colonel was subsequently portrayed as a hero, and after his release from jail in 1994, he became the country's most polemic politician. His natural charisma and fiery personality made him a favorite subject of newscasts and talk shows. He rose in prominence until a landslide election crowned him president in 1998.

Much to the horror of the middle class, the new President became the country's first broadcaster. Every Sunday he performed on a radio talk show, Aló Presidente, where he fielded phone calls from constituents who asked for a house or other favors. He even sang along with Fidel Castro much to the pleasure of his following.

He also profited from a law that allowed the government's interruption of broadcast programming in all networks to address the country - sometimes for hours. In the last months of his rule, when his promises of reducing poverty and eliminating corruption had devaluated in the face of economic disaster, his abuse of this law generated spontaneous demonstrations of discontent. "Que se vaya el loco!" cried Venezuelans:

"May the madman leave!" Poor and rich alike so complained when their soap operas, newscasts and baseball games were interrupted by Chavez's rambling speeches, which blamedpast governments, business leaders and especially the media for the problems his own government could not solve.

It was this abuse that led to the oil-soaked coup d'etat of April 11. An increasingly confrontational media helped mobilize the opposition against him, and government supporters say media executives were part of the plot to oust Chávez. The coup was unanimously hailed by the TV stations - ironically to the point that critics of the interim government had a hard time getting on air. The tables were turned: pro-Chávez supporters were now subjected to their own news blackout. But on Saturday, when the interim government dissolved, Chavistas took over the TV stations and made them broadcast the state TV channel, loyal to the ousted leader.

Media executives and news directors said that they were afraid to let their journalists out during that time because they would be lynched by pro-Chavez mobs. However, as Venezuelan columnist Ibsen Martínez says, TV executives didn't hesitate to let journalists play heroes during the bloody events that led to the initial removal of Chavez.

Now Chavez is back in power, with the Venezuelan media overenthusiastically leading the opposition. Will the media's new function as political leaders - and their zealous antics - erase their hard-earned credibility as free and independent newsmakers? Stay tuned - the Venezuelan public certainly is.



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