"Thieves, prostituted people, venal writers -This is our great press," claimed Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (Lenin) when making reference to the role of the media in the early revolutionary Russia. Then, there were still middle-class newspapers. Later, as soon as Lenin had full power and succeeded in finishing off those media, he realized the radio immense power. Lenin produced his own show -"What is the Soviet power?" and spread it over the country, in compulsory broadcasting, by means of shortwave and cable. One single radio station and one single message. Later on, Stalin came in and propaganda techniques were upgraded. Moscow Radio, including programs in 70 languages, turned out to be the most powerful radio station in Europe and possibly in the world.
Both Karl Marx and Lenin regarded the private media as breeders of a dominant super-structure aimed at perpetuating the capitalist means of production responsible for exploitation of labor. In Stalin's view, the press was a tool for propaganda. "The belt conveyor between the mass and the party." That is, a mechanism to wipe the remnants of capitalism off their consciences and make them an integral part of the revolution. For such reason, the concept of freedom of expression neither did exist nor exists under a communist government. Lenin said loud and clear, "the Soviet press will be free as long as it will get rid of capitalism, professionalism, and middle-class, anarchic individualism."
Someone could deem it exaggerate to place in that historical context the current status of freedom of expression in Venezuela. However, deeds and wording of the "dominant super-structure" put us - regardless of distinct time, space and methodology- in a similar situation. Not only because we are moving closer to the miscalled Soviet communism, but because all socialist revolutions are based on squashing both freedom of expression and right to information -the laying foundations of democracy. In other words, there cannot be democracy in the absence of freedom of expression.
A novel strategy
Up to this point, and despite the indignant government counter-argument, one wonders, "Is there any freedom of expression in Venezuela? A communication expert as Antonio Pasquali could say that, sure enough, there is the possibility of expression; it is just that the ability of mass communication is shrinking. The shutdown of private TV channel Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) is apparent, even though some media outlets can still communicate. In other words, the siege is getting tighter and will continue in this way provided that society allows for it. Anyhow, such a process will be contained as long as society moves on and stands fast to defend its rights. This seems to be the case right now. Such a process is the contribution by the revolution heralded by President Hugo Chávez to its predecessors. After takeover by means of elections, an original, novel and complex strategy has been developed. All in all, it points to the same target -full power and absolute control of both society and individuals.
Under democracy, such as the democracy found by Chávez when he took over, there is no way to replicate brutal, upfront procedures such as the Russian, Chinese of Cuban ways to deal with the media. In addition, many of the media had joined candidate Chávez' victorious election campaign and there was really a communicational honeymoon.
The conflict came very soon, when the regime warts started to be noticeable, in addition to corruption issues, the autocratic character of a constituent assembly managed by Miraflores presidential palace, the shadow of budding authoritarianism and manifest appetite for power when the presidential election was ordered.
Surprise gave way to astonishment and then to indignation. The more the President railed on the media and journalists, the heavier was criticism against a government unable to cope with its duties and responsibilities. However, the words of the powerful ones would make an impact. Chávez' speech not only polarized the country, but also became a direct order to go for his media detractors.
The first stage of the crusade against freedom of expression started. Hit groups were created and the most aggressive Bolivarian circles -pro-government groups- began to assail journalists and media directors. The purpose was to silence criticism and introduce self-censorship by means of physical attacks on people and property, very much like the procedure used by Mussolini's fascists.
A refined methodology
Eight years later, such "methodology" has not disappeared. While human rights watchers accounted for 762 violations in 2004, NGO Espacio Público, reported on 106 cases last year where freedom of expression and information was restrained through intimidation, aggression, threats and harassment.
At the same time, somewhat primitive ways have been refined with the course of time and the government has completed meddling in the affairs of other public branches. In this way, courts are used to harass journalists with prefabricated trials that are not linked with the professional practice. The Parliament is used to pass laws that reduce the extent of freedom of expression. Government agencies are instructed -by means of gratification or handling of spots- to instill self-censorship or neutralize potential critics.
For instance, the Content Law and the amendments to the criminal code have been adapted to lay a siege on the media and journalists. Such a joint strategy from the judiciary and the legislature mirrors the control exerted by the Executive Power over the whole State structure. As a result, severability and independence of powers is a blunt farce. Rather than controlling the media, there is an attempt at neutralization by taking hold of them.
As part of this shifting strategy, persuasion is perhaps the most subtle weapon. The State uses advertising to conquer conscience and put the media -either big or small, powerful or vulnerable, broadcasters or newspapers- at the service of the revolution. By marketing editorial stances, buying informational guidelines, offering survival and publicity, the government has made progress in governing the whole communication spectrum. To sum up, the government has displayed a splendid array of choices concerning repression as part of the final offensive.
Following the election victory, the government thought that it was invulnerable and resolved that it was time to use the ax against one of them -the incompatible RCTV. The board of the TV station refused to make a deal by trading its principles and opted for shutdown instead of a disgraceful truce.
Now, an overwhelming majority in Venezuela, or 69.9 percent, is against RCTV shutdown; 75 percent is against a potential, similar action on news TV channel Globovisión, and 56 percent thinks that the move endangers freedom of expression. Student leaders felt the people's mood and declared themselves in rebellion. Thus far, the government attempt at media totalitarianism has failed.
Translated by Conchita Delgado