To suffer in your own flesh and blood what Noam Chomsky writes about the ideological power of Media is very different from reading it. We have enjoyed reading his articles about the media that helped us understand its enormous influence in contemporary societies. However, living in Venezuela during the last three years has allowed us to suffer directly that power.
The role of the media was crucial during the short coup of last April 11 against the president Hugo Chávez. Private TV chains and local newspapers maintained a constant campaign of attack to the government and they supported a national strike just before the coup. They judged according to their own biased criterion the demonstrations for and against the coup and they did not doubt in blaming to the government as author of the unfortunate deaths occurred that day, near the half among supporters of the government. They quickly endorsed as leading authority the self -proclaimed temporary president, a conservative business leader. They even went so far as to endorse the coup’s first government action whereby the self-proclaimed president annulled the Constitution of the Republica Bolivariana of Venezuela, changed the name of the country and dissolved all public powers, including the legislative power and the dismissal of state governors. The media quickly launched a campaign with an “Orwellian” doublespeak celebration of return to “democracy”.
While thousands of people took the streets of the country’s main cities calling for the return of President Chávez, the media progressively began to change its programming to children’s movies and practically suppressed any information about what was going on inside the country. They justified their silence with explanations involving “security concerns”. Only when the crowd surrounded media headquarters and demanded the transmission of current political events did the media managers and owners agree to deliver some news about the return of the president.
After the restoration of the legitimate democratic government, most of the Venezuelan private media continued its one-sided political action, serving as a crude outlet for anti-government, pro-coup propaganda. The media has become one message, to paraphrase McLuhan. They often transmit interviews with soldiers involved in the coup, dressed in military uniforms and ask their old comrades-in-arms not to recognize the government. The media have endorsed the take over of a Caracas square where groups of civilians, mostly upper middle and upper class, have supported to the leaders of the coup for months. The daily live coverage from this square has become the “reality show” in a grotesque fascist experiment. When several people were injured and three were killed during a terrible spur of violence in that square, the media immediately blamed president Chávez, and aired demonstrations of coup perpetrators blaming the president for murder and calling on the armed forces to rebel.
The media not only ignores the most obvious realities, propagates and endorses protests called by the opposition, censors news about the events carried out in support of the government, labels Chávez’s followers as violent and their opponents as democrats; it also exaggerates the size of the opposition’s protests while minimizing or ignoring the breadth of support for Chávez. The media is thus both jury and defendant in this trial.
Numerous popular demonstrations have taken place by government supporters against the role of the media. Recently four young university students initiated a front hunger strike one of local T.V. chains, while the private media has yet to consider this event news at all. The private media has also ignored a caravan of hundreds of vehicles that called for an end to mass psychological terror and urged people to not watch private TV channles. This demonstration ended with the destruction of a dozen television sets in front of one of the main TV stations.
Popular demonstrations in front of media headquarters are frequent these days in Caracas and other Venezuelan cities. The majority of these demonstrations against the media are peaceful, although one turned violent and ended up with the destruction of some material goods. While the police protect TV stations and newspapers, the media continues with its pro-coup political activism, propaganda, and call for the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government. While the government is afraid of curtailing the freedom of expression, viewers cannot be protected from this media manipulation unless we continue to build alternative mechanisms of organization, participation and communication in defence of our society.
Francisco Armada works in the Ministerio de la Salud y Bienestar Social in Venezuela. Carlos Mutaner teaches at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. They can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org