Tuesday, 18 February 2003

The media against democracy

Venezuela highlights the threat to freedom from corporate control

Obey! Poor Endy Chavez, outfielder for the Navegantes del Magallanes, one of Venezuela's big baseball teams. Every time he starts to bat, the TV sportscasters start with the jokes: "Here comes Chavez. No, not the pro-Cuban dictator Chavez, the other Chavez." Or "this Chavez hits baseballs, not the Venezuelan people".

In Venezuela, even sports commentators are enlisted in the commercial media's open bid to oust the elected government of Hugo Chavez. Andres Izarra, a Venezuelan TV journalist, says that the campaign has done so much damage to true information that the four private TV stations have effectively forfeited their right to broadcast. "I think their licences should be revoked," he says.

It's the sort of pronouncement one has come to expect from Hugo Chavez, known for nicknaming the stations "the four horsemen of the apocalypse". Izarra is harder to dismiss. A made-for-TV type he became news production manager for Venezuela's highest rated news programme.

On April 13 2002, the day after businessman Pedro Carmona briefly seized power, Izarra quit. Ever since, he has talked out against the threat posed to democracy when the media abandons journalism and pours itself into winning a war being waged over oil.

Venezuela's private TV stations are owned by wealthy families with stakes in defeating Chavez. Venevision, the most-watched network, is owned by Gustavo Cisneros, a mogul dubbed the "joint venture king" by the New York Post. The Cisneros Group has partnered many US brands - from AOL and Coca-Cola to Pizza Hut and Playboy - becoming a gatekeeper to the Latin American market.

Cisneros proselytises for free trade, telling the world, as he did in 1999, that "Latin America is now fully committed to free trade, and fully committed to globalisation ... As a continent it has made a choice". With voters choosing politicians like Chavez, that looks like false advertising.

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