Polarization defined Hugo Chávez's relationship with the media in Venezuela

Loved by some, hated by others. Few struck a middle ground when it came to Hugo Chávez and the same went for his relationship with the media in Venezuela, a country he led for 14 years. Following the announcement of his death on Tuesday, March 5, many organizations looked back on the conflicts between the president and the country’s private media.

The United States-based organization Human Rights Watch wrote that Chávez's legacy was defined by a "dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees." HRW also criticized the president and his supporters for undercutting "the ability of journalists, human rights defenders, and other Venezuelans to exercise fundamental rights."

State-run media, like Telesur, lashed out at the alleged smear campaign and news manipulation by private media against Chávez during their coverage of his death.

Chávez's "media war" started after the failed 2002 putsch that dislodged him from power for two days. Private media were accused of supporting the coup d'état's organizers. According to John Dinges, a journalist with the Columbia Journalism Review, private media provided ample coverage of anti-Chávez protests during the coup and ignored those calling for the return of the democratically elected leader.

Political scientist Nicmer Evans said Chávez's aggressive stance against the media was justified by the political posture they assumed. "The role that broadcasters like RCTV and Venevisión played during the coup is part of the conscience and unconscious of all Venezuelans," he told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

After returning to power, Chávez started taking steps to weaken media outlets critical of his government. Radio and television broadcasters like RCTV were forced to close and faced financial troubles as official advertising revenue from the state dried up. Journalists considered hostile to the government were sued for libel and banned from participating in official events.

One of the most emblematic cases of the government's assault on private media involved the television broadcaster Globovisión. Chávez often spoke out against the network, which was forced to pay a fine of $5.6 million for its coverage of a prison riot and faced an "executive embargo" of his holdings by the government. The Inter American Press Association, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and Reporters Without Borders denounced the decision.

The media’s actions, however, did little to defuse the conflict, according to Oscar Medina, a Venezuelan journalists who has written for Esquire, Rolling Stone and Leopard. "The media took political positions that resulted in the lose of their most important asset: credibility," he told the newspaper El Comercio.

With the leader of the Bolivarian revolution unable to count on the private media to carry his message or confront his adversaries, Chávez's image became omnipresent in Venezuela through a powerful state media and required broadcasts of his speeches. According to the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Chávez had given 3,500 hours worth of speeches by September 2012. These mandatory national broadcasts were condemned by freedom of expression advocates, like Espacio Público.

In the eyes of his detractors, Chávez created a media empire controlled by the government and suppressed freedom of expression in Venezuela. His supporters, however, celebrated his expansion of community broadcasters, fight against media consolidation and saw him as the victim of a media siege waged by foreign powers.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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