Venezuelan government broadcasts videos of healthy Chávez and pressures media to present picture of stability

By Isabela Fraga

President Hugo Chávez might be recovering from cancer treatment in a hospital in Cuba but he is everywhere on the streets and televisions of Venezuela: on t-shirts, posters, photographs, and, most recently, videos with archive images of the fiery leader strong and healthy in front of crowds, making speeches and greeting voters and children.

Besides the seven-minute loop of Chávez that takes up the lion's share of state television channel VTV's programming, the broadcaster airs videos of supporters holding posters with the slogan, "Yo soy Chávez," ("I am Chávez") with the supposed goal of reassuring the Venezuelan people that the president is still in control of the South American country despite his absence, according to an analysis from The New York Times. The article goes on to say:

By keeping his image front and center, analysts say, the government can bolster its position as the caretaker of his legacy, mobilize its supporters for the battle over interpreting the Constitution and build momentum for itself in elections should Mr. Chávez die or prove too sick to govern.

To hold up an image of stability, the Venezuelan government has also opened a handful of legal processes against broadcasters that haven't aired official declarations or contradict the official message.

Doctors in Cuba are treating Chávez for a serious respiratory infection following a complicated cancer surgery on Dec. 11, 2012. According to the newspaper El Nacional, Venezuelan authorities claimed the president was stable but on Wednesday, Jan. 9, the government announced that its head of state, who won re-election last October, was not healthy enough to return to Venezuela for the swearing-in ceremony, originally set for Thursday, Jan. 10. When questioned over the decision's legality, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, said that Chávez has "all the time he needs to recover and return to Venezuela," reported El Universal.

In the videos, which are broadcasted at short intervals across the country, supporters of the president chant "Chávez is life!" with such adoration that Reuters described it as "hagiographic," anticipating regional elections set to be held in December 2013. The religious reference was also made by a professor interviewed by the Times who said, "There is a process of converting Chávez into a myth with religious roots." Political analyst J. J. Rendón, also interviewed in the Times article, compared Chávez's battle against cancer to a telenovela, with viewers anxiously following the twists and turns in the story as it unfolds.

Rumors around the health of the Venezuelan leader prompted Communication and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas to accuse international media of promoting "psychological warfare." While supporters and opposition members argue over who is lying, the streets and television screens of Caracas, the capital, are full of images of a strong and smiling Chávez, surrounded by groups of his followers praying for his health, reported El Tiempo. "Chávez is for sale on t-shirts, on hats, alongside his inseparable friends Fidel Castro, Evo Morales or the revolutionary Che Guevara but also in music with songs from the last presidential campaign," described the report.

The struggle between the Venezuelan government and the media, both domestic and international, is longstanding, with the greatest complaint from the country's television stations being the mandatory broadcast of government messages. Some broadcasters recently balked at the requirements and refused to air a statement about Chávez's health from Villegas. The government filed lawsuits against the truculent television station and two radio broadcasters on Jan. 4, according to El Comercio.

The Venezuelan National Telecommunications Commission also filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, Jan. 9, against television broadcaster Globovisión for airing four short segments on Article 231 of the Constitution, which says the inauguration of the president-elect should take place on Jan. 10, reported the website La Patilla. According to El Universal, the government alleged the broadcasts "incited hatred, anxiety and public disorder."

The government and the TV station have a long history of tensions. In June 2012, Globovisión had to pay a fine of 25 million bolívares related to its coverage of distubances in a prison in late 2011. A month later, the government ordered the seizure of several of the station's assets, an action that was condemned by journalism organizations like the Interamerican Press Association, WAN-IFRA and Reporters Without Borders.

The government's attempts to control the flow of certain information and rumors about Chávez could also be seen in social networks. On Jan. 6, the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin) raided the house of a person accused of tweeting rumors about the president's health, according to the website Clases de Periodismo. Federico Medina Ravel (@LucioQuincioC), cousin of a journalist working for Globovisión, posted on Twitter -- before the government's official announcement on the topic on Jan. 8 -- that Chávez would not recover in time for the inauguration ceremony, originally planned for today, Jan. 10. According to the site The Verge, secret service agents confiscated computers from Ravel's home.

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.