Freedom of information is an important issue
The decision of the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez to revoke the broadcasting licence of the pro-opposition TV channel, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) last May became the subject of criticism in the worldwide press and a focal point for the criticism of the opposition parties against the Chávez government. The US Senate issued a statement, as did the European parliament and the then German presidency of the European Union. Throughout Latin America, governments of the right and some of the left, together with the press and media, have used the RCTV issue as another example to show that Venezuela under Hugo Chávez is becoming an “authoritarian regime”.
The non-renewal of the RCTV license has become the subject of worldwide debate. The question of freedom of the press, accessibility of the media and democracy is an important issue for the workers’ movement and for revolutionary socialists. The action by the Chávez government is generating a lot of support amongst the left in Venezuela and internationally. Especially internationally, this is seen as a blow against a vicious reactionary media outlet, a sentiment any socialist could sympathise with as RCTV sponsored and actively cooperated with the 2002 US-backed coup against Chávez and was involved in other attempts to overthrow the democratically elected government. More generally, there is also the hypocrisy of the representatives of Imperialism who pretend to speak for democracy and press freedom whilst big business has never before had such power to stifle genuine debate and discussion, and use the media as its exclusive mouthpiece. The decision of the Chávez government not to renew the broadcasting license of RCTV has been welcomed by various people on the left such as Tariq Ali and Tony Benn. The CWI stands for the taking over of the media empires currently run by big business, and for them to be put under the democratic control of the workers movement. On the basis of working-class control and democratic allocation of media resources and coverage, access to the media could be guaranteed to the overall majority of the population.
This article examines whether Chávez’s actions are a step in the direction of opening up the media to democratic mass participation and the dangers posed by the counter-offensive of the Venezuelan right-wing opposition and their supporters internationally.
The issues of democracy, press freedom, freedom of opinion and expression are in today’s world of such importance that they necessitate a more comprehensive approach, especially in revolutionary or semi-revolutionary situations. The opponents of the Chávez regime have been looking for a handle to strengthen their campaign against Chávez and to start rebuilding their basis in society. The decision of Chávez to revoke the license of RCTV, five years after the coup, has been jumped upon by the anti-Chávez opposition in Venezuela and the representatives of Imperialism because it is potentially an issue they hope to use to undermine support for the Bolivarian government.
It is not the first time in revolutionary history that the representatives of reaction have used ‘democratic issues’ to derail or contain a revolutionary situation. In Portugal in 1975, in a much more favourable and developed revolutionary situation, an international campaign was organised by the Portuguese Socialist Party, in alliance with their West-German counterparts, against the occupation of the pro-PS paper República. The events in Portugal contain important lessons for the workers movement and youth in Venezuela.
In Portugal in 1975 printing and production workers occupied the offices of República, a paper that supported the Partido Socialista (PS, the social democratic party), during the MFA (Armed Forces Movement) government of Gonçalves. The MFA organised a popular coup in 1974 and overthrew the world’s longest-lasting dictatorship of first Antonio Salazar and then, from 1968, Marcello Caetano. The overthrowing of the dictatorship by middle-ranking army officers unleashed a mighty revolutionary movement of the Portuguese working class. Political parties which, during the dictatorship, had led a precarious existence in the underground became mass forces overnight. This was especially the case for the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), who had maintained a small apparatus based on underground work in the trade unions.
The PS was the social democratic party lead by Mario Soares. It also experienced rapid growth. Initially, under the pressure of the masses, it swung to the left. It claimed to be a Marxist party defending the ideas of the socialist revolution and the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. Yet, mobilising around the “democratic” issues, with the campaign around the defence of República, it stabilised its base and began to move decisively to the right. It was soon recognised as the only force capable of saving Portugal for capitalism and became the main vehicle for the counter-revolution.
The early history of the Portuguese revolution from the overthrowing of the dictatorship by the MFA on 25 April 1974 saw coups and counter-coups, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, land seizures, factory occupations and nationalisations.
The Portuguese Communist Party and the left MFA government of Gonçalves supported the occupation of República. This happened at a crucial time in the Portuguese revolution. The left MFA leaders, who were to the fore under the Gonçalves government in 1975, were attempting to concentrate power in its hands and direct the move towards what it saw as beginning to construct a “socialist” society from above. The Portuguese Communist Party supported the left MFA government from the outside and used its influence on the organised industrial working class to consolidate its power on the basis of administrative manoeuvres and bureaucratic measures. It succeeded temporarily in taking control of parts of the state apparatus, swept in to take control over local councils and had a predominant influence over the press. At the time of the occupation of the offices of República, the majority of the daily newspapers had come under public ownership as a consequence of the nationalisation of the banks following the abortive right-wing coup of the 11 March 1975. The PCP made no attempts to institute a democratic system of appointing democratic editorial boards. It used the occupation of República to try and take control of the only daily newspaper that was not yet dominated by it.
This whole issue was used by the Portuguese Socialist Party (coordinated internationally by its West German sister party the SPD) to orchestrate a national and international campaign against the left-wing MFA leaders and the PCP. It played on the fears that the left-wing MFA government, in alliance with the PCP, would eventually install a military dictatorship and concentrate power in its own hands. It played on the fears amongst the middle class, the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie of the countryside that the PCP would install a one-party regime modelled on the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The PS-led campaign was a turning point in the Portuguese revolution as it marks the point where the PS consolidated a strong basis which it later used to safeguard Portugal for capitalism.
These events in Portugal reveal important lessons that workers in Venezuela need to draw on and show how the counter-revolution can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by mobilising around these issues.
Until now, Chávez has been able to ride on the high world price for oil to finance his pro-poor reforms. A change in the price of oil, or a general downturn or recession in the world economy would have profound consequences for the Chávez government and for the future of the revolutionary process in Venezuela. Because of the failure to break with capitalism, nationalise the leading sectors of the economy, and economically and politically disarm the ruling class, the social movements provoked by a worsening social situation could be used by the right-wing Chávez opposition to strengthen their base and prepare another attempt at counter-revolution.
Hypocrisy from Imperialism’s finest
Of course, the furore over the non-renewal of the RCTV licence in Washington, London, Berlin and Brussels is the summit of hypocrisy. The media, in general, have never been as undemocratic and unrepresentative as today. They have, also, never been as mistrusted by people. It coincides, not accidentally, with the almost absolute control over the mass media by worldwide media conglomerates doing the bidding of the rich and powerful, suppressing and distorting any reporting of workers or other struggles. According to studies, in 1945 more than 80 per cent of US media outlets were independent. Today just 23 corporations own more than 80 per cent of the US’s media outlets. These media conglomerates increasingly act as the “thought police” of capitalism. They decide, to a large extent, what the news is, how it is reported and what we are supposed to think about it.
Time Warner, the largest media corporation in the world, has assets that are greater than the combined gross domestic product of Bolivia, Jordan, Nicaragua, Albania, Liberia and Mali. The likes of Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation have become important factors to be reckoned with if politicians want to win a ‘democratic’ election. It was, to give one example, more important for Tony Blair to convince Murdoch, the owner of the British tabloid The Sun, amongst other publications, that he was safe to run Britain in the interests of the ruling class, than it was to try and convince a majority of the working class of his policies.
The relationship works both ways. The US Senate resolution condemning the Venezuelan government for attacking press freedom quite conveniently failed to mention the blackout in their own media; the one engineered by the Bush administration blocking the media from showing the arrival of body bags and coffins of dead soldiers “coming home” from Iraq.
What happened with RCTV?
In Venezuela about 95% of all media outlets (TV, radio, and newspapers) are owned privately. They are in the hands of the super-wealthy minority which, despite the Chávez government being in power for 8 years, has been left at ease and grown richer on the basis of the oil boom.
The opposition to Chávez coming from this elite is not because they feel directly threatened, at this moment, by the president and his “socialism of the 21st century”. The opposition to Chávez is there because of the potential of the working class and poor doing politics for themselves and using the pro-poor reforms of the Chávez government to go all the way and expropriate those who gather amazing fortunes organising the exploitation of the masses. They are only waiting for the most convenient time to overthrow the government and push the masses back into total submission.
April 2002 seemed an opportune time for them to try and do this. The short-lived coup received the support from the overall majority of privately-owned media outlets. RCTV was in the frontline with manipulated reports about pro-Chávez demonstrators shooting at opposition supporters. They tried selling to millions of people something as the truth that had never happened…then when the masses and the pro-Chávez wing of the army brought the president back, RCTV blacked the news out trying to keep millions of people in the dark when in reality the coup was defeated
This has never been disputed. The owners of RCTV were also involved in the employers’ lock-out and sabotage of the economy in 2002 and 2003. This was another attempt to try and overthrow the government. Finally, all the opposition channels campaigned hard against the elected president in the 2004 recall referendum.
Why has Chávez taken the decision to revoke the license of RCTV now?
He could have done it after the defeated coup in 2002 or after the defeated bosses lock-out in 2003 or even after the defeated recall referendum in 2004. Yet unfortunately, his reaction at that time was to try and find a compromise, call for national unity and invite the representatives of the ruling class to come on board. To quote the words of the then minister for the interior, Vicente Rangel, “take up institutional political positions”. In June 2004, Chávez agreed to a media cease-fire with the other main opposition channel Venevision, a deal brokered by former US President Jimmy Carter. According to reports, the owner of the station Gustavo Cisneros (a Cuban-Venezuelan media mogul, who is one of the world’s richest men and owns about 70 media outlets in 39 countries) had agreed to tone his anti-Chávez propaganda down in return for Chávez’s help in introducing Cisneros to Brazil’s President Lula. Venevision’s broadcasts did indeed become less anti-Chavista.
Timing in politics is important and in a revolutionary process it is critical. If Chávez had moved decisively against the interests of the media Tsars who supported the coup, while introducing measures to democratically organise the running of the media, millions of people would have understood and participated. The aftermath of the coup, during the employers’ lock-out and the run-up to the 2004 recall referendum were points of mass participation in the Venezuelan revolutionary process.
Revolutionary socialists support the nationalisation of the resources (paper, printing press, television stations, computer producers, cable providers) and the democratic reallocation of these resources. When the media is organised democratically, political parties, pressure groups and community campaigns could be allocated resources and access to TV, radio, etc, in accordance to the support they have in society (on the basis of their membership, influence, votes received in elections, etc.). The workers’ movement with its trade unions and parties would organise the mass participation in this process by democratically-elected committees. Organised along these lines, there would be genuine and free democratic access to the media for all opinions and ideas, including minority opinions in society.
Under a workers’ government, the media would not be solely used by political parties, trade unions or community campaigns to the exclusion of entertainment and culture. On the contrary, there would be a flourishing of entertainment and culture with the inclusion of all the artistic talents which are currently excluded in a media landscape dominated by big business and Hollywood.
The media would not try to function like the telescreens in George Orwell’s 1984, repeating the same government-sponsored message all the time. A workers’ government would need to use the mass media, including the internet, to engage the mass of the population in a wide-ranging debate about how society has to be organised and what problems need to be solved. Minority opinions should be guaranteed time and space to broadcast. Such is the desire for genuine freedom of opinion and expression today that anything less would be an infringement on this right and would alienate people from the building of a new society rather than engage them.
The establishment of a genuinely open and democratic media cannot be separated from the main task facing the working class. That is the establishment of a nationalised economy, under the democratic control and management of the working class, and a genuine system of workers’ democracy. This should be part of a worked-out national plan to develop and use the productive forces to the full with the aim of satisfying the needs of the population.
Regrettably, this is not what the Chávez government has done or has put forward as a program for the future. Instead of organising and stimulating the participation of the working class and the masses in taking society out of the stranglehold of the Venezuelan ruling class and Imperialism, Chávez and his administration has seen them more as an auxiliary force to be called out when necessary. Rather than basing themselves on the active participation of the masses, Chávez and his administration took a top-down approach.
This approach has been reflected in the announcement that the broadcasting licence of RCTV would not be renewed. With that decision the most popular game shows and telenovelas have disappeared from the screens in the popular neighbourhoods and will only be seen by those who can afford cable, satellite or internet connections.
The government has given the licence to a new station called Tves (Venezuela Social Television) which will be widely seen as a pro-government channel. This has been used by the anti-Chávez opposition to rally its forces and organise a stand-off with the government. After weeks of demonstrations in the run up to the revoking of the broadcasting licence, the Chávez government went ahead and shut the signal of RCTV down. Given that several opinion polls indicated that 70% of the Venezuelans did not want RCTV to go off the air, Chávez scored an own goal by pushing through a measure that was less than vital to the continuation of the revolutionary process in Venezuela at this stage. Considering that RCTV will be able to continue transmitting over cable and satellite, the effectiveness of the measure seems even more in doubt.
That the Imperialist powers and the Venezuelan opposition are able to unleash an international campaign against the non-renewal of the RCTV license at this point of time is not an accident. Although there is still majority support for the Chávez government, the opposition has been making a comeback. This was shown in the Presidential elections with a relatively good result for Manuel Rosales, the opposition candidate. There is a slowly accumulating anger against the bureaucratisation of the country, the corruption of politicians and officials, and the lack of fundamental change in the lives of many ordinary people. The oil boom and the seemingly unlimited amounts of money to spend are, for the moment, slowing the ticking of this potential time bomb. Unfortunately, the revoking of the license of RCTV, because of its timing and the way it has been done, is a tactical mistake by the Chávez government that has played into the hands of the opposition.
It has given the Venezuelan opposition, supported by US Imperialism, sustenance and a chance to strengthen its campaign against Chávez. Internationally and nationally, it has allowed the bourgeois media to draw attention away from the pro-poor reforms of the Venezuelan government and portray it as an “authoritarian” and “dictatorial regime”.
Throughout Latin America there is widespread admiration for the gains of the Cuban revolution, especially in relation to free healthcare and education. Yet, there is also a suspicion amongst layers of workers about the absence of genuine democratic rights and the single-party regime. These suspicions about Cuba are also combined in the consciousness of the masses with an even bigger determination never to allow a return of the right-wing military dictatorships that drowned the continent in blood in the second half of the 20th century.
The revoking of the RCTV licence has also allowed the anti-Chávez opposition to link this issue with their general propaganda that a slow “Cubanisation” of Venezuela is taking place.
The broadcasting licence once owned by RCTV has been given to a new station called Tves-Venezuela Social Television. This station will run shows produced mainly by independent parties. Much is made of the fact that it is not under the direct control of the government but run by a foundation of “community members” each with one representative. The board will also include a representative of the government. Anyone that has seen state television in Venezuela will find it hard to deny that these stations are in fact as pro-government as the private channels are pro-opposition. People dread being bombarded by more government broadcasts, led by ministers and bureaucrats speaking at them for hours on end.
It would be wrong to uphold this as a more democratic pro-worker media or a model for the future. It will effectively be a vehicle for government broadcasts. Just like Telesur, the TV station jointly run by the Venezuelan, Argentinian, Cuban, Uruguayan and Bolivian governments, it is a mouthpiece for these governments in the media fight against pro-US news stations like CNN en Español. The independent voice of the mass of workers is excluded.
Under capitalism, as long as the resources are privately owned, it is not possible to guarantee a free and accessible press and media. Media laws in Venezuela might be more liberal than in other countries, it does not mean that state television and other state-run or influenced media channels offer an independent platform for workers or, to put it more generally, reflect in a genuine way the political, cultural and social life of society.
The issue of the press and freedom of information is an important issue. It underlines the point the CWI has made consistently. To defend the revolutionary process and the pro-poor reforms in Venezuela it is necessary to overthrow capitalism and start building socialism. The role of the working class and its organisations, independently organised in defence of their class interests, is of fundamental significance in this process. The working class, in alliance with the urban and rural poor, has to mobilise and call for a government of the workers and poor to complete the Venezuelan revolution and make it genuinely socialist, as a first step towards the spreading of the socialist revolution to other countries of Latin America.