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Welcome to Censorship in the 21st Century

Hugo Chavez shows us how it’s done.

In August 2009, Hugo Chávez drew fire from international watchdog groups for his decision to shut down 34 opposition-minded radio stations and two local TV stations over supposed "administrative infractions."

Reporters Without Borders issued a tough communiqué “vigorously condemning the massive closure,” while the Committee to Protect Journalists called the government’s official justification for the move a “pretext to silence independent and critical voices.” And Amnesty International pronounced itself “extremely concerned at the deterioration in freedom of expression in Venezuela.” Similar shutdowns in past years badly damaged Chávez’s democratic credentials abroad, undermining his claim to be a brave reforming force within Latin America. So, the question is: Why does Chávez continue to tarnish his international reputation by forcibly silencing his critics?

The reason, quite simply, is that shutdowns work. They have forced Venezuela’s independent broadcast media into a defensive crouch, making their self-preservation contingent on their self-censorship.

Take the recent food crisis. Shortages of basic foodstuffs have been mounting in Venezuela over the last three years, with specific products disappearing from store shelves in succession. At times, chicken is impossible to find; weeks later, it may be milk that’s hard to get.

Against this backdrop, in late May, El Nacional, a Caracas daily, began investigating the discovery of food containers rotting away at Puerto Cabello,the nation’s main port. In all, some 75,000 tons of food are alleged to have gone to waste—food paid for with public money and delivered to government-run ports for distribution in government-run grocery outlets.

Clearly, Producción y Distribución Venezolana de Alimentos (PDVAL), the new state-owned food-importing conglomerate that Chávez had touted as an antidote to the iniquities of capitalist grocery shopping, is catastrophically mismanaging distribution. Cobbled together from the remnants of recently nationalized food companies, PDVAL’s government-appointed managers have neither the experience nor the training to keep 28 million people supplied with food. The results have been devastating: rising food prices, deepening shortages of key staples, and rows-upon-rows of rotting food containers sitting untouched as people find it increasingly hard to complete their weekly shopping.

On TV, the image of these containers would have been politically explosive. The story may even have had some traction on the radio. But the scandal is getting very little coverage through these popular outlets, and there’s been no public outcry to speak of.

Why? Because Chávez has ingenuously focused his censorship efforts on the broadcast media. He knows that print media penetration is, by and large, limited to a relatively small elite in Venezuela—an elite that has been strongly opposed to him for years. The vast majority of Venezuelans don’t read the news; they hear the news, on TV and radio. So cowing the broadcast media into submission sharply limits the negative public reaction to any scandal. For most Venezuelans, if it's not on the TV or the radio, it didn't happen.

Even more cunningly, the government’s strategy relies on the expectation that TV stations and radio shows will impose their own limits. At the same time that Chávez shut down the 34 radio stations, his Infrastructure Minister, Diosdado Cabello, announced that he would launch fresh “administrative investigations” against 240 additional radio stations and 45 local TV channels. Cabello never specified which stations would be investigated, leaving every station manager in the country fearing that an out-of-bounds story could cost the station its broadcast license.

Welcome to the world of twenty-first century censorship: censorship without censors. The Chávez government operates nothing so crass and cumbersome as an old-fashioned censorship board. Instead, by keeping broadcast editors and station managers under the vague but constant threat of shutdown, it relies on them to silence their organizations. And it is wildly effective.

Sure, the newspaper-reading middle-class is incensed about the PDVAL scandal—but Chávez gave up on those folks a long time ago. And, sure, moving against independent radio and TV stations does no good to his standing in Washington, or Brazil, or Brussels—but it's not the support of chattering foreigners he needs to stay in power.

Indeed, strongly-worded communiqués from NGOs and the principled statements from foreign politicians quickly recede into memory. And, as they do, Chávez finds himself facing a media space so docile that the kind of sprawling scandal that would rock a government anywhere else barely causes a ripple.

 Francisco Toro blogs about Venezuela in the Chávez era at Caracas Chronicles