“The Media Plays The Role Of Political Parties”
Venezuelan Communication minister, Ernesto Villegas, claims that since 2002 it became quite evident that private media is not neutral, but rather follows its own political agenda. Villegas also talked about how the media handled Chávez disease and the challenges for the new Government.
-Where are we in this symbolic war between the Government and the big media?
-This is just one more stage, but we can identify several stages in this confrontation. The first stage consisted on the demonization of Hugo Chávez as a candidate for the 1998 presidential elections, but we may go even further back when an important part of the media supported a form of anti-politics stance in contrast with the old party system believing the system would eventually crack down leaving political power on the hands of certain economic groups. But Chávez came up, and with him the political power lied on the hands of the rebellious military group and slip away from the economic powers. The 1998 presidential campaign was mined with accusations and falsifications; Chávez’ voice was falsified in a recording in which the speaker says “adecos(members of Acción Democrática party) should be burned with boiling oil”, that recording was widely spread. Later on, during the first years of Chávez’ presidency, some of the media tried to “domesticate” him, but he let them know that he was not malleable and so, the media declared an open war against the Bolivarian Revolution and personally, against its leader, Hugo Chávez. The peak was reached on the 2002 Coup, when the media created the conditions for the coup to materialize. The media edited videos that made the revolutionary side look like responsible for the deaths in Caracas downtown- a story that was necessary to justify the military uprising against Chávez. During the coup, the media purposely muted the chavizmo with the intend of legitimizing the spurious government led by Pedro Carmona. When Chávez got back to power with the help of the people the media didn’t know how to handle Chávez return. We thought the media had learned the lesson, but we never imagined what would come next: the media refueled its attacks so as to create another climax during the oil boycott. Eight months after the coup, Chávez’ enemies had paralyzed the economy and the oil industry for 63 days, and had also gained opened access to media’s publicity time and space. And they were defeated again. But the attitude remained the same; the media promoted the policy of not recognizing electoral results, invited citizens to refuse to pay taxes, openly promoted racism and classism, and the right to reply was literally gone. The media decided to become the new political parties without any sort of limits. They say the first casualty of war is truth, and we know that from experience in Venezuela. Right now the circumstances have changed, and there were some changes in some media outlets.
-Take for instance, the recent sale of opposition channel Globovision by its long-time owner, Zuloaga.
–Yes, there was a change of owners. But before that, there was a change in the editorial line of Venevisión (Cisneros), but that doesn’t mean the invisibilization mechanisms in paramount issues (such as the capture of Colombian paramilitary groups) have stopped being used in Venezuelan media. The capture of paramilitary groups would have made it to the news in any part of the world, but not in Venezuela; instead, it was swept away by other issues that were important for the political agenda of the Government’s foes. The media is not neutral, whether it changes owners or not, the media follows the agenda of its owners and that of the social class its owners belong to. It responds to the political agenda of a specific group of people. The State has to take up its responsibility and try to communicate the other side of the coin to the country and the world, which is of course, an activity that draws controversy as well.
–Shouldn’t public media be more pluralistic?
We are the first critics of our media. As minister of communication I’m willing to do more of what we do and do it better. However, that doesn’t mean the battles fought by our media in the past was not necessary, on the contrary, they were fought and won thanks to the effort of an army of communicators. Chávez was a great communicator, and continues as so. There’s been several great victories deconstructing particular agendas that foster the interest of particulars through the social media and which are also divorced from reality. The State’s media system has been the tool used to invert the effects of artificial public opinion, and we are very proud of what we’ve achieved. Personally, I’ve been a journalist for 20 years, and I’ve conducted interviews until very recently, and I’ve never had any inconvenient to interview right-wing personalities to talk about the most knotty issues in a transparent and civilized way. I have no problem in talking with the devil himself when it comes to journalism. We invited loser former candidate (Henrique Carpiles) for an interview in the State’s media, but he refused to attend. There’s an explicit veto from Venezuelan right-wing politicians against the journalists of public media; they’re not allowed to attend press conferences, they’re not notified of any events, and they’ve been victims of physical aggression. It’s like a snake biting its own tail, I wish they change attitude and finally decide to talk about national issues.
In the recording made public recently in which Mario Silva (host of “La Hojilla” tv show broadcast in state-run VTV) was talking to a Cuban leader, there was this internal fighting within the chavizmo exposed. Has it been proved that the audio recording was edited as Silva himself pointed out? And even so, isn’t the internal fighting after Chávez’ death an undeniable truth?
-Chávez died just three months ago and we keep him very present through his political legacy, which is the Homeland’s Plan, and in civilian daily life. In VTV (state-run television channel) and other public media outlets we keep reproducing his speeches and confirming his leadership. Wherever Maduro is, there’s also Chávez with his project. Now, regarding the audio recording, there’s an ongoing investigation. And regarding internal fighting and discrepancies within the ranks of chavizmo, which we rather call gossip about the internal life of political parties, [remember] there are always endless versions [of what’s going on]. Just take a look at the so called opinion columns and sensationalist newspapers and you’ll see the most bizarre stories of backstabbing and competition. This is mostly seen in social networks, where there’s no ethical limit at all. You may even compare them with the doors and walls of public toilets, because anybody writes anything. I just don’t talk about that.
–Who could’ve leaked the recording? Can you think of anyone?
–Look, I don’t know and is under investigation. I believe that the most responsible thing to do is wait for the results of the investigation.
-During the time that President Chávez was sick, the government was heavily criticized because of the lack of clear information about the president’s condition. Do you think there were mistakes committed in the communication policy regarding Chávez’ condition?
–When I run into people on the streets, they greet me and show their gratitude for having been there during those terrible hours of anguish. People feel they had the proper accompaniment, the kind you need when a relative is hospitalized. I had the historic responsibility to occupy that role by reading the official communiqués on Chávez’ health and they are available online. I had to give the country terrible news like the bleeding the president had during the surgery; or inform on improvements, and then inform about the breathing problems and the difficulty to speak. The Venezuelan people were fully aware of the president’s evolution, but after the tragic event, some people shed doubt on the date the president died. Sometimes the madness driving those who propagate rumors does not stop on the human aspects of the situation. Disputing the date the president died is offensive to his family, because it means his parents, siblings, and children hold their tears for some time and then cried later like actors. I just can’t see what would be the political gain in hiding something like that. I reject any of those fantasy-based versions like the one that says he was not in the Military Hospital, but in “La Orchila” island. In the midst of a disease like that he was taking a bath in the sea?
–Some questioned not enough details on his condition were provided.
–The president himself wanted it that way. He himself gave a lesson to the country and the world on being transparent about his condition. Today, we know more about cancer in Venezuela. What do history books need to know? Details that violate the patient’s rights? It’s quite logical that people need to know the health conditions of their leader, but I also know President Chávez did what other presidents in similar situations never did. Take for instance French president Mitterrand. He was sick for a long time, he even ran in a presidential campaign, but only after his death his personal physician revealed the secrets. There’s a very thin line between public interest and being morbid, and sometimes the media prefers exploiting the morbid. The media hooks a sector of the population who is more likely to be manipulated by the media and this sector starts asking questions they wouldn’t ask about themselves or a relative. There’s stuff out there like the photo published by “El País” newspaper in which a patient with tracheal intubation was said to be Chávez and it turned out he wasn’t. Had it been the mother of the newspaper’s owner, would he had shown his mother in those circumstances? We’ve seen grotesque images on TV, and they crossed all ethical boundaries.
–Was Globovisión the last opposition stronghold in Venezuelan TV?
–I invite anyone who thinks so to go to Venezuela and pay attention to the questions journalists and columnists make on their opinion programs. Globovisión was or is, we don’t know if it still is, a political party with a television antenna. It’s the American Tea Party with a TV channel.
–The most popular and best sold newspaper in Venezuela, “Últimas Noticias” was also bought. It’s been said the buyer is close to the government, is that right?
–Whenever big media changes hands I usually don’t know who the buyers are, I know journalists; I’m an outsider of the businessmen deals. I know the government is not buying Últimas Noticias, and that newspaper is not part of the Bolivarian System of Communication and Information. I’m sure a newspaper like Últimas Noticias can’t become a government-allied; it has to preserve an editorial line that guarantees the reader a particular view of things without necessarily joining the destabilization plans of other media.
–Why was there such a close margin between Maduro and Capriles in April 14m in comparison with October 7 elections between Chávez and Capriles?
–If our points of reference are the victories Chávez got us used to, then the bar is really high. This was Maduro’s very first political campaign. There are lots of emotive factors in a political campaign. An election is a picture of a single moment. Chávez had just died and the campaign was set to overlap mourning to give a message of joy and hope; but there isn’t a manual on how to handle the death of a gigantic leader like Chávez. You know, we are Caribbean, and we laugh and tell jokes when we mourn. We had a very complicated mourning and celebrating an election in the midst of mourning was risky gamble. Another factor was that the right-wing campaign developed a technique of miming, imitating Chávez in speech and gestures. The anti-chavizmo was disguised and they even recognized Chávez after having mocking him for 14 years. The only thing they didn’t do was declared themselves to be chaviztas and wear a red beret. Another factor were the constant blackouts that usually matched Maduro’s visit to the area. It’s really hard to send electoral messages in the midst of the anguish created by an economic war. And even so, Maduro won, and the results must be respected.
–How do you govern a country when the opposition challenges the results?
–They challenged the elections eleven deaths after the elections; because the first thing they did was calling supporters not to recognize the results through the media, and the consequence was a wave of violence all around the nation. That was another evidence of the relation of opposition forces with the media: the media just ignore the dead. I’ve seen how Argentineans are deeply hurt after the death of one girl (Angeles); we’ve ended up knowing her whole life. Back in Venezuela, private media barely mentions the victims’ names. That’s a way of ignoring the effects of a political behavior, which is another form of legitimizing it.
–The next fight is going to be on December 8 for the municipality elections, is that right?
–That’s right, and I want to see opposition candidates registering for the elections, you know, they say the electoral system does not show truthful results, but they name right-wing former candidate-Capriles- as chief of campaign. Do they accept the rules of the game or not?
The communicator of Chávez health
Ernesto Villegas is a poised speaker who measures every word he uses, aware of their immortality once they’re printed. The world got a first glance at him when he was in charge of reading the communiqués on Chávez’ health since December 8 to the death of the leader on March 5. Opposition parties and national and international anti-chavista media criticized the way the government informed the public about Chávez cancer treatment, and also the fact the head of state was treated in Cuba. Villegas is a last name linked to the journalist world in Venezuela: Ernesto’s mother is a journalist herself and two of his brothers, Mario and Vladimir, are journalists as well. He and his brothers followed the steps of Maja Poljak. “My mother was a jewish-croatian who came to Venezuela as a political refugee running away from Nazi Germany. I didn’t want to be a journalist, I wanted to take my own path, have a personality. That’s what I thought when I was 19 years old.” At that age, Ernesto’s passion was engineering, but he started to grow fond of the media when he worked repairing cameras in a television station. During an aunt’s funeral, I was approached by a journalist and he asked me in a different way, because people always asked me if I too wanted to be a journalist like my brothers. He asked me: ‘don’t you like journalism?’ And I just discovered I actually liked it. After the funeral I signed in journalism.” Villegas, 43, is the youngest of Poljak and Villegas’ 8 children. His father, Cruz Villegas, is a former president of Central Workers Union, and a communist who was tortured and jailed during the dictatorship of Perez Jimenez. “My father was tortured, and confined to the Amazon jungle for five years. He was released when the dictatorship collapsed.” Mario writes for the newspaper “2001” and host a radio show for online news outlet “Noticias 24”. “A very fast right-wing web page” jokes Vilelgas with some irony. Vladimir was part of the revolutionary process for a while, but now he’s in the ranks of the opposition; he writes for opposition daily newspaper “El Nacional”, but has just quit to take join Globovision’s director’s board. Ernesto on his brother: “I love him very much. We do have our political differences but we love each other very much. We know how to have a dialogue.”
Ernesto Villegas had just spent a week in Buenos Aires signing cooperation agreements in the area of digital television, a technology recently acquired by Venezuela. Villegas started a chronicle writer in right-leaned newspaper “El Nuevo País”, “El Universal”-right-wing newspaper with the largest circulation nationwide- and Últimas Noticias tabloid. Ernesto, Mario, and Vladimir, host a radio show together when there was ideological matching among the three. Villegas says he stopped working for El Universal in April 2002 during the coup. “It was clearly a coup d’état for me, but the people in the newspaper called it another name. I was a reporter for the newspaper and conducted interviews for state-run VTV. It created a crisis in me, and so I just kept my interview program in VTV.” His predecessor, former Communications Minister Andres Izarra found himself in a similar situation when he worked for RCTV back in 2002. Izarra decided not to take part of a “media coup” and quit. In 2009 Villegas founded Ciudad Caracas, a free newspaper akin to the government. He was its director until President Chávez asked him to serve as Communications Minister.