July 23, 2010 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Hugo Chávez’s government tightens its grip on the media

President Hugo Chávez announced on 20 July that his government is about to acquire a majority stake in Globovisión, a privately-owned TV station that is very critical of his administration. By acquiring the shares of some of the station’s directors, the government says it will be able to control 48.5 per cent of its capital.

Federal Bank chairman Nelson Mezerhane stepped in last month at the government’s request and bought 20 per cent of Globovisión’s shares, plus another 5.8 per cent acquired through another company, Chávez revealed during a televised ceremony on 20 July. He also announced that the 20 per cent of shares owned by Luis Teófilo Núñez, one of the station’s founders, who died in 2007, would “pass to the state.” Chávez then did the sum: “25.8 per cent plus 20 per cent makes 48.5 per cent, amigo.” This was not an expropriation, he insisted. The government just wanted to “participate in this business.”

The president added that the Federal Bank governors would appoint a representative to the Globovisión board, and that journalists currently working as state television presenters would proposed for the position.

The TV station reacted with statement announcing its intention to resist President Chávez’s designs: “Globovisión’s editorial line is not measured in share percentages (...) nor will it be expropriated.”

Globovisión has often been threatened with closure and is currently the target of several legal proceedings initiated by Chávez, including a warrant for the arrest of one of its top executives, Guillermo Zuloaga, who has fled to the United States. But with Chávez insinuating that the government could also recover Zuloaga’s shares because he has left the country, Globovisión now appears to be on the verge of being taken over entirely.

Restricting access to information

The president’s announcement has coincided with various worrying measures limiting access to information.

The Higher Court of Justice issued a ruling on 15 July restricting the right of access to information. In response to a request for information filed by the NGO Espacio Público about the salaries of officials responsible for managing public funds, the court ruled that access to public information was not an absolute right. The recruiting of civil servants and their declarations of assets were private matters that the public did not need to know, the court said.

The decision, which totally violates the principle of transparency, will have a drastic impact on the ability of journalists to investigate and report such matters as illegal enrichment by government officials.

Another decision that is just as controversial has reinforced Reporters Without Borders’ fears. It concerns parliament’s approval of a report about alleged US meddling in Venezuelan politics, which contains criticism of foreign funding for journalists and civil society organisations. It was approved just a week after Venezuela’s two leading free speech NGOs, Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) and Espacio Público, were the target of criminal proceedings brought by Movimiento por el Periodismo Necesario, a journalists’ association linked to the ruling party.

Submitted by parliamentarian Manuel Villalba, the report claims to demonstrate “the participation of foreign governments in Venezuela’s internal politics” and says the aim of the funding is to provoke “a process of destabilisation in the country” and to discredit the government.

In his recent statements, President Chávez also threatened to rescind the Vale TV concession that was granted to the Venezuelan church before he came to power. It should be “given back to the people,” he said. RCTV, a station accused of supporting the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez, was already stripped of its concession in 2007.

Both RCTV and Globovisión did indeed support some of the people involved in the attempted coup, but the suppression of these opposition media has more to do with the government’s inability to tolerate criticism. Eight years after the coup, these coercive measures are motivated by a desire to silence opponents who are drawing attention to intractable economic and social problems.

Venezuela is diverging more and more from other Latin American countries such as Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil which have decriminalised press offences and created the legal bases for more media pluralism. President Chávez’s latest statements signal another disturbing step backwards for Venezuela.