Monocle: On the Roll

Original story available for Monocle subscribers only, here.

Preface
Venezuela is one of the most politically polarised countries in Latin America. And with a pro-Chávez state TV monopoly, Globovisión is one of only a couple of private rolling 24-hour news channels, despite, or perhaps because of, the intimidation.

Dereck Blanco, 29, is standing before 50 demonstrators outside a juvenile jail in the crumbling Cementerio neighbourhood in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. His charcoal suit and crisp white shirt contrast with the Spandex, jeans and flip-flops in the crowd of inmates’ relatives gathered in the street. A burly man in a T-shirt tells Blanco that the families are protesting over foul jail conditions and that police used tear gas to clear them from a motorway earlier in the day. Five metres away, cameraman Michael Montes tapes the interview for Globovisión, Venezuela’s oldest private sector 24-hour news channel.

“The media doesn’t show up,” says Yasmin Brito, whose son is in the jail awaiting trial. She explains that she had invited four private news channels to the demonstration and another protester called the state media. A couple of newspapers came but among broadcast media, “The only one that has made an appearance is Globovisión.”

To supporters, Globovisión provides the most independent television news in a country where the government declines to release basic data such as the number of murders and officials’ salaries, while flooding state-owned media with propaganda shows, ads for the president’s political party and talk shows that personally attack members of the opposition and their families.

To the government, Globovisión is part of a long-running oligarch conspiracy that sabotages the Bolivarian revolution by defaming leaders, dismissing their achievements and hardening the opposition. It puts viewers into a constant state of anxiety and anti-government paranoia, and should probably be taken off the air.

To most viewers, the station is a bit of each – plus throbbing music over news reports, grainy video with fast cuts between shots, passionately emotional reporters and talk-show hosts. And a few of the beauty pageant graduates who make up more than their share of Venezuela’s television personalities. Most of all, it’s a place to escape the red team colours of President Hugo Chávez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV). State television dominates the country’s airwaves with four broadcast channels and the widest-reaching network of transmitters. Globovisión, available over the air in only two cities (Caracas and Valencia) is the most consistent counterweight to the one-sided pro-Chávez news and opinion shows on the main state channel, Venezolana de Televisión (VTV).

The decade-long fight between the government and the station makes for a good spectator sport. It’s always getting into scrapes. The same day as the rally that Monocle attends, Ricardo Antela, the network’s lawyer, turns in a response to the government’s seventh accusation against the station in seven years of alleged violations of the media law.

The charge stems from broadcasts outside a prison riot. The channel let inmates’ family members share reports of violence they were receiving by phone from inside, contradicting the official line that all was calm. The government accused the channel of spreading panic, an offence under the country’s media law. Under legislation, a first offence can draw a suspension of broadcast rights, while a second would put the station off the air.

“Politically, I don’t think a closure is planned. I think all of this is simply to promote self-censorship. The other media have significantly reduced coverage,” Antela says. “A closure is not something that works for them. But we didn’t think they would close Radio Caracas Televisión either.”

That channel, known as RCTV, along with Globovisión, donated advertising space to anti-Chávez movements during unrest in 2002 and 2003. The government declined to renew RCTV’s broadcast licence in 2007, and then used bureaucratic manoeuvres to knock it off cable (it continues to fight to regain its licence).

Perhaps perversely, having an opposition-friendly station around provides a useful scapegoat for the government (unusually, amid its takeover frenzy, it even ended up with a 20 per cent stake in Globovisión). And government extremism has given the channel a fertile environment in which to grow, says María Fernanda Flores, the station co-founder who runs daily operations.

“The station was founded during the presidency of Carlos Andrés Peréz, when nothing happened,” says Flores. Now, with the government frequently passing laws to deepen the revolution, everyone wants to be more informed. Meanwhile, the president has called the channel an enemy of the revolution for a decade.

“Chávez is our vice-president of marketing,” Flores says. “He’s in charge of strengthening our name recognition.” Flores has a point; the station normally competes with state-run VTV for third place nationwide, but jumps to number one during big news events such as elections.

Chávez’s attentions also increase workplace stress. The studios, in a mountainside neighbourhood full of mango trees, are surrounded by a concrete wall topped with several metres-high chain link fencing. When Chávez mentions Globovisión, supporters of the revolution show up to throw bottles and spray-paint the walls, says operations director Eleazar Valera. After a pro-Chávez motorcycle gang forced its way past the gate and tossed tear-gas canisters, the station installed bulletproof doors and started to secure all areas with key cards.

Motorcycle cameraman Larry Arvelo, 42, suffered one of the more vicious attacks at the hands of “Chavistas”. The station prides itself on being the first to demonstrations, crime scenes and traffic crashes, as Arvelo and his colleague Gustavo Tolosa, 47, dodge some of the world’s worst traffic to arrive with tiny hand-cams in waist pouches. By the time a conventional crew can pull into traffic in a broadcast van, Globovisión’s bikers are sometimes on their way back to the studio. Arvelo ended up hospitalised from a police beating after taping a rowdy demonstration in 2008. The physical attacks have quietened down over the past two years, but the station has taken care to peel its stickers off its vehicles after a van with the station’s logo took a bullet.

Flores says that the government has also hit the station commercially. Chávez began to take over private enterprises in 2007 and had soon nationalised electricity utilities, the country’s biggest telecom provider, airlines, a big-box retailer and entire industries from cement to steel to coffee. Regulators seized banks, insurers and brokerages during the financial crisis. State companies don’t buy time on Globovisión, so the station has lost at least 30 advertisers to nationalisations in recent years, Flores explains, while other companies under threat are scared to advertise.

For all the government harassment, some of Globovisión’s wounds are self-inflicted. In April 2002, during a brief coup d’état, the station was hours late to report that Chávez had returned from a brief exile. Flores now calls that “a great failure”. Today, news broadcasts focus on scandals in the national government, never airing critical reports on opposition leaders or big business. Opinion show hosts nod along as guests rant against Chávez and other leftist leaders, ignoring the failures of right-wing governments in Colombia or Chile.

Leopoldo Castillo, who hosts the Aló Ciudadano (Hello Citizen) call-in show daily from 17.00 to 20.00, makes no apologies for failing to engage pro-Chávez callers, instead just listening to them and hanging up. “The programme is participatory,” he says, “but the participation doesn’t signify that I have to dialogue with you.” He says he has no pro-government guests because ministers have a policy of not coming on Globovisión. Asked why not invite pro-Chávez guests from outside the government and he replies that they can call or send text messages to the show.

Flores says the station has been moving in a new direction in the past year by including more positive news, reducing the use of music behind the news and seeking to become the go-to place for anyone with news to share with the public. “We want to be the Red Cross of information,” she smiles.

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About Steven Bodzin

Steven Bodzin is a reporter. He blogged when he was a freelancer.

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