CARACAS, Venezuela – As politicians in the U.S. discuss bringing back the so-called Fairness Doctrine, which would compel radio and TV stations to present both sides of any controversial issue, the question in Venezuela is far more serious: whether there can be more than one side — Hugo Chavez's side — that gets aired about anything.
Addressing the nation on his weekly television show on Sunday, the Venezuelan president laid out plans for his next crusade, ordering his governors and mayors to draw up a "map of the media war" to determine which media are "in the hands of the oligarchy."
Chavez said that "if it weren't for the attack, the lies, manipulation and the exaggeration" of the private media networks, the Venezuelan government would have the support of at least 80 percent of the population. Recent polls have put Chavez's popularity at a little over 50 percent.
Nursing a sore throat, which doctors reportedly asked him to rest by not speaking too much, (Sunday's program lasted a mere five hours), the president told his red-clad audience that the media war is a daily conflict. "I beg you to stand up to this battle, all of you," he implored his followers.
Chavez frequently criticizes opposition-aligned television stations and newspapers, at times holding up copies of the papers during public addresses to ridicule articles that criticize him.
Alberto Federico Ravell, director of Globovisión, a TV channel that is critical of Chávez, said he was concerned about the future of free speech in Venezuela.
"When a president talks of a map such as this, it's nothing less than a means to attack anyone who is against him," Ravell said. "Independent media is the only window that the Venezuelan people have to see what is really happening in the country."
During Chavez's recent victorious campaign to remove term limits for elected officials, a report by a media watchdog group found that over 93 percent of coverage on the state news channel, Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), was in favor of the constitutional amendment.
The report also showed that Globovisión devoted 59 percent of its coverage to the opposition.
This is not the first time opposition media have come under attack. In 2007, Chavez refused to renew the license for Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) on the grounds that it had played a role in a short-lived coup against the president in 2002.
Chavez accused the station of pressing "a permanent attack on public morals," and his supporters said that any channel that supported the overthrowing of a democratically elected leader would face similar sanctions.
Since RCTV's closure, several broadcasters have adopted a less critical line, for fear of retributions. They have "self-censored themselves," says Carlos Bracho, a Caracas businessman, and one of the few Venezuelans who is neither with nor against the president.
Coverage is stuck between two extremes, he explains: "On Globovisión, they never broadcast anything in favor of the government, while on VTV, you will never see anything that shows any errors the government has made."
In September 2008 Globovisión again came under fire, with a pro-Chávez group claiming responsibility for an attack on the station during which tear gas canisters were thrown at the station's headquarters in Caracas. Leaflets were left at the scene declaring the attack on the channel a "military objective." As the vote grew closer, Chavez distanced himself from the group and demanded the perpetrators be brought to justice.
Having suffered a crushing electoral defeat, the opposition now appears to be struggling to find a viable way to take on the seemingly invincible president.
Nevertheless, says Ravell, they remain as determined as ever: "They call us Pitiyankees (little Yankees), they accuse us of being part of the CIA. We've had 10 years living in fear that they'll close us down, but we'll keep going."