Ahead of crucial Dec. 6 election, Venezuela's ruling party tightens its media grip

  • Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodriguez conducts “La Politica en el Diván” (Politics on the Couch) on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015.

    Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodriguez conducts “La Politica en el Diván” (Politics on the Couch) on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015.  (Franz von Bergen)

  • Franz von Bergen

     (Franz von Bergen)

Venezuela’s largest public TV channel premiered Thursday a show hosted by the mayor of Caracas, Jorge Rodriguez, who is also heading the ruling party’s campaign ahead of December’s legislative elections.

“La Politica en el Diván” (Politics on the Couch), to start airing every Thursday at 10 p.m., is the latest addition to an already bulky array of TV and radio shows hosted by office holders across the country.

With his prime-time debut, Mayor Rodriguez joins top tier Chavistas such as Diosdado Cabello, the party’s second in command, who hosts his show on Wednesdays nights, first lady Cilia Flores – Sundays at noon – and President Nicolas Maduro himself, who has a two-hour (or more, if he wants) space every Tuesday at 7 pm.

Late president Hugo Chavez started the trend just four months into his presidency, with his TV and radio show “Alo Presidente,” on which he sometimes received phone calls on air and could go on for hours.

The new show, announced by Maduro with great fanfare last week, is widely perceived by the opposition as one more example of government arbitrary use and abuse of public airwaves for its political benefit.

“The government is using all kind of public resources to promote its candidates, from public media channels pay by all Venezuelans to state owned property,” said Enrique Marquez, an opposition leader and candidate, to Fox News Latino.

Others point out that while members of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) appear constantly in in both public and private media and their political rallies are broadcast live, the opposition often has to battle for air time.

“The public media just focuses on good things the government does, trying to improve their approval ratings,” said Tinedo Guía, president of the Venezuelan Journalists’ Institute. “Opposition or average Venezuelans don’t have any space at all,” he added.

As the Dec. 6 election draws near, the urge to be on TV keeps climbing. According to a count by FNL, between May and mid-October President Maduro has openly endorsed PSUV candidates in 27 times on TV, on his show and others.

In that same period, in which he’s had a total 112 TV appearances, he has addressed elections and his party chances 49 times.

When he is not talking about the elections, he is highlighting the government’s achievements, bringing up Chavez’s legacy or handing out social aid, like housing. He also likes to devote time to points out conspiracies against his presidency.

Since taking power on April 19, 2013, Maduro has been in 852 live broadcasts, according to FNL’s count. That, according to local NGO Monitoreo Ciudadano, adds up to about 900 hours — more than 37 straight days.

But the censorship against the opposition doesn’t end in the public media. Marquez alerted that all the national private TV channels are almost closed for them.

“The government puts pressure on the media with sanctions and threats, so they reduce the amount of airtime we receive,” the opposition leader told FNL.

Even buying advertising time for the opposition has become a problem.

“The message we currently have in national channels varies from network station to station,” Marquez said, “because media executives censored some parts and had to be changed. In one [private] channel they didn’t sell us any airtime,” he noted, adding that’s been the case in all state-owned media outlets.

Venezuela has 17 TV stations broadcasting nationally, 10 of which are state-owned. In 1999, when Chavez took office, the government had control over just one TV network.

Of the seven private stations, three are so-called theme channels that don’t follow news and the rest are accused of silencing the opposition.

The most renowned case is Globovision’s, a 24-hour news network was sold in 2013 to executives with close bonds to the regime. Since then, they have visibly reduced their investigative reports and limited opposition airtime to the minimum.

In the face of this, opposition has resorted to focusing its energy on contacting directly with voters.

“We campaign speaking with the people, handing out flyers and using social media,” Marquez explained.

Tinedo Guía, from the Journalists’ Institute, said his organization has teamed with another NGO to keep track of the abuses to denounce them — but said they can’t do anything if the National Electoral Council doesn’t complain first.

As of yet the Electoral Council has not approved the presence of any international observer to monitor December’s elections, a request made months ago by the opposition parties.

But Guia and Marquez are confident that the Venezuelan people will be able to prevail in the polls, even with the numerous speech restrictions they face.

A Venebarometro survey released last month suggests that might be possible: 43.7 percent said they intended to vote for opposition candidates, 19.9 percent supported government nominees, 26.5 percent went for other independent parties and 9.9 percent said they haven’t made up their minds.

Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.

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