The New York Times begins its news report on Friday from Venezuela with “The only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government was sold last year and the new owners have softened its news coverage.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote last week: "Nearly all TV stations in Venezuela are either controlled or allied with the government of Nicolás Maduro and have ignored the nationwide protests."
Before surrendering to authorities for arrest last Tuesday (February 18), opposition leader Leopoldo López said, “we no longer have any free media to express ourselves in Venezuela.”
Are these statements true or false? Similar statements are made repeatedly in the major international news outlets covering Venezuela, and are generally accepted as true. However this should be a factual question, independent of whether one is sympathetic to the opposition or the government, or to neither.
As it turns out, data published by the Carter Center for the media coverage during the campaign for the last presidential election, in April of last year, indicate that the two candidates were fairly evenly represented in television coverage.
We will return to the Carter Center report, but first a quick fact check based on recent events and coverage. We can look at the recent broadcasts of the largest television stations in the country. The biggest broadcast television station is Venevisión, owned by the billionaire media mogul Gustavo Cisneros. According to the Carter Center, it has about 35 percent of the news-watching audience during “recent key newsworthy events.” If we look at their coverage of the events since the protests started on February 12, we can find plenty of programming where “voices critical of the government,” and in fact opposition leaders are “regularly broadcast.” For example, here is an interview on Venevisión news with Tomás Guanipa, leader of the opposition Primero Justicia (Justice First) party and a representative in the National Assembly. He defends the protests and accuses the government of having tortured students.
Here is a long interview with María Corina Machado, one of the most prominent and hard-line opposition leaders seeking to topple the government. She also accuses the government of torturing students, and defends the most controversial aspect of the ongoing protests: she argues that the people have a right to overthrow the democratically elected government. (This is something that would not appear on TV in most countries in the world in a situation like the current one in Venezuela, where threats to overthrow the government have been carried out and attempted repeatedly in the past 12 years). This interview is on Globovisión, the station that the above-mentioned New York Times report complains has “softened its news coverage.”
The above broadcasts show that the New York Times statement is false to begin with, since Venevisión and other stations have regularly broadcast these critical voices in the past and still do. But it also shows that the Times’ reporter’s implication that the sale of Globovisión somehow made it into a government-friendly TV station is highly misleading. Yes, it has “softened its reporting.” It went from something comparable to Fox News on steroids, to something like NBC, CBS, or CNN in the U.S.: with news coverage that adheres to the journalistic norm that there should be some balance. Now, for many right-wingers in the U.S., if you are not Fox News, you are an apologist for the Obama administration. It is strange that some journalists, who would not accept that formulation in the United States, have adopted it in their reporting on Venezuela.
But that is a question of being grossly misleading; let’s get back to straight facts. The above examples, as well as the links pasted below, show that the first half of the New York Times’ opening sentence is false. Similarly, the CPJ statement is false: the TV stations with the majority of viewers in Venezuela are neither “controlled or allied with the government of Maduro” nor have they “ignored the nationwide protests."
That is not to say that they do not engage in self-censorship: they do. Of course that is true all over the world, including in the United States (where it reaches extreme levels on certain issues). In Venezuela, there is a history behind some of the recent reluctance of some TV channels to show real-time images of violence in demonstrations: in 2002, the major TV channels manipulated footage of shootings during a demonstration and through repeated broadcasts convinced much of the country and the world that the government forces had committed a massacre; thus, (together with other media efforts and U.S. support) bringing on a military coup. Eight months later, the opposition-controlled national oil industry and opposition-owned businesses went on strike, again with the stated intention of overthrowing the government; the major TV stations ran “ads” all day long calling on people to get out in the streets and topple the government.
But in any case the demonstrations and the views of the demonstrators are still quite visible in the private TV media, which has between 74 and 92 percent of the television audience, depending on what is going on in the country.
And criticism of the government is everywhere in the media. More than that: the largest newspaper in the country, Últimas Noticias, published last week a compelling investigative piece on the Feburary 12 shooting of Bassil Da Costa, a student demonstrator. Últimas Noticias is neither pro-government nor pro-opposition, and until October of last year it was owned by the Capriles family. (Full disclosure: I write a monthly column for the Sunday edition). Piecing together footage from various video cameras at the scene of the shooting, the report identifies suspects who were member of the SEBIN (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional or Bolivarian Intelligence Service) and others who were in plain clothes but that appear to be coordinating with the SEBIN agents. As a result, several of the agents present at the scene have been detained and police are looking for the other suspects. In addition, the head of the SEBIN was removed. I wish we had more of this kind of investigative reporting of police killings in the United States.
But again, back to the fact check. Are the private TV stations “controlled or allied” with the government? Rather than just looking at the coverage of recent events, we can use a more systematic study by the Carter Center for the important coverage of the last presidential election campaign in April of last year. They found that:
A breakdown by channels shows that private stations devoted a greater proportion of coverage to candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, his campaign events and his followers (73 percent), with a much smaller percentage (19 percent) devoted to the governing party’s candidate, Nicolás Maduro, his campaign events and his followers. The imbalance in coverage on the state-run channel, however, was even more pronounced. Ninety percent of that station’s coverage focused on the government candidate, while his opponent’s campaign activities received barely 1 percent.
Regarding the tone of the coverage in public media, the monitoring found 91 percent positive coverage of candidate Nicolás Maduro. Candidate Capriles had no positive coverage in those media (91 percent of the items registered were negative, while the remaining 9 percent were neutral). In private media, candidate Henrique Capriles received 60 percent positive coverage (with 23 percent negative and 17 percent neutral), while candidate Maduro had 28 percent positive (with 54 percent negative and 18 percent neutral).
Now, this indicates a stronger bias in the public media (towards the government) than in the private TV media (towards the opposition), in both the amount and tone of coverage of the two candidates. However, the Carter Center reports that the private TV media has, for “recent key newsworthy events” about 74 percent of the audience share for news, with the state share at just 26 percent. The Carter Center didn’t do the arithmetic, but using the 74-26 split for private vs. public TV would give Maduro about 54 percent of the election coverage and Capriles 44 percent. However, there is reason to believe that this 74-26 split significantly overstates the audience share of state TV. As the Carter Center notes, a ranking of AGB Nielsen for all hours during January-June 2013 found the state TV with just an 8.4 percent audience share. Furthermore, the private and public channels examined in the Carter Center study make up just 54 percent of the total audience share for all programming. Among the remaining 46 percent are other private channels that show news, and whose coverage is very pro-opposition.
In any case, statements about nearly all TV “controlled or allied with the government” are quite clearly false. The state TV can sing the praises of Maduro all day long, but the private media is reaching several times as many people with an opposite bias in their coverage.
Finally, there are the cadenas, in which all stations are required to broadcast speeches by the President (this law predates the Chávez era). However, President Maduro did not use cadenas during the campaign period (April 2-11), and used only one before the launch of the campaign. The Carter Center monitoring period is from March 28 –April 16, and the report included four cadenas in the two days after the election. These should not have been included, since they were after the election; and they bias the results a bit, since they are counted in the election coverage.
Returning to the statements at the beginning, we can conclusively say that all of them are false. Leopoldo López is a politician, and so he can be forgiven for hyperbole (like right-wing critics of President Obama in the United States, who call him a “socialist dictator”). But the New York Times and CPJ should be more careful not to present false claims as fact.
Below are some links to major private TV coverage of recent events:
The Carter Center notes that 57 percent of the news coverage in their sample is of Maduro, and 34 percent of Capriles; but this does not take into account the viewership. The above calculation takes into account the audience share of both Globovision and the VTV, both of which gave 90 percent of their election coverage to Capriles and Maduro, respectively.
This would include the aggressively pro-opposition NTN24 from Colombia, whose journalists had their press passes revoked last week; and CNN en español, among others. The market share split of 74-26 for private-public major stations is based on “recent key newsworthy events” and likely reflects a measurement based on events that all the major stations are showing at the same time, e.g. Chavez’s funeral, which is cited as one of these events. In such a situation, it is believable that VTV, the main state channel, can get 26 percent of the audience share of that news programming. However it is less likely that a station that on average has only an 8.4 percent overall market share, has viewers that are constantly switching to it from much bigger private channels to get news during a longer period of time, for example during weeks of election coverage.