As droves of international journalists arrived to Caracas, we live tweeted the election results and watched the votes come in through our preferred media platform. Now that it’s over, we must wonder: Did Venezuelans see the same thing we did?
Venezuela ranks 168 out of 197 countries on Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2012 rankings. Venezuela’s Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media is vaguely worded and has helped the government suppress both organizations and individuals that have spoken out against the authoritarian regime. Through a combination of fines, scare tactics to discourage advertisements, and threats to potential partners, the law is effectively isolating private media companies that are critical of the government. The last standing independent television network, Globovisión, was the best hope for unbiased election coverage amidst the sea of state-sponsored television networks.
Sadly, Globovisión’s legacy as a free press outlet is coming to a close. On March 11, the owner announced that the company had become "economically," "legally," and "politically unviable” because of heavy government fines and scare tactics. Globovisión will change ownership after the election, and is anticipated to be less critical of the state and not occupy its former “watchdog” role.
So then, who will? Did Venezuela lose its only whistleblowing media outlet?
In a word, no. Some of the country’s newspapers and print outlets are private, independent, and granted more leeway than television networks sympathetic to the opposition. Many publish editorials that are critical of the government, and while they occasionally receive government or police threats, they have yet to face the same economic hardships that Globovisión did.
While the sale of Globovisión will not be the end of Venezuelan whistleblowing media as an entity, it could be the end for some individuals. The biggest loss after Globovisión transfers ownership will be felt among the working class. Print newspapers, usually considered an accessory for the elites, are largely ignored and unread by the working class. A much higher percentage of the country gets their news from television and radio sources instead of print. With the loss of Globovisión, working class Venezuelans will lose access to information about the opposition and criticism of the current regime.
For working class Venezuelans, the alternative to state-based television is radio. The government has popularized community-based radio stations in poor neighborhoods where the members do not have access to popular private media, like television. These radio stations, however, are not much different than the state-based television. Although the community members create their own radio content, it must be within the accepted parameters of the government, and there are specific time allocations for certain types of programming. This process for creating their own radio content is as close to freedom of expression as many Venezuelans can get.
The coverage of Maduro’s victory and the ease with which the mainstream media dismissed Capriles is troublesome. Although elites protested, wrote educated opinion pieces, and articulately explained why they side with the opposition, they were preaching to the choir. Their arguments were seen by each other and by international sympathizers, but rarely reached the vast working class population in Venezuela.
The biggest losers in this situation are no doubt the members of the working class. The implications of the death of Globovisión and increasing prevalence of state-based media represent a narrowing-down of information sources and consequently, a less informed public. Working class Venezuelans are increasingly hearing news that are more homogenous, less critical, and more hostile to opposition forces.
As Venezuela faces six more years of an authoritarian regime, their private media outlets are in danger of the same fate that Globovisión faced. Moreover, working class Venezuelans will find it more difficult to learn about the opposition as the law continues infringing upon media outlets’ freedom of expression.