For over a decade, we have witnessed a procession of well-publicized reports about the demise of press freedom in Venezuela. Most recently, accusations that the Venezuelan government is stifling expression were leveled against Nicolás Maduro as part of the international social-media campaign #SOSVenezuela. Defenders of the Maduro government have, in turn, denounced the denouncers. They assert that this is another attempt to undermine a democratic project with spurious accusations.
Debates about press freedom in Venezuela are highly polarized (Schiller 2013). Many who have opposed the Chávez and Maduro governments understand changes to Venezuela’s media world over the past fifteen years as a blatant attack on press freedom and an effort to consolidate an authoritarian regime. They frame their struggle as a defense of civil and political liberties, and point to laws regulating media content, the shuttering of hostile news stations, and the expansion of state media as evidence that democratic rights are under assault.
In contrast, supporters of the Bolivarian revolution view the political terrain instead as a guerra mediatica, or media war. They argue that the commercial media represents the interests of the national and global capitalist elites who have turned to propaganda and outright misrepresentation in order to undermine the development of a socialist project. They point to the role that the private press played in a failed coup d’état against President Chávez, its participation in an oil strike that paralyzed the national economy, and its cynical manipulation of images and statistics.
Here, we offer ethnographically-grounded observations about the practice of media producers in Venezuela, based on Robert’s research among professional journalists working for the commercial press and Naomi’s research with community television producers aligned with the Bolivarian Revolution at a station called Catia TVe. The widespread media practice of denouncing social, political, and economic problems in Venezuela challenges narratives about the demise of press freedom. Furthermore, these denuncias reveal how journalism in Venezuela can paradoxically both deepen and threaten democratic forms of expression and action.
* * *
No practice is more closely linked to the exercise of press freedom in Venezuela than the practice of denunciation. During the fourteen years that Chávez was in power, scores of denuncias were broadcast by private, community, and state-based media outlets. For many doing research in Venezuela, the sheer volume of accusations in circulation made it rather straightforward to counter claims that press freedom was dead (which is not to say that reports of censorship were unfounded).
In disseminating denuncias, journalists may assert that they are neutral, removed observers of the wrongdoing they document, the preferred idiom of professional journalism. Or they may claim a role as active participants in catalyzing community response and involvement in local problem-solving, the framework of community media producers. Either way, these kinds of denuncias tend to legitimize the broad institutional framework by claiming that the answer to problems is revision, not regime change.
However, denuncias also allow media producers to take up the function of an activist vanguard against the existing status quo. In this capacity, the press becomes an unapologetic political protagonist, and mass-mediated denuncias become a tool of popular movements in making demands, including those of regime change (Samet 2013). Under conditions of extreme political polarization, this form of denunciation can quickly overshadow the kinds of denuncias that focus on reforming existing institutions. Instead of acting as a watchdog, the media assumes the role of attack dog. Denuncias often devolve into cynical tools of political warfare.
* * *
What happens to press freedom and debates about press freedom under conditions of extreme political polarization? Is it reduced to an empty signifier, a value that each group believes it upholds and that its enemies oppose?
In the international arena, this seems to be the case. Since the beginning of the Chávez era, national and international elites denounced the Venezuelan government for obstructing press freedom. Yet, during President Chávez’s first term in office, Venezuela would likely have outstripped the United States in most, if not all, metrics of press freedom.
The preemptive labeling of Venezuela as a violator of press freedom early in Chávez’s presidency sent a clear message to the Venezuelan government that the private press and its international allies were more concerned with overthrowing the government than with upholding democracy. Regardless of whether or not press freedom was actually under attack, the government would be accused of stifling it. To make matters worse, preemptively labeling Venezuela a violator of press freedom damaged the ability of watchdogs to do their job. By crying wolf, they lost both leverage and credibility.
The damage done to the credibility of defenders of press freedom is all the more alarming, as the atmosphere of openness in Venezuela has deteriorated in recent years. Under current conditions, the channels for good-faith denunciations seem to be narrowing. The opposition news outlets that once dominated the media landscape have been greatly neutralized under the legal and financial muscle of the Maduro administration. Likewise, supporters of the Bolivarian revolution stifle internal critique as the government and chavistas close ranks to protect Maduro’s legitimacy.
If there is space for hope, we find it at the grassroots level, among the media producers and journalists who are doing the hard work of documenting people’s lives and crafting narratives that expose the complexity of the challenges they face. Among producers at Catia TVe, this meant using the process of media production to catalyze barrio-based activism. Among journalists on the Caracas crime beat, this meant fact-based reporting and following important stories regardless of their political ramifications. These are, to be certain, different visions of media and democracy, but they share a commitment to good-faith reporting, to processes of political self-determination, and to ensuring accountability.
Robert Samet is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Union College; Naomi Schiller is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brooklyn College, CUNY.
Schiller, Naomi. 2013. “Reckoning with Press Freedom: Community Media, Liberalism, and the Processual State in Caracas, Venezuela.” American Ethnologist 40, no. 3: 540–54.
Samet, Robert. 2013. “The Photographer’s Body: Populism, Polarization, and the Uses of Victimhood in Venezuela.” American Ethnologist 40, no. 3: 525–39.