Worldview Commentary No. 259 on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM WBEZ

Author: Susan Good

“Farewell to Free Press in Moscow and Caracas”

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“This is not the U.S.S.R.,” Sunday’s New York Times quotes a researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center. In the Soviet Union, “every print or broadcasting outlet was preliminarily censored.”

Stalinist censorship, however, is not the only way to eviscerate a free press. Or to negate its essential roles in a democracy: to probe power and to inform debate.

Just ask Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez. In strikingly similar ways, the two presidents have found more subtle, yet effective ways to stifle, if not altogether silence, their media critics. As a result of their ingenuity, freedom of the press is now on the ropes in both Russia and Venezuela.

In Russia, reports the Times, Putin has taken the precaution of simply taking over control of the three national TV networks. The State owns two of them outright, while a State energy company, Gazprom, owns the third. Meanwhile a bank tied to Putin has recently upped its ownership share of another channel that “sometimes” criticizes the government.

Not content with neutering TV, Putin has found businesses loyal to the Kremlin to take over Russia’s largest independent radio news network. The new managers have announced a new editorial policy: from now on, at least half of all news reports on Russia must be positive. Never mind the facts, ma’am.

Where might this lead? Consider one recent Saturday when 54 people were beaten by police in Moscow. That evening the State-owned Rossiya TV led its hard-hitting newscast with shots of Putin attending a martial arts competition.

Although small newspapers generally remain independent, their day may come too. Prosecutors have begun to pursue people who post critical comments in internet chat rooms.

Venezuela’s Chavez competes with Putin in squeezing the freedom out of the press. Five years ago Chavez was infuriated when most of the media supported a failed coup attempt against him. He responded with threats, chills and take-over’s.

In 2005 he got the Chavez-controlled Congress to adopt a new media law. It punishes press outlets that “promote” or “apologize” for such vaguely defined offenses as “alterations of public order” and statements “contrary to national security.” Since the law is subject to enforcement by Chavez-controlled courts, journalists must now tread carefully in covering demonstrations, protests and even speeches against Chavez.

The business families that own two of the three private national TV networks got the message. They cut their deal with Chavez: he lets them stay in business, free of undue harassment, and they let him stay in office, free of undue criticism.

The third network, the nation’s most popular, stubbornly resisted. Its public affairs programs persisted in taking pokes at the President. Chavez retaliated by threatening not to renew the network’s license next month when, according to Chavez, the license expires. (The network’s lawyers say the license is actually good for another 20 years.)

It now seems clear that Chavez will carry out his threat. When the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, the respected former Foreign Minister of Chile, José Miguel Insulza, dared to criticize the threat to shut down Venezuela’s last independent national TV network, Chavez denounced him as a “pendejo,” an epithet whose meaning in Spanish ranges from a dope to an obscenity.

The threatened shutdown is now before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and may soon be raised before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. But even if these bodies intervene, Chavez may choose to dismiss them, too, as pendejos.

As in Russia, one more independent TV station, which carries only in Caracas, one other city and on cable, remains openly critical of Chavez. But if the biggest national network goes under, guess who will be the dessert?

Chavez deploys other techniques as well. As in Russia, State-owned media now proliferate in Venezuela. In Caracas this month, I was serenaded by several hours of State TV footage of Chavez hamming it up at a conference.

Another favorite Chavez technique is to require all TV and radio stations to provide live coverage of his public addresses. This prime time media saturation often lasts for several hours, several times a week.

As in Russia, Venezuelan print media remain largely free, but in view of the new press law and other intimidation, are becoming more timid by the day.

Where might this lead in Venezuela? In Caracas this month, I was with a noted human rights lawyer when he received a call from a reporter asking him to comment on a story. The lawyer, who in years past would have denounced the latest government outrage, declined to comment. Nowadays, he explained, you have to pick your shots.

With all branches of government firmly in his grip, Chavez will reign virtually unchecked once he finishes off the free press. The only thing to stop him, assuming he does not go so far as to do away with elections as well, is the power of public opinion – but of a public increasingly ill-informed and ever more drenched in pro-Chavez propaganda.

Fear not, then, that Stalinism will rise from the dead in Russia and Venezuela. Fear, instead, that it does not need to. Putin and Chavez have found more palatable ways to dominate the mass media. Who needs censorship, when you can buy, chill, and manipulate your way to a compliant press?

Doug Cassel’s commentaries are generally broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM, and rebroadcast at 9 PM in the evening. Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago Public Radio.