Silence and Propaganda in the Americas

(International Relations and Security Network, 31/05/2007)


A recent string of events around the Americas, from Mexico to Venezuela, has forced the silence of important voices, making room for government propaganda in some cases and demonstrating the raw power of crime in others.


Violence in Mexico has forced the closure of Cambio Sonora, a daily out of Hermosillo. President Hugo Chavez has removed venerable Venezuelan radio and television broadcast station RCTV from the public airwaves, replacing the channel with a pro-government news and culture programming station. In Honduras, President Manuel Zelaya has ordered all television and radio stations to air two hours of pro-government news and information for 10 days.


With such an intense media focus on the unfortunate path toward ruin taken by freedom of speech in Venezuela, other, similar news has received less coverage. When considered together, all three events register a remarkable level of restriction on journalism: a sign that does not bode well for the future of journalists, activists and critics in Mexico, Honduras and Venezuela.


Just days after shutting down RCTV, Chavez accused both US-based news network CNN and Venezuelan media outlet Globovision of attempting to destabilize the government. Venezuelan communications minister, Willian Lara, has publicly accused Globovision, a 24-hour news station, of inciting the plot to kill president Hugo Chavez during the April 2002 fiasco that saw Chavez removed from power for two days. He also accused CNN of attempting to link the Venezuelan government to Al Qaida through the juxtapositioning of video segments.


Chavez used the same argument when he announced in December 2006 that RCTV would not have its license renewed in May. Unlike other independent media in Venezuela, RCTV did not taper criticism of Chavez's government. Even in the face of stiff pressure, RCTV continued to broadcast scathing reports on the Venezuelan government.


Tensions remain high. After three days of protests over the RCTV closure and demonstrations in support of Chavez, over 180 have been arrested. Tear gas canisters, rocks and rubber bullets continue to fly through the air. Analysts in Caracas agree that despite what RCTV's closure means for the future of journalism in Venezuela, Chavez has spent an enormous amount of political capital to push through this obviously unpopular decision.


Meanwhile in Hermosillo, Mexico, less than 120 miles from the US-Mexico border, two grenade attacks have rocked the local news daily, Cambio Sonora, so far this year. Reporting on local criminal activities likely provoked these attacks, forcing the closure. Two other dailies in the northern industrial city of Monterrey have stopped asking their reporters to "dig deeply" into crime stories, according to The Washington Post. Other attacks have been registered with news offices in Nuevo Laredo.


Writing a letter to the state governor in the wake of the attacks, Cambio Sonora's director elicited no response or offer of security for the paper's journalists. Most agree the paper will not re-open until the government can ensure their safety. It is unlikely. Mexico today is considered the second deadliest county for working journalists, after Iraq. At least 30 reporters have died in the past six years in Mexico.


Safety in Honduras is not better. The country's president, Manuel Zelaya, tried and failed to pressure Congress there to legislate a bill that would force media to reduce the coverage of violent crime. He did succeed in strong-arming more state presence on the airwaves, however. As of 28 May, media outlets had to begin broadcasting interviews with the president and other government ministers so they may accurately present the government's position to counter "misinformation" about the government, according to the BBC. This is a limited, ten-day measure, yet it has drawn significant criticism.


The country's leading journalist union has spoken out against Zelaya's order, comparing him to military governments that ran Honduras in the 1970s and 1980s. Opposition members of Congress have called the move undemocratic.


Clearly President Felipe Calderon in Mexico and Zelaya in Honduras have a significant challenge with crime and violence. In Mexico, the closure of a newspaper chain and the growing tendency of self-censorship among journalists a sign of how deeply organized crime has rooted itself as a parallel power. Zelaya's actions smack of desperation. His government is likely overwhelmed by the country's security challenge, one Zelaya has neither the resources nor the international support to fight.


The Venezuelan case is all together different but no less disappointing. Chavez's push to close independent media and limit the freedom of speech comes at a high cost, the measure of which may be felt the next time he tries to exercise his power in the face of growing unpopularity.