Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaks with the press. (Photo: Getty Images)
Denis MacShane attacks the British left for defending Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, against an onslaught from the media, "new cold warriors", and rightwing demagogues throughout the world. His rhetorical trick is to tar the left with a new media law currently being debated in the Venezuelan congress, which he says "would impose prison sentences of up to four years for journalists whose writings might divulge information against 'the stability of the institutions of the state'."
Of course this is a bad law. There are a number of bad laws on the books in Venezuela, and in fact numerous countries in the region have desacato (pdf) laws that make it a crime to insult the president. Do MacShane's targets - he mentions Ken Livingstone and Richard Gott - support such laws? I would bet serious money that they do not. So his main line of attack is misleading if not downright dishonest.
MacShane also misrepresents the reality of press freedom in Venezuela. In fact, there is a much more oppositional media in Venezuela than in the US, and a much greater range of debate in the major media. This can be seen simply by looking at the most important media in both countries. In the US, for example, not even the most aggressive rightwing commentators such as Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity would present the idea that the president should be lynched. But Globovision, one of the largest-audience TV networks, had a show where a guest did just that.
This is not an isolated example in Venezuela. Its media routinely broadcasts reporting and commentary that would not be allowed under FCC rules in the US. And the vast majority of the media in Venezuela is still controlled by the rightwing opposition. This fact was buried in a footnote in a highly prejudiced and misleading 230-page report by Human Rights Watch. The footnote acknowledged that RCTV, which lost its broadcast licence for a long list of offences that would have landed its owners in jail in the US, still has a cable audience that is bigger than all the Venezuelan state television combined.
If the US had a media like Venezuela's, Barack Obama could never have been elected president. That's because the majority of Americans would have believed, as those beholden to some rightwing sources do, that he is a Muslim who was not born in the US. Think of Fox News and the Washington Times as the vast majority of the US media - that is the reality in Venezuela, only the media is more political and less accurate than America's biggest rightwing outlets.
What happens when our major media threaten to step over the line and become political actors? They almost never do it, but in 2004, two weeks before the 2004 US election, the Sinclair Broadcast Group of Maryland, which owns the largest chain of TV stations in the US, decided to broadcast a film that accused candidate John Kerry of betraying US prisoners in Vietnam.
Nineteen Democratic senators sent a letter to the FCC calling for an investigation, and some made public statements that Sinclair's broadcast licence could be in jeopardy if it carried its plans through. Sinclair backed down and did not broadcast the film.
The Venezuelan media is not so restricted. Of course that does not justify this new proposed law, which is terrible. But neither does it justify the widespread misrepresentation of the reality of press freedom in Venezuela. (Even if this new law were to pass, it would have little or no effect, since it would not be enforced and would probably be ruled unconstitutional by the country's supreme court.) Venezuela is not Colombia, where journalists have to flee the country in fear of their lives when the president denounces them.
MacShane is taking advantage of the fact that after 10 years of media misrepresentation with no significant countervailing force, anyone can say anything about Venezuela and Chavez and it will not be challenged. A group of Latin America scholars recently bought a full-page ad in the Columbia Journalism Review to call attention to outright fabrications by the Associated Press.
My congratulations to the British left for not caving in to this crude McCarthyism. We need more courage like that in the world.