Denis MacShane attacks the British left for defending Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez against an onslaught from the media, "New Cold Warriors," and right-wing 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" laws which 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 United States, 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 U.S., for example, not even the most aggressive right-wing 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 in Venezuela, had a show where a guest did just that.
This is not an isolated example in Venezuela. The media there routinely broadcasts reporting and commentary that would not be allowed under FCC rules here. And the vast majority of the media in Venezuela is still controlled by the right-wing opposition. This fact was buried in a footnote in Human Rights Watch's highly prejudiced and misleading 230 page report on Venezuela. The footnote acknowledged that RCTV, which lost its broadcast license for a long list of offenses that would have landed its owners in jail in the United States, still has a cable audience that is bigger than all of the Venezuelan state television combined.
If the United States had a media like Venezuela's, President Obama could never have been elected. That's because the majority of Americans would have believed, as those beholden to some right-wing sources do, that he is a Muslim who was not born in the United States. Think of Fox News and the Washington Times as the vast majority of the U.S. media -- that is the reality in Venezuela, only the media is more political and less accurate than our biggest right-wing outlets.
What happens when our major media threatens to step over the line and become a political actor? They almost never do it, but two weeks before the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, the Sinclair Broadcast Group of Maryland, which owns the largest chain of TV stations in the U.S., decided to broadcast a film that accused candidate John Kerry of betraying U.S. prisoners in Vietnam.
Nineteen Democratic senators sent a letter to the US FCC calling for an investigation, and some made public statements that Sinclair's broadcast license could be in jeopardy if it carried through with its plans. Sinclair backed down and did not broadcast the film.
The Venezuelan media is not so restricted as in the U.S. 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 Colombia Journalism Review to call attention to outright fabrications by the Associated Press.
My congratulations to the British left for not caving to this crude McCarthyism. We need more courage like that in the world.
This column was published by The Guardian Unlimited on August 4, 2009.