Hugo Chavez's Media Restrictions Prompt Worries In Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, a number of the most ardent anti-government news media have been silenced. A new television station promising fair and balanced news has been launched, but some are concerned that media freedom is at risk.
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Hugo Chavez's Media Restrictions Prompt Worries

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Hugo Chavez's Media Restrictions Prompt Worries

Hugo Chavez's Media Restrictions Prompt Worries

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

At one time, most of Venezuela's powerful private television stations were lined up against President Hugo Chavez's government. They were part of a determined opposition. Now, Chavez, who is stronger than ever, is taking more and more control over the airwaves. And that's a big deal, as Chavez promotes a new constitution that could keep him in power for years to come.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas.

JUAN FORERO: In the last five years, President Chavez has, bit-by-bit, amplified his voice, increasingly influencing what gets aired. The government has founded three television stations and invested heavily in the traditional state station. It's also helped start 200 community radio stations. And critics say it's cowed two once-vociferous opponents - both of them private television channels.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

FORERO: A third station, RCTV, target of pro-government protesters, has been silenced. In May, the station finally lost its license to broadcast on the public airwaves. The government had accused it of participating in a failed coup in 2002. That's led to widespread concern about press freedoms in Venezuela.

Manuel Rosales is an opposition leader. He says the government's influence over the airwaves means opponents of an upcoming constitutional reform will have a hard time getting their message out.

SIEGEL: (Through translator) It minimizes us. It puts us in a situation of near silence in the face of government abuses. We don't have channels that we can provide our thinking, give our complaints.

FORERO: That's not quite true. There's still Globovision, a 24-hour stridently anti-government news channel, and also some of the country' biggest papers. And then, there's the latest television station in Venezuela.

Welcome to Channel I, a bustling operation with a staff of 200.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORERO: (Speaking in foreign language).

FORERO: Channel I pledges to present news impartially - hardly unusual - except here in Venezuela, where the news media has been fiercely partisan since Chavez won office in 1998.

FORERO: (Speaking in foreign language).

FORERO: Channel I is owned by a businessman close to the president, Wilmer Ruperti. When the opposition launched an oil strike in 2002, nearly shuddering production, Ruperti came to the government's rescue. Using his seven oil tankers, he busted the strike, taking oil out, bringing gasoline in. Ruperti says he's in the news business for a reason, and that reason is Venezuela.

M: Everybody knows that we have problems. We have to understand what problems are. There are a lot of good things happening in Venezuela that has to be showed.

FORERO: Ruperti says he's hired journalists from across the political map, and he says there's no pressure on them to twist the news. Rosales, the opposition leader, scoff at such claims.

SIEGEL: (Through translator) If you're an entrepreneur who has all his business with the government, are you going to talk bad about that government?

SIEGEL: Venezuelans have become accustomed to advocacy journalism like government-funded community radio stations. One particularly active on is Negro Primero, located in a poor Caracas neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

FORERO: On a recent day, the stations reporters covered a protest by people fed up with their housing. But they didn't just report, they participated. Reporter Carlos Lugo says he's not a journalist, but rather what he calls a spokesman for the community.

M: (Through translator) We're connected to the people, that's what we need to promote.

FORERO: Some residents, though, say that the station is as interested about promoting the government. Consuelo Hasbe(ph) is among them.

M: (Through translator) I don't listen to that community radio. There's no impartiality. The ones there are with the regime.

FORERO: It's that kind of skepticism that the journalists at Channel I are facing.

FORERO: (Speaking in foreign language).

FORERO: (Speaking in foreign language).

FORERO: (Speaking in foreign language).

FORERO: Laura Guerrero(ph) watches a newscast from the control room. She's worked at big private stations for nearly 20 years. Now, she's directing the news here and she's not worried by suggestions that Channel I is pro- government.

M: (Through translator) We have a wonderful opportunity to treat information in an even-handed way and let people decide what to believe.

FORERO: It sounds simple enough. But here in Venezuela, it could well be an impossible challenge.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas, Venezuela.

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