by Andres Canizalez
(IPS) CARACAS --
short-lived coup d'etat and President Hugo Chavez's return to power not only threw the political system into crisis, but the public and private media as well, which analysts say will have to answer to the citizenry for the role they played in the recent events.
The country went from one extreme to another in 48 hours, with the overthrow of Chavez by the military high command, the installation of an interim government headed by business leader Pedro Carmona, who dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court, and the return of the president who had been constitutionally elected in December 1998.
Local news coverage, especially by the TV stations, also went from one extreme to another between April 11 and 14 (Thursday to Sunday). The abundant and immediate reports on Chavez's fall and Carmona's ascent late last week stood in sharp contrast to the near total silence that surrounded the president's return over the weekend.
The political crisis has raised the need to debate the media's responsibility to inform the public, above and beyond their own interests, according to communication analysts.
Not only the role played by the privately owned media, which are anti-Chavez, has been questioned. Before his downfall, the president also made "excessive and arbitrary use" of the law forcing all media outlets to broadcast the government's messages to the nation, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
The aim of the government's barrage of nationally broadcast messages was to counteract the bias of the reports by the main private media outlets.
"I did not feel there was a media conspiracy. But on Saturday I began to think there might be when the government of Carmona was collapsing and Chavez's supporters were taking to the streets en masse, and you didn't see any of that on TV," Jose Suarez, a graduate student in social communications, told IPS.
Alberto Federico Ravell, the president of Globovision -- which broadcasts news coverage around the clock -- denied that there was any agreement among the TV stations to obscure the massive pro-Chavez demonstrations.
Ravell himself said Friday, when Carmona was installed in power, that the TV stations had broken through the partial media blackout that Chavez tried to impose shortly before the coup, when he shut down a number of private stations. "We took the risk," the president of Globovisión said at that time.
Using satellite and cable TV systems, several Venezuelan stations got around the government's censorship attempt. But they suddenly went mum when it came to reporting on Carmona's ouster and Chavez's return to the presidential palace of Miraflores.
The TV stations "really were showing us a virtual world, putting on only cartoons, game shows like 'The War of the Sexes', and documentaries," said Suarez, who argued that the media should have "somehow found a way" to report on what was happening even if they were under some kind of threat from powerful anti-Chavez interests.
On Saturday, thousands of Venezuelans turned to international TV broadcasts on cable and satellite stations to find out what was happening in their own country. Meanwhile, "security reasons" kept the leading newspapers, with the exception of one, from putting out their Sunday editions.
The recent developments in this South American oil producing country of 23 million should "make us think about the kind of journalism we have been practicing, and what kind we want to practice," Marcelino Bisbal, former director of the specialized journal 'Comunicacion', told IPS.
But not only journalists and editors, but the government as well, must reflect on that question, said Bisbal, who is also a former head of the School of Social Communication at Venezuela's Central University.
"The communication media and reporters must understand that they are not the protagonists of this story. The protagonist is the news, the information, and that goes for the public as well as the private media outlets," said the analyst.
In his first press conference Monday, Chavez offered a conciliatory message, apologizing to the media for verbally abusing them in the past few months. He also urged his supporters "not to bother" reporters and photo-journalists, who he said "are not responsible for the news policies of the media outlets they work for."
That message was a first for Chavez, who in his three years in office, and especially in recent months, has repeatedly accused the media of conspiring against the government.
For example, he did not criticize a demonstration by his supporters, when they blocked access to the offices of the Caracas newspaper El Nacional.
Reporters have complained to human rights groups that they have received telephone or e-mail threats since Chavez reclaimed the presidency. Government sympathizers also threw stones at a TV station, although they did not injure anyone.
On Saturday, in the midst of an enormous demonstration outside the presidential palace, Chavez supporters complained to IPS that the TV stations did not cover their demonstrations while "they didn't miss any protest by the opposition, no matter how tiny."
"The private stations have made Venezuela disappear from the TV screens," commented Luis Britto Garcia, a reporter, writer and professor of the history of political thought at the Central University of Venezuela.
"The broadcast media owe the public explanations if they want to preserve an ounce of credibility," said the former director of the Institute of Communication Research Elizabeth Safar.
On Monday, Ravell admitted that "there was a day without adequate information," and recognized that "the role of the media was distorted by everything that was happening in the country."
Safar told IPS that the crisis made it clear that "both the government and the owners of the media acted outside the limits of the constitution, by violating guarantees on the citizens' right to information."
Venezuela's constitution, which was approved by a popular referendum in 1999, guarantees freedom of expression and establishes that Venezuelans have "the right to timely, accurate and impartial information."
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