Freedom of Expression

The Venezuelan government issued a decree (Decree 6649) back in March 2009 which sought to forbid “superfluous or luxury spending in the national public sector”. These so called ‘luxuries’ include mobile phones, the use of the Internet and other technological equipment. Things that we take for granted in the West as a neccessity. This has sent shockwaves throughout the online community who are increasingly concerned about the impact that this will have on the capacity of ICTs to foster social development and economic growth. They fear that education, research and development projects will be severely hampered if internet use is further eroded by what Chavez defines as ‘rational’ use.

In response to these draconian measures a wave of internet activism has sprung up and a cyber-war has begun. The University of the Andes has launched a campaign, Internet Prioritaria (Essential Internet), to raise awareness of the importance of access to the Internet and pressurize the government to amend the decree.

The logo for Internet Prioritaria who are internet activists lobbying the government to keep internet development as a priority.The campaign argues that developing an information society is integral to economic development 


Their objectives are as follows:

We seek to revise the inclusion of Internet and its technological infrastructure in the list of superfluous and non-essential items published in Decree 6649.

To  maintain research and educational programs that is made possible because of the Internet.

To maintain the status of Internet use as a priority, to develop technologies associated with Internet use that could be helpful in the public sector, and to support research on information technologies.

To place the use of these technologies in the discussion around Venezuelan media so there could be a deep dialogue on the weight of Internet in development, as well as the importance of digital literacy.

 The campaign has embraced all kinds of new media. They have used the power of social networking sites to get their voices heard by using YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Numerous blogs and other digital spaces have also joined in. However the views of the Venezuelan blogosphere are divided. Some argue that the decree is another attempt to restrict freedom of speech. Whilst others feel that these cyber-activists are over-reacting to this new law and purposely trying to raise alarm. One blogger argues that there has been a misinterpretation of the new decree:

“The decree says clearly that the main goal is to “optimize savings in the public sector.” This does not mean that the Internet is going to be banned or eliminated; it means that it is necessary to purge this activity, even if it is a very reasonable and necessary activity, “using limited resources in a better way.”

The campaign should be devoted to INFORM and to point out clearly what are the elements that could make Internet a sumptuary expense. They should talk about how social organization can help to generate more “solidarity” in their proposals.

Other blogs on the topic worth a look:

The government has defended its decisions by arguing that they don’t want to ban the internet and are merely putting more focus and funding into economic priorities.

Whatever your viewpoint, this kind of cyber-activism has opened up a debate forum for bloggers across Venezuela to discuss issues of freedom of speech, media censorship and the role of the internet in the development of their country. If one good thing has come from this decree, it is that at least people are now openly talking about the issues affecting the media.

To put the impact of this decree into context it is worse a brief look at the academic discourse surrounding the relationship between ICTs and economic development. Howard (2007) argues that digital communication techonologies play a critical role in economic and political development whilst Lugo-Ocando (2008) recognises the direct links between economic wealth and the development of an information society in Latin America. The role of the internet in development should not be underplayed. Stratton (2000) argues that it promotes non-english cuture to the world through cyberspace as webpages, podcasts and blogs have, espcially in the case of Venezuela,  created imagined communities and greater connectivity between everyday people.

In my opinion this decree will inhibit development and increase the digital divide between the internet ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ both within South America and with the rest of the world. Castells (2000) has already warned that the ‘network society’ is creating wider economic and social disparities across the globe and singled out South America as a continent that could become ‘fourth world’ because of its limited technological advancements. This decree stands directly opposed to media development discourse and it seems Chavez’s decree might force this Castell’s predictions to come true.


I read a ridiculous article in El Universal, a Venezuelan paper, today titled ‘Chávez, Correa call for regional body on media and human rights’. If any more proof was needed of Chavez’s increasingly authoritarian method of rule then this is it. President Correa of Ecuador and President Chavez of Venezuela have called for an agency that “defends governments from abuses of the press” and described the media as the greatest enemy of the socialist model. They have clearly set their sights on the media as their enemy and seek to curtail their freedom every further.

Correa claimed that these new measures were aimed at tackling corruption within the media industry and came out with fighting talk:

‘We have to confront and defeat this great, unpunished power … and punish those abuses that are committed in the name of freedom of expression.’

Both presidents have accused the media of following the dictates of the opposition and distorting information in an effort to harm their governments. Chavez has effectively intimidated the media into submission with only a few mavericks continuing to defy him. This latest announcement shows that his regime will not tolerate any kind of criticism in the future.

Here is the link to the article. In my opinion it is a step closer to full media censorship taking hold in Latin America and is extremely worrying…

President Chavez presenting 'Alo Presidente'. His programmes are notorious for spoteneity and longevity - He once talked for more than eight hours non-stop. Photo courtesy of -

President Chavez presenting 'Alo Presidente'. His programmes are notorious for spoteneity and longevity - He once talked for more than eight hours non-stop. Photo courtesy of -

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been celebrating this week as his television and radio program ‘Alo Presidente’ marked its 10th anniversary. The program, which goes out live every Sunday, is watched by both supporters and opponents of the Chavez regime. The show involves the unveiling of new policies, retorts to criticisms, lambasting foreign and opposition leaders, live phone-ins from a carefully selected audience and even celebrity guests. These guests have been as diverse as Diego Maradona and Danny Glover to a live phone call to best chum Fidel Castro. It has become an arena for Chavez to strengthen his loyal support base and further manipulate the power of the media for his own gain. He has truly developed the Chavez ‘brand’. The BBC’s Will Grant sums up the programme aptly:

 “Whether Venezuelans dismiss Alo Presidente as a crude propaganda tool or consider it the best thing on television, the programme looks set to remain on air for as long as Mr Chavez remains in office.”

Others have not been so diplomatic and reiterate the idea that television can be a top down and elitist medium used by dictators:

‘Chávez will go down in history as one of the major operators of a media outlet invented for dictators, that is, television. The stages in the short and violent life of the media are becoming distinct. And after the era of the press and the movies, beginning with the 1940’s, the era of radio and TV started for 55 years. Perfect tools to prevent the message from returning and allow the transmitter to speak to the entire world with no answer: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin.’ (Antonio Pasquali, communication theorist – see here for the link)

This all comes after fresh concerns from United Nations (UN) and Organisation of American States (OAS) officials that Chavez’s government is threatening free speech and intimidating the media. It’s all part of a long running battle between Chavez and the private media whom he seeks to control. The government is currently ‘investigating’ a leading anti-government television station; Globovision TV network is being accused of “media terrorism” by the government who claim that they incited panic and anxiety in its coverage of a minor earthquake on May 4th. It would seem that the station did what a credible media establishment should do – tell the facts and give a balanced account of the event. By openly criticizing the government for its slow response to the quake they’ve now been branded as ‘media terrorists’. Globovision is now the only anti-Chavez channel left on air as the rest have been intimidated into submission by arrests, revoking of licenses and raiding the homes of television executives.

Chavez has now imposed sanctions against the network. Frank La Rue of the United Nations, who monitors freedom of speech warned that these kind of actions “generate an atmosphere of intimidation in which the right to freedom of expression is seriously limited.”  Chavez’s retort was somewhat predictable. He accused the UN of having a media imperialist agenda and imposing the will of the West on Venezuela.

Chavez came to power in 1999 and his regime has been met by both adulation and loathing at home and abroad. Venezuelans remain split on their president: some say he speaks for the poor and is a man of the people whilst others fear he is becoming increasingly autocratic. A referendum in February 2009 saw the people vote for a change in the constitution allowing Chavez to run for office an unlimited number of times. It would seem ‘Alo Presidente’ might be around for another decade. This latest erosion of civil liberties and crack down on the opposition highlights the power that Chavez exerts over the media in Venezuela. He crushes any stations that criticize him and uses his own dedicated and thoroughly self indulgent Television programme as a blatant propaganda exercise.

Media ethics in the third world - a tough balancing act? Photo courtesy of:
Media ethics in the third world – a tough balancing act? Photo courtesy of:

The journalists’ role in developing countries is complex and contradictory. There is a set of universal principles of journalism which include freedom of expression, objectivity, truth and social responsibility. There is controversial debate surrounding the question as to whether these principles, code of ethics and professional ideology inherent in western journalism actually translate into practice for the development journalist in the third world, where conditions are very different. According to Musa and Dumatob (2007) in post colonial societies there are tensions between social responsibility and journalistic principles and the practicalities of implementing these principles. For them development journalism is distinct from other forms of journalism; professional values of development journalism do not align with the western model.

What is a development journalist? A simple question but extremely hard to answer. Are they truth tellers? Civic advocates? Liberators? Watchdogs? Government propagandists? The truth is they still aren’t sure themselves:

“Development journalism eschews a dogmatic adversarial posture toward government…it doesn’t require journalists to become lapdogs” Musa and Domatob (2007).

They argue that a balance needs to be found between these two extremes. Sooner or later development journalists need to decide what role they want to play and stick to it. Is there a need for a re-examination of media practices for the third world?

The media as a lapdog?

As Latin American countries gained independence their leaders saw the media as an institution that could and would play a salient role in fulfilling development goals and national building (Schramm 1964).  Media is still seen as an instrument of modernisation imposed by the west as development journalists are expected to partner with the government in a drive to improve socio-economic conditions for the people. Conversely in developed countries the media emerged as part of the economic structure of these countries.

The media as the peoples’ advocate?

To return briefly to the argument of Musa and Domatob, they stipulate that development journalists can take on the role of ‘peoples advocate’ – giving a ‘voice to the voiceless’. Latin America boasts a plethora of examples of the ways in which development journalists have empowered the marginalised and raised indigenous issues onto the governmental agenda. “The People’s Radio” of Vila Nossa Senhora in Brazil powerfully illustrates Musa and Domatobs’ argument.

Vila Nossa Senhora Aparecida today - photo by Vitor Rodrigo Dias courtesy of

Vila Nossa Senhora Aparecida today - photo by Vitor Rodrigo Dias courtesy of

This community radio project was established on outskirts of Sao Paolo in the 1980s by migrant workers to provide them with the means of receiving information about government events; radio was also used as a medium through which they could voice their concerns and initiate debate. TV programmes were westernised in outlook and portrayed industrial southern Brazil and its relatively affluent lifestyle as the true urban Brazil. This image attracted rural populations in their droves and ultimately led to problems with integration and identity for these once subsistence farmers. The radio project was inspired by the use of loudspeakers as popular radios in Villa El Salvador on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. The station was set up using a basic tape recorder, amplifier, microphone and loudspeaker wired to the church tower and transmission was over an area of 3 km. The broad aims of the station were to use the oral medium as a vehicle for mobilisation and empowerment.

‘In Shanty towns nobody knows how to read…people have an aversion to paper’ (Sao Paolo News 1986).

Radio reiterated the importance of the oral culture for rural migrants and overcame the hurdle of illiteracy. After the success of this project 19 sister stations sprang up across the region under the umbrella of the ‘Project for Non Written Communication of the Eastern Zone’. The group developed communication and technical skills at a grassroots level, ideas were exchanged between communities and locally produced programmes and audio visual materials were made. A news group was created to read daily papers and journals as well as providing a critical commentary on them. Schelling (1999) describes this as the development of a ‘new communicational order’ where communication is participatory, two way and dialogic. The poor were not seen merely as receivers of information but producers of it.

The results of this communication network are far reaching. Firstly radio played an educative role by raising awareness of social and political issues and providing basic information to help the community. It also created a sense of community and celebrated the values of rural culture for these migrants.

Secondly it created a culture of resistance by giving these migrants the power to resist marginalisation and push for development from below. This is an example of how the ‘radio’ can be a double edged sword for the development journalist. Empowering the masses also politicises them and can ultimately lead to rebellion. This brings me back to my first point that the development journalist is stuck in the middle of the government and the people unsure of who he/she is serving. On one hand the development journalist is partnering with the government to disseminate its literature and publicise its events. On the other by educating workers about their rights and providing them with civic media tools they are breeding discontent and workers begin to demand justice and equality. This inevitably means that authoritarian governments will limit work like this as it threatens their own power systems.

Projects such as the ‘Peoples’ Radio’ have developed from the belief that Latin America needed to follow an alternative route of development that reflected its historical, social and economic identity. Today most Latin America post-colonial societies are experiencing waves of democratisation with communication at the centre. Globalisation is constantly changing and re-defining the roles and impacts of development journalists. The question is how will they adapt to these changing landscapes and best serve both the government and the people?

Can they find the balance between working with these new governments to aide development and becoming their lapdogs and propaganda tools?

 With so many competing interests, contradictory principles and unforeseen effects of reporting it’s proving a challenge.

In his article headed ‘Chavez taking Venezuela out of poverty into the space age’, May 4th, Juan Pedro Zapato wrote that Venezuela is at ‘the forefront of cutting-edge technology and advancement.’  He predicts that under Hugo Chavez, Venezuela is becoming ‘one of the super powers in technology in the western hemisphere.’

He has the facts to back this up too.  In January, Venezuela sent its first satellite into space. In a few weeks Venezuela will be selling its first cellular phone, the Vergatario, and producing up to a million phones a year. And who could forget Chavez’s present giving and hand shaking with President Obama last month marking in his words a ‘move forward in having better relations with the new government in the United States’.

So it would seem that Chavez is using the media and new technology to propel his country to the forefront of development in Latin America. Chavez’s form of socialism marks a general shift in the Latin America continent towards the left. However Chavez is a hugely polemic figure…an icon and liberator to some and a dictator and tyrant to others. For many, articles like this are just another part of the Chavez propaganda machine.

The state propaganda machine...Chavez Memorabillia including Chavez as Superman T-shirts and Dolls. Photo courtesy of

The state propaganda machine...Chavez Memorabillia including Chavez as Superman T-shirts and Dolls. Photo courtesy of

Venezuelan Cartoonist Roberto Weil uses his cartoons as a social commentary for the events unfolding in his country. He’s equally as sceptical about this unlikely new global friendship…See here for latest cartoon.

Cartoon by Roberto Weil - Obama, Chavez and Facebook. This mocks the unrealistic warming of relations between Venezuala and US over night. Photo courtesy of

Cartoon by Roberto Weil - Obama, Chavez and Facebook. This mocks the unrealistic warming of relations between Venezuala and US over night. Photo courtesy of

Some interesting blogs about the Chavez effect and Venuezuala more generally…

Water activists in Cochabamba 2000 - photo courtesy of

Water activists in Cochabamba 2000 - photo courtesy of

Resource wars and environmental conflict continue to ravage Latin America and Bolivia in particular. New social movements have emerged in Bolivia over access to basic elements of survival like water, gas, land and coca.  (See Olivera 2006) There have been numerous classes between corporate enterprises and indigenous communities for decades over resources. Benjamin Dangl (2007) in “The Price of Fire” examines Bolivia’s long on-going struggle against neo-liberal policies in more great detail.

The most famous ‘resource war’ is perhaps the Cochambamba Water Wars in 2000. This brought international attention to the country from anti-globalisation groups. The people of Cochabamba rose up when the multinational water company Betchel bought their communal and public water systems and hiked up prices far above peoples’ means. These increases forced some of the poorest families in South America to literally choose between food or water.

 Activists lead what was supposed to be a peaceful protest to remind the government that the people were still watching. The consequence was that Cochabamba turned into a war zone for two days as the government deployed the armed to silence it’s critics.  Images from illustrate the sheer power of the people. After a bloody stand off Betchel was eventually forced out, repealed the privatization contract and water was taken back under public control. See here for an interesting blog on the uprising.
It is an example of the failure of the nationalisation of a basic resource at its worst. The defeat of the America corporate giant is widely celebrated as the first victory against globalization in Latin America.
These water wars, like the Zapatista uprising, are a powerful example of a wave of grassroots mobilisation which sprung from the regions move towards democratisation in the 1980s and 1990s. See Murphyand Rodriguez 2006 for more background. Other social movements and groups against water privatisation emerged in the wake of the water war as new media spread the images and words of hope across the globe. A contract with the French company Vivendi was termininated in Argentina because the businesses performance wasn’t up to scratch. In Ecuador CONAIE set up its own water reform proposal focusing on community ownership. It’s an example of what’s possible through popular protest and media coverage. These kind of indigenous struggles are rarely covered by English based media. The water wars were perhaps an exception as they were pitted against an American construction giant. This water war inspired activists globally to resist corporate exploitation.
The privatization of water is a trend and a concern all over the world. Why was Cochabamba different? Why did Cochabambinos resist? Why did they win? The answer is simple. This wasn’t just a revolt against water it was a rising up against decades of dictatorship and corruption. The water wars were a clear rejection of neo-liberal economic policies and showed that the western market model did not belong in Bolivia.  People knew that if they lost control of their water they lost control of their lives. And they used the internet to get their message out to the world.
The official outlet from Bolivia to the world was reporting from the Associated Press (AP). Stories were written from La Paz and regurgitated the government line. The only international reporting directly from the scene was from Jim Shultz, executive director of The Democracy Center who calls Cochabamba home. He sent out 2,000 daily emails to press outlets and activist organizations recounting the revolt as he witnessed it with his own eyes. News spread rapidly across the globe and activists across the globe rallied in support. Activists as far a field of New Zealand took part in anti-Bechtel and anti-Banzer signs.
These under-represented and marginalised communities used new social and cultural spaces, opened up by globalisation, to get their issues heard. The democratic flow of information has been revolutionalised by new technologies likes the internet. (See Baraldi 2006) The water revolt drew broad international media attention as images from the uprising were beamed into screens and television sets across the planet. It went from being a local struggle to an international symbol of hope because of one man’s emails.
It’s eight years since the Bolivian water wars. Now water justice activists contend that poverty and political powerlessness are the main barriers blocking the access of the poor to water services. These problems are likely to persist whether the water company is publicly or privately owned. See here for an for an analysis on the lasting impact of the water wars.

Carmen Lara, maker of the controversial 'Silenced Voices Documentary about media repression in Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Perodico Digital)

Carmen Lara, maker of the controversial ‘Silenced Voices’ Documentary about media repression in Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Perodico Digital)

 The Mexican government has filed criminal charges this week against the community radio station Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty) of Monterrey in Northern Mexico. It has been charged with operating clandestinely as reported by La Jornada. The charge could lead to a 12-year jail sentence and a $100,000 fine. This has generated widespread criticism from several Mexican and international organizations working for freedom of expression. The editor of the paper El Correo de Oaxaca has argued that “Independent journalism has become impossible” in the southern state. He says Oaxaca follows a “systematic repressive policy” to silence critics and opponents of the state government. This publication was followed by his house being attacked with a Molotov cocktail last week. He escaped unharmed but argues that the government is using intimidation tactics to control what the paper publishes.


The Mexican chapter of the World Association of Community Radio (AMARC) are also fighting back against the government and warn that this is “the beginning of a more repressive and persecutorial policy” by authorities against the community stations. They fear that this will deprive marginal and rural communities both the access and right to communication. These stations operate in indigenous and rural areas and one of their salient objectives is to facilitate conflict resolution between between indigenous and non-indigenous communities. The stations are ran by AMARC-Mexico and describe them as ‘agents of peace’.


Increasing tensions both between and within local communities, mainly over environmental resources and profound economic disparities, in recent years have led some scholar to argue that Mexico is in social crisis. Community radio is used as a form of dialogue between conflicting groups and acts as a ‘agent of peace’. In terms of the wider theoretical debate, the University for Peace have recently published a book analyzing the issues of the media in relation to conflict and peace. It concludes that the media can exert a decisive influence ‘constructive or polarizing’ in any given situation. In the case of Mexico, many fear that without community radio, and its role as a mediator in conflict, social instability may reach crisis levels.

This all comes after the mid-year meeting in of the Inter American Press Association in Paraguay warned that press freedom has deteriorated rapidly in Latin America in the last six months.  You can see the report and its resolutions in full here.  In addition, state enforced censorship of media is exacerbated by attacks by criminal organizations on journalists. This intimidation has in effect led to self-censorship as well.

This follows the government seizure of equipment from another Mexican radio station, Tu Voz en la Radio (Your Voice on the Radio). This shows that even if participatory communication projects, such as community radio, adopt an autonomous, bottom up and enthnographic approach, the government can always exert their powers to control what is broadcast. Martín-Barbero (2006) argues that communication and cultural industries can be used as a matrix for both the disruption and reorganization of the social experience. In the case of mexico, the government are standing in the way of any kind of social cohesion through the media by its censorship methods. This limits the effectiveness of schemes like this throughout Latin America. Community radio programmes, as well as acting as a means of non-violent conflicit resolution, also disseminate vital information and education about issues surrounding rural development, access to agricultutral markets and improved farming techniques. However, even broadcasts like this are sometimes censoprship if they do not criticise or go against the government’s agricultural policy.


This is just one example of the worrying erosion of media freedom in Mexicoand Latin America as a whole. Media imperialism and the modernisation paradigm are still widely operational in Latin America and dis-empower marginalised communities; whilst giving them a glimpse of media freedom they are always kept on a tight leash. Communication strategies in Latin America are dictated by the government’s agenda and re-inforce state objectives. Autonomous and community based communication scheme are repressed by the state and forced into self-censorship; a documentary called “Silenced Voices” by Maria del Carmen Lara  reiterates this erosion of media fredom. The documentary, which screened this week in Mexico City, argues that attacks on reporters and intimidation from the govement have made Mexican journalism cease to be real and truthful. It is hard to see how in this climate of government media censorship any community based communication projects can function without state interference. 

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