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the free press war continues

August 16, 2010

The Venezuelan government is investigating a leading national paper, El Nacional, for running a front page photo of eleven partially naked dead bodies at a Caracas morgue. The photo ran on Aug. 13 alongside an article about the highly politicized topic of violent crime rates in Venezuela. A student group, the Student Front Against the Privatization of the Central University of Venezuela (Frente de Estudiantes Contra la Privatización de la Universidad Central de Venezuela), complained about the photo to the Ministry of Public Affairs’ Office for the Comprehensive Protection of the Family (Dirección de Protección Integral de la Familia del Ministerio Público).

Specifically, the Ministry of Public Affairs’ investigation is meant to determine if the publication of the photo broke with article 79 of the Fundamental Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents (Ley Orgánica de Protección del Niño, Niña y Adolescente / Lopna), which makes it illegal to:

Disseminate by any medium of information or communication, during programming directed to children and adolescents or the public at-large, programs, messages, publicity, propaganda or promotions of any kind, that promote terror in children and adolescents, that threaten human co-existence or the national community, or that incite deformation of the language, disregard for human dignity, indiscipline, hate, discrimination, o racism.

(Difundir  por cualquier medio de información o comunicación, durante la programación  dirigida  a los niños, niñas y adolescentes o a todo público, programas,  mensajes,  publicidad,  propaganda  o  promociones de cualquier índole,  que  promuevan  el  terror en los niños, niñas y adolescentes, que atenten contra la convivencia humana o la nacionalidad, o que los inciten a la  deformación  del  lenguaje,  irrespeto  de la dignidad de las personas, indisciplina, odio, discriminación o racismo.)

The charge brings serious consequences; article 234 specifies a fine of 1 to 2 percent of gross revenue as a penalty. I won’t even hazard a guess as to what share of profits that represents.

There’s an interesting disconnect between the domestic Venezuelan coverage of this investigation and the international English coverage. Online reports in El Nacional (the accused entity itself) and El Universal – Venezuela’s most important national dailies – carry these relatively benign headlines, respectively:

Prosecutors investigate El Nacional for front page photo (Fiscalía investiga a El Nacional por foto publicada en su portada)

Prosecutors investigate publication of morgue photograph: Image of cadavers could violate articles 79 and 239 of the Lopna (Fiscalía investiga publicación de fotografía de la morgue: Imagen de cadáveres podría violar artículos 79 y 234 de la Lopna)

On the other hand, editors at CNN chose the following:

Opposition group slams Venezuela for opening probe against newspaper

This “slam” came in the form of a “blog post … [that] a coalition of opposition parties” posted on its website, in which it was argued that “the case against the newspaper is an attack on the press and an example of how the government is unwilling to address its real problems”. Now, this is a valid argument, perhaps worth including in a general report on the case. But CNN has shifted the focus of the story from the investigation itself to the opposition’s reaction to the investigation. As a result, they do not merely present the opposition’s argument, but legitimate it. News article and editorial are rolled into one. Even El Nacional, the paper at the heart of the scandal, is seemingly professional enough to keep its official opinion in the editorial section, where they make a similar argument as the above, though without reference to the opposition.

This is a great example of the way that the Mainstream North American Media (MSNAM) reframes news about the news in Venezuela. Nothing new here, of course – we’ve been seeing this for years now regarding Venezuela, and we saw these same sorts of skirmishes in relation to socialist Chile and, especially, Nicaragua. Shame, nonetheless, on CNN for continuing the sad tradition.

That said, I’m disappointed to see the Venezuelan government continually play into these kinds of situations. It is certainly within its rights to investigate, especially in response to an official complaint. There is also a reasonable argument to be made that the investigation falls within the government’s appropriate set of responsibilities regarding the welfare of minors. The US FCC, after all, found it appropriate to fine CBS half a million bucks for permitting a partially exposed female nipple to momentarily appear during a Super Bowl halftime show. (The maximum fine of $27,500 was applied to each of the 20 broadcast stations owned by CBS. In case you’re curious, a fine of one percent on gross revenue – as specified by Venezuelan law – would have amounted to $6.65 million [based on 2003 figures] for just the five largest of CBS’ wholly owned affiliates. One percent of CBS’ $5.83 billion in 2003 gross ad revenue would have been $58.3 million…) But this investigation seems to be another case of selective enforcement. In other Latin American countries – and I don’t imagine that Venezuela is an exception, though I’m not sure – horrific victim photos run on the front page of tabloid papers (which El Nacional is not) on a nearly daily basis. Often, the cadaver is photographed at the site of death, during the initial forensic examination.

"for he who knows beer" - billboard in Maracaibo, Venezuela, 2009

If such photos run on the covers of Venezuelan tabloids (I’ll check when I get back down there), then I can’t imagine how the morgue photo (which I haven’t seen) could be an exceptionally gruesome case. For that matter, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the typical beer advertisements in Venezuela, displaying a degree of female objectification beyond that generally found in the United States, incite “disregard for human dignity” and merit investigation. In this light, the photo’s role in illustrating the politicized argument that violence is out of control in Venezuela would indeed seem to be the motivating factor for the student group’s complaint, if not the government’s investigation. After all, we have to remember that the Ministry of Public Affairs is at this point only responding to a complaint. It would have been nice for the news reports to mention whether following up in this manner is routine or not. In the meantime, it remains to be seen how far the investigation will progress. Personally, I’m hoping that it proceeds quickly, transparently, and decisively, and that it doesn’t provide any further ammunition to the MSNAM, which runs with anything hinting that Chavez is a dictator strangling the free press.

UPDATE: To be clear, the FCC decision regarding the CBS Super Bowl Halftime Show was overturned in 2008.

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