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Media war gives Venezuelans dueling views of reality

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks during the ministers swearing-in ceremony in Caracas on April 22, 2013
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks during the ministers swearing-in ceremony in Caracas on April 22, 2013.

There may be two sides to every story, but in Venezuela you're not likely to find them in the same television newscast.

Divided into warring camps like the rest of the country, the media gives the public split views of the political crisis that has gripped Venezuela since the death of leftist leader Hugo Chavez on March 5, after 14 years in power.

"We have chosen two battle fronts: elections and the media, where two visions of the country are confronted," said Maryclen Stelling, a sociologist and member of the Global Media Observatory.

"Rather than eliminate our opponents physically, we have chosen those two fronts for a symbolic confrontation," she said.

And as in other forms of war, the truth is often a casualty.

The state-run VTV news channel carries accusations of attacks by the opposition, which it demonizes as putschists and fascists, and the private Globovision channel carries charges of abuse of power by the government.

With rival newscasts offering alternate versions of reality that rarely overlap, viewers have to decide who they want to believe.

While Globovision gives air time to human rights groups denouncing arbitrary arrests, torture and harassment of public employees, VTV blames the opposition for the violent protests that followed the April 14 election to replace Chavez.

Chavez's handpicked heir Nicolas Maduro was proclaimed the winner of the vote by a narrow 1.8 percent margin, prompting opposition candidate Henrique Capriles to demand a recount and sparking protests in which eight people were killed and 61 wounded, according to a government count.

In a VTV broadcast on Tuesday, prisons minister Iris Varela called Capriles an "assassin" and drug user.

Members of the Simon Bolivar symphonic band sing in Caracas, on April, 22, 2013
Members of the Simon Bolivar symphonic band sing before the beginning of the swearing-in ceremony of the new ministers in Caracas, on April, 22, 2013.

In another episode of the communications war, the government accused opposition supporters of assassinating a Chavez supporter, Johnny Pacheco, in an incident late last week in a Caracas suburb.

El Universal, a leading Venezuelan daily that is editorially aligned with the opposition, quoted the victim's wife, Liliana Paez, as saying her husband was shot to death by robbers trying to steal his car.

A day later, the victim's brother, Raul Pacheco, was quoted by a state information agency as saying his sister-in-law "had not said anything" and confirming the official version of events.

"The media are becoming media armies in which each one defends their truth," said Stelling. In this war, she said, "You don't confirm the source or anything, because you are in the trenches."

"When you are at war -- and this is a media war -- you want to eliminate the adversary with the weapons you have. What weapons do you have? Information. The journalists are the soldiers, and the citizens are the victims."

Twitter is another important front, with the Chavistas organized in a group called TROPA, or troop, a Spanish acronym for Revolutionary Tweeters Organized for the Fatherland.

"This government has a lot of power, and a lot of media power," Wilfredo Gonzalez, a Jesuit priest and sociologist, told AFP.

"If you have one (opposition) journalist who says something, the government has 50 journalists to say the opposite. If you can launch a website on the Internet, they will soon launch two. If yours is in two languages, they will up theirs to four.

"This is not a group who is playing around. This is a hard-nosed game to maintain power," he said.

Analysts trace the origins of the media war to a 2002 coup, when Chavez was briefly ousted from power in what he saw as a "media coup," one that exposed the government's vulnerability to mass media it did not control.

Troops parade after the installation of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on April 19, 2013
Troops parade after the installation of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on April 19, 2013.

After that, he put together a national system of state media designed to control the dissemination of information, said Stelling.

In 2005, Venezuela financed the launch of an international television network, Telesur, to disseminate Chavez's revolutionary program in Latin America.

In 2007, his government took away the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Television -- one of the country's most watched networks, and often critical of the government -- on administrative grounds.

In 2009, about 30 private radio stations were taken off the air, also for administrative reasons, and over time dozens of community television and radio stations were set up with public funds.

In February, Globovision was forced to sell off a majority stake, citing political pressure and the accumulation of government suits and administrative procedures. It said ownership would be transferred after the elections.

"I don't consider the television channels to be the trenches," Globovision journalist Diana Carolina Ruiz told AFP. "The media can no longer fully fulfill its role because they are nullified by the system of state media."

In this battle, the concept of impartiality has no place, said Stelling.

"Information is not true or balanced or objective; information is placed at the service of the two visions for the country. Is that good or is that bad? I don't know," said Stelling.

The only thing certain, she said, is that "everyone is a victimizer and a victim, depending on what side of the street you are on."