essay 6 of the series
Building the Global Grassroots Infrastructure
July 29, 2002
this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Grass/Infra/Infra-6.htm
Summary: Al Giordano's urgent call -- "Free Nicolás Rivera: Community Media, the Voice of the People, Under Siege" -- to defend authentic journalists jailed by pro-coup police units in Venezuela -- defending Venezuelan democracy by defending community media -- was originally posted on his website at http://www.narconews.com/communitymedia1.html.
By Al Giordano
On April 11th in downtown Caracas, Radio Perola reporter Nicolás Rivera, 26, was doing his job: reporting on two conflicting demonstrations when the attempted assassination of a democratic government - known as a coup d'etat - began in his country of Venezuela.
Nicolás heard the bangs of sniper gunfire from the rooftops of a hotel and various office buildings as 18 civilians from both sides of the nation's political divide were killed and more than 150 were wounded. The violence, pre-planned by the coup plotters, became the pretext by which military generals then placed the elected president of the nation under arrest and installed an oilman in his place. Nicolás collected the facts and returned to Radio Perola's studios to report the news of the coup d'etat underway. He worked around the clock to get the facts out while the commercial media - as is now widely recognized and undisputed - either made up knowingly false accounts - "Chávez Resigned!" - or failed to report anything at all.
After the shooting began, authorities of the government of President Hugo Chávez immediately apprehended some of the rooftop snipers who had lit the fuse to the violence. But after Chávez himself was placed into custody later that day by military generals, the rooftop assassins, whose identities are still unknown, were incredulously set free by the dictatorship of Pedro Carmona - and this tells us everything about which side hired those snipers - as the dictator-for-a-day Carmona simultaneously abolished the Congress, the Supreme Court and the Constitution. For a more detailed history of these events, in which the Venezuelan people overthrew the U.S.-sponsored dictatorship within three days and changed the history of our América, see "Three Days that Shook the Media," (Narco News, April 18, 2002: http://www.narconews.com/threedays.html).
The following day, April 12th, as Nicolás was reporting the facts from Radio Perola - one of the the non-profit Community Radio and TV Stations that were legalized under the Venezuelan Constitution of 1999 - the cops of Carmona's dictatorship busted down the door to the radio station and grabbed him. The police beat Nicolás, handcuffed him, and beat him some more. They blindfolded him, dragged him to a vehicle, and beat him even more. Then, these terrorists in uniform dragged him to his house where his wife and two children were present.
His wife, Tibisay de Vivera, 25, tells Narco News what happened next: "The police grabbed me by the hair and threw me to the floor. They beat me, while they tortured Nicolás, in front of our children. They said they were going to kill us. They planted a bag of bullets on Nicolás and obligated me to sign a statement they had already written or they would kill our children, two and three years old."
Nicolás was then dragged, handcuffed, off to prison. "On Sunday, the 14th, when Chávez returned, Nicolás was released. His face was disfigured. He had been tortured. And he had not been fed for two days."
And yet, not a single international "press freedom" organization came to this journalist's aid or said a word about the case.
A Savage Wave of Attacks
There has been a savage wave of attacks against Venezuela's Community Media journalists ever since the April coup attempt. Those attacks, in the past month, have increased.
And those self-proclaimed international defenders of press freedom like the "Committee to Protect Journalists" in New York, the "Inter-American Press Association" in Miami and the Paris-based "Reporters Without Borders" have remained suspiciously silent over every single attack on Community Media by pro-coup forces within rogue police forces and by agents of the discredited commercial media in Venezuela.
As part of this series, we will report the disturbing facts about these three international organizations, their financial backers, their "selective enforcement" favoring journalists of certain political persuasions over others, and their negligence regarding the real press freedom story in Venezuela.
But first, and more importantly, we'll report the news that these organizations, apparently, don't want you to know: that somewhere in a country called América, there is a non-profit independent media - TV, radio, print and Internet - that has won the hearts and minds of a public that, wisely, no longer trusts the commercial media.
The Community Media movement in Venezuela, managed democratically and on a local level by citizen volunteers, and strictly non-profit, is now in direct competition with what used to be known as the mass media, because the masses have changed the channel.
In the capital city alone, the populace is tuned in to seven Community radio stations: Radio Perola, Radio Senderos ("Paths"), Radio Free Catia, Radio Alí Primera (named after the late radical folksinger of the Bolivarian revolution), Radio Rebelde ("Rebel"), Radio Comunitaria de La Vega, and Radio Alternativa. The citizens in the capital also have two TV stations of their own: Catia TV-e and Televisora of Southeast Caracas.
In the provinces, there is Radio CRP Miranda, TV Petare Mianda, Teletambores ("TV Drums") Aragua, TV Rubio Táchira, TVC Rubio, Channel Z Zulia, Radio Miranda Zulia, TV Tarmas Vargas, Radio Huayra Vargas, Radio Tarmeña Vargas, Radio Chuspa Vargas, TV Michelena, Radio The Voice of Guaicaipuro Miranda, Radio Yoraco Miranda, Radio San Diego Miranda, Radio Salvemos la Montaña ("We Save the Mountain") Miranda, Radio Free Tamunangue Lara... All in all, the country now boasts nine Community TV stations and 16 Community radio stations, all of them non-profit, all of them run by citizens, all of them churning out better and more accurate journalism than the discredited commercial media in this country, all 25 of them popular because they are here not to sell products to the people but, rather, as tools for the people's voice to be heard.
Nowhere on earth has a non-profit Community Media captured the hearts, eyes and ears of the public as it has in Venezuela. These authentic journalists have changed the history of media in the early 21st century. They constitute a serious threat to the dying monopoly of commercial and corrupted journalism, and they have developed a model that can and should be studied and replicated by independent media and authentic journalists worldwide. That is why, kind readers, the Community Media of Venezuela are under siege.
That is why the aforementioned "press freedom" organizations abandoned them: because these organizations, as their actions reflect, do not really favor a free press. They are merely selective defenders of a caste system that favors a monopoly of the airwaves by commercial and mercenary press. In two words, they favor a "paid press" over a "free press."
And that is why the Narco News team - as the first Internet journalists to win full First Amendment rights under United States law in our December 2001 victory over Banamex-Citigroup in the New York Supreme Court - today picks up our court-validated press pass to defend our colleagues in the Community Media movement in Venezuela.
And we launch an international dialogue among authentic journalists, independent media, and press freedom advocates over the role of the large international "press freedom" organizations and the harm already caused to many journalists by their "selective enforcement" and interpretation of what constitutes Freedom of the Press.
What is at play in Venezuela is nothing less than the future of press freedom.
Here are the facts.
Community Media Under Siege
During the two-day regime of dictator Pedro Carmona last April, at the same time that his troops were beating and torturing Nicolás Rivera of Radio Perola and his family, Carmona's police forces also kicked down doors and raided Radio Catia Libre and Catia TV in another popular barrio of Caracas. At TV Caricuao the troops shut down the station and placed its staff, illegally, under arrest. At the Catholic Church's popular broadcaster, Radio Fe y Alegria ("Radio Faith and Happiness"), the troops ordered the staff to play only music and to not report any news of the events that were shaking the country, or they would be shut down, too.
Carmona's troops also invaded and shut down the national public TV station - Channel 8. Meanwhile, the commercial media, as has been widely reported and documented, ordered a complete news blackout, including at the Cisneros family's Globovision network - the largest TV company in the nation - owned by a close friend of George H.W. Bush, Sr., who had visited Cisneros in Venezuela last year, purportedly for a fishing trip.
The Human Rights group PROVEA (the Venezuelan Education-Action Program on Human Rights), on April 13th, reported that, "A journalist who asked not to be identified, the Production Chief of one of the principal TV channels in the country, denounced that the directors of the company impeded the journalists from transmitting information about the current events."
In place of news during the most newsworthy events in the nation's history, the big TV chains played "Tom and Jerry" cartoons, movies and re-runs.
The role of Internet journalists in breaking the information blockade outside of Venezuela was the subject of our April 18th report. But within Venezuela, only the Community Media journalists stood between democracy and dictatorship, and they saved the day.
During those days of crisis last April, the journalists of the Community Media in Venezuela got to work reporting the true facts - that masses of people from the popular barrios were coming down from the hills and taking back the Capital and other cities, street by street, building by building, and media by media. And it was only because of the Community Broadcasters at independent media like Catia TV and Radio Catia Libre that the public had any idea that the counter-coup underway in their own neighborhoods was happening, simultaneously, like a lightning bolt of democracy, throughout the city and the nation. The minority of Venezuelan homes that had cableTV got some, albeit distorted, news from CNN and international news agencies that there was resistance to the coup, but those reports were slow and left in the dust by the rapid-fire factual reporting of the Community Media in Venezuela and the international independent Online Press.
A key turning point for the people's counter-coup came when Public Television Channel 8 returned to the airwaves. Again, according to Venezuela's top telecommunications official, it was the journalists of the Community Media movement who retook the censored national TV station and moved it back onto the airwaves.
During an April 26th press conference, a reporter asked Jesse Chacón, the director of the National Telecommunications Commision (CONATEL, in its Spanish acronym), "how was Channel 8 regained?"
"That is owed, in great measure, to the help given by Community Broadcaster Catia TV," answered Chacón. "Its people were already taking great risks, among them their lives, but they helped to retake the transmitter. Their lives were in danger throughout those days. Their own headquarters had been raided. They succeeded in escaping. They took their cameras and stayed mobile, as did the people from Radio Perola. There was a very fierce persecution against them, something that has not been reported in the daily newspapers."
The Attacks of the Past Month
On June 20th, the day that your correspondent arrived in Caracas, the large commercial TV stations - and the daily El Nacional and El Universal in the nation's capital - were openly attempting to provoke a second coup attempt, trumpeting a march for that day by military generals and other officers for the removal of Chávez, the elected president.
But the march - predicted and publicized by the commercial media as a massive act that would spark military officers to undertake a new coup attempt - fizzled. Only 1,300 people attended. And instead of the promised wave of military officers in uniform, just two retired generals brought their uniforms and, at that, carried them in front of their bodies on coat hangers.
At a press conference the following day attended by Narco News, President Chávez thanked the retired officers for their restraint in not wearing, as the commercial media had egged them on to do, their uniforms in a partisan political act.
"Some political sectors have picked up the military theme and it has taken up space in the media," said Chávez to a group of 40 international correspondents on April 21st. "Some opposition members don't have serious proposals. We don't have serious political opponents. Where are they? Where is their political leadership? Thus, the military theme has been raised... To play with the military in this way is to play with fire."
June 20th marked the day it became clear to everyone in Venezuela: The commercial media had lost its convocatory power to move even the uppermost classes of oligarchy into the streets. Your correspondent watched as the remnants of that day's march, gathered in Altimira Plaza, dwindled to a couple hundred demonstrators, then a hundred, then fifty or so, and then came a brief rain, and their mobilization simply disappeared, as if washed down the drainage pipes of the capital city.
The shock to the pro-coup minority in Venezuela was palpable. They were angry and disheartened. One man, who declined to be identified, told this reporter: "We must kill Chávez, his vice president and everybody who supports him. We need a civil war. But," he sighed, "it can't happen yet."
Within ten days, though, the minority opposition, through rogue elements of the Police Security and Intelligence Division (DISIP, in its Spanish initials, known in Venezuela as "the political police") and other police forces linked to the opposition that had been part of the original coup attempt last April, launched a concerted series of attacks upon the ones they blame for the collapse of the commercial media's power to provoke a coup: The Community Media.
In the past month, these attacks have included:
- The June 28th incarceration, a second time, of Nicolás Rivera, theRadio Perola journalist, who has now been falsely accused of shooting from the Llaguno Bridge on April 11th (where he was armed with a tape recorder, not a gun). Nicolás remains in prison today.
- A smear campaign against Catia TV, initiated by various large commercial media outlets (Globovision and El Nacional, among others demonstrating, even as they incredibly cry that their own "press freedom" is threatened by the public hostility they have provoked against themselves, that they seek to deny press-freedom rights to the non-profit Community Media).
- Threats to evict Catia TV from its studios atop a public hospital by the greater metropolitan area Mayor Alfredo Peña, a coup supporter whose police forces were among the shock troops of the April coup attempt.
- A smear campaign against alternative Internet media by El Nacional.
- A public demand by Miguel Angel Martínez, president of the private-sector Chamber of Radio Broadcasters - and one of the signers of the April 12th coup decree, abolishing Congress and the Constitution, with the dictator Carmona - that the Community TV and radio stations are "illegal," should be shut down, and that his affiliated commercial radio stations should "interfere" with the frequencies of the Community Media during the next coup attempt.
- A raid last week against non-profit Community Broadcaster Radio Sendero de Antímano in another Caracas neighborhood by the same rogue political police forces of the DISIP (these pro-coup police factions are known, in the country, as "anillos negros," or "black rings," and the Chávez government so far remains unable to control them.
The Venezuelan Internet newspaper "Anti-Escualidos" ("Against the Squalid Ones") - http://www.antiescualidos.com/indexnew.html - reports:
"In an operation never before seen, not even when the dictator Carmona was placed under arrest, 20 patrol cars and 15 police motorcycles arrived at the radio station looking for explosives. According to the police, the operation was owed to a legal complaint filed by a teacher in the school from where the radio station broadcasts. The police 'found' in one of the classrooms (far from the radio studio) a knapsack with a used smoke-bomb and a broken bulletproof jacket. However, as a result of this unjustified operation, compañeros Jorge Quintero, Lenín Méndez and another journalist from the radio station have been arrested. This sudden arrest and raid form part of a complex strategy of persecution and terrorism unleashed against Venezuelan Community Media. We call upon different sectors of the Venezuelan and international community to declare themselves against these innumerable attacks of which the media, whose only crime has been to bring voice to the popular sectors, is the victim."
The second arrest of Nicolás Rivera, on June 28th, was particularly brutal and bizarre in its circumstances.
Narco News contacted his wife, Tibisay de Vivero, who was present, to ask what had happened.
"On June 28th, my husband and I, with our lawyer, went to the offices of the PTJ (the Technical Judicial Police) to file a criminal complaint against the officers who had tortured Nicolás during the coup," she explained. "The attorney had called ahead and made an appointment with the officer in charge of receiving this kind of complaint. But when we got to the police station, the officer wasn't there. No one would attend to us. Instead, they arrested Nicolás and charged him with homicide, resisting arrest and possession of a firearm. Now they say he was shooting people when he was reporting on April 11th. He's still a prisoner today, an innocent person arrested for something that in reality he did not do. It's unjust. We are waiting to see what happens."
We asked: "Between the date of Nicolás' first arrest on April 12th and his second arrest on June 28th, did any international press-freedom organization contact you?"
"No," she answered. "Nobody."
Former Boston Phoenix Political Reporter Al Giordano reports on the drug war and democracy from Latin America. He is publisher of The Narco News Bulletin - www.narconews.com -- and receives email at email@example.com About this Narco News series:
Last month, Narco News publisher Al Giordano traveled to Venezuela to investigate and report on the political situation and, specifically, the role of the media - commercial and community - in the April coup, counter-coup, and the continuing history of the country's democracy. He interviewed hundreds of sources from the popular neighborhoods, the media, the opposition and the Chávez administration.
This series will include reports on the history of the Community Media movement in Venezuela as told by its own journalists and participants, and an analysis of the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution's guarantee of press freedom rights to all citizens, not just the commercial media caste (Venezuela's new laws legalizing non-profit Community TV and Radio are the most progressive of any country in the world and we will translate the key provisions for distribution and use in other countries.)
The series will also include reports on two days spent covering President Hugo Chávez: His June 21 press conference with foreign correspondents (which lasted almost four hours) and his June 23 live nationwide broadcast from the headquarters of Community TV station Catia TV, where for five hours the president took calls from the public and questions from a studio audience of 36 representatives of the Community Media throughout Venezuela.
This series will also explore the modus operandi of the three wealthiest international "press freedom" organizations - The "Committee to Protect Journalists" in New York, the "Inter-American Press Association" in Miami and the Paris-based "Reporters Without Borders" - and how each of these organizations has betrayed their own self-stated missions with their simulated and partial statements regarding the events this year in Venezuela.
Today, we are sending this first installment of the series to representatives of each of these three international organizations, will offer them a chance to respond to questions about their funding and its relation to their stances regarding press freedom issues in Venezuela, and attempt to begin a long-overdue dialogue - in full public view - with the spokespersons for these groups about their selective definitions of "press freedom," particularly as it regards defense of commercial media over non-profit community journalism. We hope these organizations will enter into this dialogue in a spirit of self-critique and correction, and that they will become more accountable for their actions as a result.
We also issue a call to the global networks of Independent Media and Authentic Journalism to join in this dialogue about what truly constitutes Freedom of the Press and how it is best defended and expanded. Please join in the conversation. Send your letters, comments, questions and criticisms to our immedia working group at firstname.lastname@example.org This series is part of the Narco News Immedia Summer 2002 project. For more information see our June 1st report: "The Masses vs. The Media: A Revolution for a Narcotized Society" - http://www.narconews.com/themasses.html
This story, "Free Nicolás Rivera: Community Media, the Voice of the People, Under Siege," appears online at http://www.narconews.com/communitymedia1.html