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Venezuela's Journalists Battle Government in Media War

Amid daily anti-government protests and an opposition-led national strike, Venezuela is enduring a running battle between the government and the country's news media.

Turn on a television in Caracas, and you will be bombarded with public service-style announcements by groups opposed to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

One advertisement commands people to take to the streets en masse to block roads, highways and entire neighborhoods. The goal is to bring Caracas to a standstill in support of a 17-day opposition-led national strike. The message ends with a direct call for President Chavez' ouster.

At night, Venezuela's privately-owned all-news channel, Globovision, reviews the protests of the day with a distinctly pro-opposition edge. "Venezuela's democratic society has achieved yet another victory in its campaign to demand the exit of Mr. Chavez," said one announcer. "The opposition successfully clogged the streets and, despite the synchronized mobilization of pro-Chavez elements, majority opposition forces managed to avoid violence," another announcer reported.

Nowhere does the program mention that, on that particular day, rock and bottle hurling protesters squared off with police who responded with tear gas.

The anti-government tilt to the news has not gone unnoticed by President Chavez, who recently denounced the country's private television stations. Mr. Chavez listed the stations, including Globovision, and accused them of conspiring against the government. Blasting them as shameless liars, he said the stations and their owners are attempting to destabilize the country and undermine the rule of law.

Globovision President Guillermo Zuloaga scoffs at the accusation. "The president considers us his enemy," he said. "But we are not his enemy. We are showing the people what is happening in Venezuela. President Chavez' real enemy is the people who, armed with information, are aware of what transpires in the country."

Mr. Zuloaga said if war has been declared between the government and the news media, then it was the government that fired the first shot. He points out that pro-Chavez forces have ransacked television stations, beaten reporters and destroyed their vehicles, what he describes as a vicious campaign to silence dissent.

Guillermo Zuloaga admits that the vast majority of the people Globovision puts on the air belong to the opposition. But, he says, his station is open to President Chavez or anyone else from the government. He adds that it has been more than a year since the leftist leader granted an interview to the domestic news media.

Observers say part of the problem stems from President Chavez' background as a one-time military officer. "The attitude of the military is, 'I order and you obey,'" said Adolfo Herrera, Director Of Communications at Venezuela's Central University in Caracas. He says President Chavez wants to control what is said about him, and that this is a public relations problem for his administration.

A leading pro-government deputy in Venezuela's legislature, Tarek William-Saab, says, in the final analysis, both sides are to blame for the stand-off between Mr. Chavez and the news media.

"The media must report the news with objectivity, while the government must accept criticisms when they arise," he said. "But, that ideal arrangement does not exist today in Venezuela." He said the news media is choosing sides and that this must end for the good of the country.

Mr. William-Saab acknowledges that abuses have been committed against news organizations but denies that President Chavez orchestrated the attacks.

For his part, Globovision President Zuloaga says his reporters are acting as patriots. "We are not playing political games. We want a prosperous, democratic Venezuela with a vision for the future where children can grow and better themselves," he said. "This is the battle and it will be fought until it is won."