David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
On Thursday May 2, Carlos Zuloaga, vice-president of opposition Globovisión announced that the new ownership had reached terms with journalists Vladimir Villegas and Leopoldo Castillo to co-direct the station. (There will be a third co-director who has yet to be named.) Both Villegas and Castillo confirmed via twitter that they had accepted the offer.
The new team of directors points to an editorial line that would be more balanced but not break with Globovisión’s critical past. This is a big relief for those who thought the sale of Globovisión would mean a further reduction of opposition presence in broadcast media.
Vladimir Villegas is a respected journalist who currently anchors one of the most popular radio shows in Venezuela: Cuentamelo Todo [Tell me Everything] in the prime 5pm-7pm slot on Unión Radio. He has a long career in politics and journalism, forming part of the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) and then latter the Causa R, the leftist party that first made participatory democracy an issue in Venezuelan politics in the 1980s and 90s.
Villegas supported Chávez in 1998 and in 1999 served in the Constitutional Assembly. In November 2003 he was named President of Venezolana de Television (VTV), the main state channel. After a year however, he resigned saying he felt uncomfortable with the editorial line of the station: “We should be more balanced, which means we should not be doing this unilateral type of journalism."
He later served in several diplomatic positions in the Chávez government but gradually became more critical of the government, while never openly siding with the opposition. In January of this year he was interviewed by his brother, journalist, Mario Villegas. He argued that he had "Stepped off the Chávez’s bus because it took a detour; but the Carpiles bus has failed to get going.” He also declared in that interview that Venezuela’s socialism needed a glasnost, and that the real dilemma was not between left and right, but democracy and authoritarianism.
Just days before Globovisión’s announcement Villegas wrote an editorial called “I’m Talking to You Nicolas” (“Es Contigo Nicolas”). He said he wanted to talk to Maduro “as partner in struggles and dreams in a past that seems ever more distant.” He asked Maduro to remember his own fights against authoritarianism before pursuing opponents, and his own struggles for labor justice in the face of the current workplace harassment of those who voted for Capriles. He ended saying
Don’t overestimate your political support and don’t underestimate the force of those seven million Venezuelans that are demanding a change, and which today feel indignant when they are addressed with epithets and threats. The country is at a crossroads: the precipice of confrontation or the highway of constructive dialogue. You will decide where you want to take this bus full of passengers.
Upon accepting the post as co-director of Globovisión Vladimir Villegas declared that there will be changes in the station: “Evidently there are always changes when there is a new direction, a new team, but those changes will be for the better, and they must be done within continuity. I’m not here to do complacent or domesticated journalism."
Notably, he is brother of the current Minister of Information and Communication Ernesto Villegas, with whom he claims to maintain excellent relations despite political differences (Ernesto Villegas, for example, recently referred to human rights group Provea as the "rearguard of fascism” for questioning claims regarding opposition violence.) Upon accepting his new post Leopoldo Castillo declared that teaming up with Villegas was important because Globovisión needed access to official sources.
Castillo has had a very different career path from Villegas. He was close to the Christian Democratic COPEI party and served as Ambassador to El Salvador in the 1980s. Since 2002 he has been host of Globovisión’s most popular program Aló Ciudadano. The name of the program was inspired as a response to the Chávez weekly Aló Presidente, and it is highly critical of the government. It airs daily from 5:00 to 8:00 pm. The format of the show figures Castillo and other journalists commenting the day´s news and interviewing guests.
The sale of Globovisión was announced in early March. Guillermo Zuloaga said he found himself obliged to carry out the sale because under his ownership the station was no longer viable. Indeed the announcement followed news that Globovisión had been left out of digital television. In a letter to the workers of Globovisión Zuloaga announced he had received an offer for the channel and had “an obligated intention to sell.” He explained:
We are economically unviable because our income no longer covers our expenses. We cannot even increase salaries enough to compensate for inflation, much less compensate for devaluation. We are politically unviable, because we are in a country that is totally polarized and on the opposing side we have a government that wants to see us fail. We are legally unviable because we have a concession that ends and there is little disposition [on the part of the government] to renew it.
The main investor Juan Domingo Cordero is a banker who was the president of the Caracas Stock Exchange from 1989-1993 and now owns a major insurance company. Critics suggest that he rarely invests with his own money and is likely the public face of government money. That had led many to expect that the era of Globovisión as the main, and more recently as the only, opposition television station would soon be over.
However, in Venezuela the new leadership team got rave reviews even among opposition journalists. Teodoro Petkoff, editor of Tal Cual, said “I know Vladimir well. He is a journalist that understands the media and has a democratic line. Leopoldo also knows the media well and above all, the station [Globovisión] which means he can help Vladimir. With them there I don’t anticipate a retreat. I think the station will maintain its editorial line.”
Fiercely anti-government journalist Marta Colomina called the announcement “Good news, if they really want to be a centrist channel-something that would be novel since the government channels exude fascism, and private stations have been subjected to the primitivism of Nicholas Maduro.”
Indeed the presence of Castillo would seem to guarantee continuation of an opposition line while the presence of Villegas would seem to ensure that this opposition will be serious and fair. Globovisión has undoubtedly been unfairly treated by the government in recent years-for example with the absurd accusation and fines for “inciting violence” during the prison riots of 2011. However it has done no small amount of damage to its own journalistic reputation over the years. During the 2002-03 conflict, for example, its coverage became a form of reality TV, with camera work and dramatic background music that rendered a sense of chaos and crisis.
Indeed, before the announcement, some analysts had speculated that this could actually benefit the station and political debate in Venezuela. Marie Metz suggested “by adapting a neutral stance giving equal coverage to both sides, the channel may become more respected and increase viewership." Asked about this possibility Tinedo Guía, President of Venezuela’s National Journalists Association (Colegio Nacional de Periodistas) quoted the Bible "Peter asked Jesus ‘how will we know those who are with us?’ and Jesus responded ‘by their works you will know them.’ I think the screen will be the best way to tell the line the new owners will take. ”