President Nicolas Maduro has a new villain as he campaigns to bring down Venezuela's spiralling crime: telenovelas. He accuses the TV soap operas of spreading “anti-values” to young people by glamorising violence, guns and drugs.
The criticism follows attacks last year by Maduro on violent video games and the Hollywood movie ‘Spiderman’.
On Monday night, his vice president, Jorge Arreaza, met with broadcast and pay TV operators to review the prime time line-up, warning that they could be in violation of a 2004 law mandating “socially responsible” programming. The two sides will meet in a week with the aim of drafting an agreement on meeting those obligations.
It's unclear whether the government will take steps to restrict programming or impose harsher rules on telenovelas, which are hugely popular across Latin America.
Analysts say arm-twisting is unlikely to reduce Venezuela's high homicide rate, which the United Nations ranks as the fifth worst globally, and they warn that Maduro's campaign could be used as an excuse to further gag media criticism of the government.
“It's a smoke screen to distract attention away from the real causes” of violence and crime, said Roberto Briceno Leon of the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, which estimates the country's murder rate has quadrupled in 15 years of socialist rule.
Pressure on the government to crack down on crime heated up this month after former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear and her ex-husband were shot to death by robbers, with their 5-year-old daughter looking on.
The double slaying shocked even Venezuelans hardened by rampant bloodshed and put the government on the defensive on an issue that surveys say is the biggest concern among voters.
In his state of the union speech last week, Maduro took aim at a popular soap opera, “De todas maneras Rosa,” produced by Venevision.
He accused the nation's biggest broadcaster of profiting from violence by celebrating the crimes of one of the melodrama's lead characters, Andreina Vallejo, a psychopathic former beauty queen who fatally poisons her own mother to hide the paternity of her son.
“Mama, everybody in the world knows that the relationship between parents and their children is completely accidental,” a smiling Vallejo says as her mother gasps for breath in her daughter's arms.
Alberto Barrera Tyszka, the creator of several soap operas, said television only reflects the alarming levels of violence present in society and is already tightly regulated for content deemed unsuitable for minors. He said Maduro should turn his attention to the root causes of crime instead.
“It's ridiculous to blame the violence on what's seen for one or two hours a night on television” said Barrera Tyszka, who also wrote a biography of Maduro's predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chavez.
Briceno Leon, whose group tracks Venezuela's violence, blamed the country's bloodshed on the proliferation of illegal firearms, between 9 million and 15 million by the government's count, as well as the lack of punishment for those who commit crimes. He said the government has neglected security, viewing it until recently as a concern mainly for its political enemies among Venezuela's upper classes.
His group estimates more the 24 000 people were slain last year in Venezuela, pushing the homicide rate to 79 per 100 000
The government disputes those findings, but has blocked access to official crime statistics in recent years. Officials say the rate last year was 39 per 100 000 people - a level that's still the highest in South America and eight times the U.S. rate.
Reflecting high levels of impunity, Venezuela's criminal justice system was ranked the lowest in the world in a recently published study on the rule of law in 97 countries by the Washington-based World Justice Project.
Maduro may see putting the blame on television as an effective political strategy by focusing attention on the breakdown in societal and family values, a broader problem that can entangle all politicians, regardless of party affiliation, Briceno Leon said.
Barrera Tyszka, the soap opera creator, said the president's campaign also reinforces government control of the airwaves, providing it with another tool to bully channels whose news coverage it frequently attacks as part of a right-wing conspiracy trying to destabilise the nation. Media self-censorship is already high after several years of the government imposing multimillion-dollar fines and even taking channels off the air for allegedly slanted coverage.
“There are almost no guns in Venezuelan telenovelas,” he said. “There are a number of things that aren't shown for fear of being fined.”