During my trip to Venezuela earlier this year as part of a delegation of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, I was apparently put on the Ministry of Information mailing list because, ever since my return, I’ve gotten 2-3 press releases a day. Most get deleted immediately, but given our own recent elections, I found this one particularly interesting and perhaps enlightening to broadcasters who engaged in "exit polling" on November 4:
President Chávez urged people to respect CNE standards
Venezuela: TV and Radio Stations Licenses to Be Revoked if Announcing Polling Results Early
Those TV or radio stations to announce election results early, on the electoral process to be held on November 23rd, will immediately go out the air and its licenses will be revoked, said President Chávez referring to the electoral norms.
The Venezuelan head of State urged the political actors and the media to respect the Organic Law of Suffrage and Political Participation and the National Electoral Council (CNE Spanish acronym) which is in charge of the Electoral Power.
“None of them (TV/radio stations) can announce results before the CNE does. If any media, radio or TV, announces results in advance, they will go out the air, don’t even doubt about it” he said.
During an act of the political party PSUV (Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela) held in Barcelona, Anzoátegui state, Chávez said the government will guarantee the order on November 23. He said to the Vice-president, the Telecommunications and Computing Ministry, the National Commission of Telecommunications (CONATEL) that in case of violation of the electoral norms and standards by any radio or TV station (announcing results in advance) “will be enough to revoke its licenses.”
I make this warning because some media “are saying they have their own polls and they will be announcing results early.”
Chávez denounced that pro-opposition sectors “are preparing frauds aimed at not recognizing the results of the elections to be held on November 23.” Thus, that day I will have the Army under the people’s control, just to see who dares. I urge pro-opposition parties to respect the referee.”
Finally, he urged all the sectors to respect peoples’ decision and trust the CNE. “This is the world’s most reliable electoral system; it’s transparent and automatic. There will be internal and external observers.”
Presidential Press Office/ November 14, 2008
Granted, we have seen firsthand in the United States how the premature broadcast of exit polling results might distort the actual election results ("Can I be the first to call you ‘Mr. President’" — Bob Shrum to John Kerry, 2004). And, yes, there was an embargo on the release of exit poll results until 5 pm on November 4, but that was self-imposed, not mandated by government.
The license revocations threatened by President Chavez raise three questions in my mind.
1. Can an election be described as "transparent" when the first order of business is to impose a prior restraint on press coverage?
2. How can the players "respect the referee" when he hides himself from public scrutiny?
3. Mr. President, what are you afraid of?