By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY, WSJ
Suppose the country you live in is holding a presidential election and the incumbent is running for another term. Suppose further that the economy is in bad shape. The ranks of the unemployed and poor have swelled, the government is spendthrift, and the central bank is no longer independent.
The president takes no responsibility. He blames everything on the rich. He says they are exploiting the working classes and don't pay their fair share in taxes. Fomenting class envy and resentment is his stock in trade. Now suppose there are is no independent media.
Welcome to Venezuela. Think the country can hold a fair presidential election?
South America's oil dictatorship kicked off the campaign season on July 1. Hugo Chávez, who has been the commander in chief of the military government since 1999, hopes to keep his job when Venezuelans go to the polls on Oct. 7. Henrique Capriles Radonski, the former governor of the state of Miranda, is out to unseat him.
Outside observers, including the international media, are treating the race like a real battle of ideas. But how can that be when there is no free speech?
Let's put aside for a moment all the obvious problems. Forget about the lack of an independent electoral body to ensure fairness in voter registration, at polling stations, and when tallying ballots. Forget about how Mr. Chávez makes up rules as he goes along and then gets the judiciary that he controls to bless them. Forget too that the state-owned oil monopoly (known by the Spanish-language initials PdVSA) is his campaign war chest, and the central bank prints money on demand. For now, consider only the military dictatorship's capacity to control the message.
Mr. Chávez and his cronies in the Venezuelan elite know better than anyone that he is running a Ponzi scheme. The key to maintaining some support is keeping his impoverished constituents from seeing the light, and that means controlling the narrative. Or as President Obama might say, the ability to "tell a story."
Venezuelans don't read much but they do watch a lot of television, so independent broadcasting had to go. It wasn't hard to get rid of it. Television stations require government licensing. In the Chávez economy, many television ventures also depend on government advertising to remain viable. So it was made clear to the uncooperative that their permits would not be renewed or that their bread and butter would be cut off.
At one time there were three independent, national broadcast-television stations and many regional broadcasters willing to criticize the government. Today, all largely have been silenced or expelled from the market. Meanwhile, there are now at least four state-owned national broadcasters dedicated to polishing the image of Mr. Chávez and his Bolivarian revolution.
One dissident broadcaster—Globovision—remains. But it reaches only the cities of Valencia and Caracas, and its permit expires in 2015. In 2010, its owner, Guillermo Zuloago (who also owned two car dealerships), had to go into hiding when Mr. Chávez put out an order for his arrest on charges of hoarding Toyotas. (Chávez price and capital controls have produced shortages of many things, so a car dealer holding inventory for delivery to customers can easily be accused of unlawful hoarding.) Mr. Zuloago now resides in the United States.
The government also imprisoned for a time Globovision's second-largest shareholder and later stripped him of his property. Recently the company paid a fine of nine million bolivars ($2 million using the official exchange rate) for broadcasting news of a prison riot.
Scores of independent radio stations also have closed under chavismo. Only a few willing to run some criticism of the president have survived. It matters too that PdVSA is also the largest contractor to the private sector, which means the business community has had to knuckle under to survive.
There are still brave reporters and opinion writers who dare to challenge the status quo, despite the shrinking number of television and radio outlets. But they run great risks.
According to Alberto Jordán, a journalism professor at the Central University of Venezuela who once supported Mr. Chávez, many have paid dearly for doing their work. Mr. Jordán, a columnist for the Venezuelan daily El Universal, wrote recently that underchavismo there have been 300 government-orchestrated court cases against journalists.
In multiple cases—from reporting on drinking water contamination, the shortages of goods or anything that might cause "anxiety" among the population—reporters have been put on notice that they could be subject to criminal prosecution. There is nothing like the threat of doing time in a Venezuelan cell to focus a journalist's mind on state-approved reporting.
It is also worth noting that while independent journalists are silenced, Mr. Chávez uses executive decrees to take over the airwaves whenever he wants to give speeches. These famous discourses run for hours.
So can challenger Capriles win the election? Perhaps. But if you've ever witnessed a demagogue running for re-election, you can appreciate how difficult it will be without an independent media.