February 7, 2003

Civil disobedience, the media, and you
The remarkable case of the AK-47 toting building inspector

You couldn't have scripted a moment quite like it if you'd tried; it would've seemed too contrived, too caricaturesque by half.

The National Assembly was in the middle of an all-night debate on the government's unconscionable new Contents Bill (you know, the one that bans saying nasty things about the government) when Carlos Tablante, an opposition assembly member, takes the floor to give an impassioned speech against the bill. He closes by asking, rhetorically, "You keep talking about China and Cuba...in those countries there's only one leader, there's only one party, there's only one ideology, there's only one newspaper, there's only one radio station, there's only one TV station. Is that what you want here?" Well, he thought it was a rhetorical question...but the response from the chavista side of the aisle was a resounding chant of "¡Siiiiiii!"

Subtle, huh?

Sometimes, as you watch the aggressive antichavez bias on the TV here, you can almost understand the anger and frustration chavistas must feel. But any sympathy goes up in smoke at moments like that. Obviously, their problem is not with the newspapers and TV-stations we have, their problem is with the concept of a free and independent news media at all.

This afternoon witnessed a perfect demonstration of why a flawed private media is far preferable to no independent media at all. At about 6:00 pm, a municipal building inspector showed up at the offices of Súmate, the NGO that organized last weekend's massive signature-gathering drive. Their offices are located in Sucre Municipality, a section of Eastern Caracas run by a pro-Chávez mayor. Any notion that this was a normal building inspection was discarded when you had a look at her entourage: at least a dozen municipal cops, who were soon reinforced by a contingent of 20 or more assault-rifle toting, camouflage-wearing special operations cops, all decked out in bullet-proof vests and such. They claimed, incongruously, to be there just to make sure the building was up to code.

Now, say what you will, but I refuse to believe that Sucre municipal building inspectors routinely get that kind of escort when they go to check out buildings. It's a preposterous notion...which is not surprising, given that it's also the government's line. The Mayor of Sucre - who happens to be the vicepresident's son - claimed they had no idea those were Súmate's offices, that inspectors always go out with police escort. Ummm...that's just silly: if every municipal inspector needed 30+ cops every time they go out to do their rounds, there wouldn't be any cops left over to do anything else!

Súmate's folks were understandably alarmed by the visit - there were millions of signatures sitting in hundreds of thousands of forms at that site. It wasn't particularly hard to guess what the real target of the "inspection" was. Their first reaction was to hit the phones. Within minutes, every news station in town was carrying live news from the site. And within a few minutes of that, hundreds of people had poured out onto the streets around the site to face down the cops. Within an hour or so, the street in front of Súmate was a sea of people, an insta-march of at least 10,000 flag-waving, whistle-blowing protesters physically blocking access to the building.

That, dear reader, is civil disobedience in action.

The municipal cops wisely high-tailed it out of there empty handed. It was the only reasonable course of action - the crowd would've lynched them if they'd tried to walk away with any signatures.

So now you know why the government wants the private media shut down - and why even those of us who think they're doing an awful job have to defend them. With every state institutions under Chávez's control, people have no choice but to fight back against the government's autocratic excesses on their own, face-to-face, on the streets. And as we saw tonight, the media is the lynchpin of that strategy - people were able to mobilize en masse, within minutes, to defend their signatures only because they got the heads-up on TV and the radio. If we were living in the wondrous one-station state chavistas long for, the 4 million + signatures Súmate collected last weekend would probably be a smoldering pile of ashes by now.