Chavez opponents call state media coverage unfair

In speech after speech, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stares at the television camera and unleashes a hail of colorful insults against his opponents.

"Oligarchs," "fascists," "mafia bosses," and "coup mongers" are among his favorite taunts.

But critics complain Chavez has no right to use public airwaves to ridicule foes and campaign for allies, in essence making state media a propaganda machine that puts opponents at a disadvantage ahead of Nov. 23 state and local elections.

"He doesn't respect his political adversaries, and he doesn't respect the law," opposition leader Gerardo Blyde said Sunday, noting that Venezuela's suffrage law prohibits the use of public resources for political activities.

Blyde, who is now running for mayor of Baruta, one of Caracas' five boroughs, is joining scores of other opposition candidates in demanding that Venezuelan election officials bar Chavez from using presidential events to campaign.

Chavez ї who was criticized for unfairly using state media to further his own re-election in 2006 ї has never been shy about insulting his critics, but the frequency and tone of his comments have recently heated up. He now uses the term "little Yankees" almost daily, trying to tar opponents as U.S.-loving traitors.

And his message travels: law requires all network TV and radio stations to interrupt programming and broadcast most of what usually are his political speeches.

Information Minister Andres Izarra denies that pro-Chavez candidates benefit unfairly from that publicity. But he readily admits the government is waging "a media war" against privately owned television and radio stations and newspapers, which heavily favor the opposition.

Facing a "hostile and manipulative private press, it's our duty to take advantage of the public media" to spread Chavez's message, Izarra told The Associated Press.

The number of major state-owned or state-friendly television channels has grown from one to six since Chavez took office in 1999. They regularly broadcast his party's events, but air scant or negative coverage of the political opposition.

The number of private TV channels taking a hard line against Chavez has meanwhile shrunk, as the country's oldest network, RCTV, lost its public broadcasting license in 2007 and two other channels, Venevision and Televen, have curbed criticism. That has left Globovision as the country's lone anti-Chavez channel among the top networks.

Chavez meanwhile gives his allies a national stage, hosting many of them on his Sunday television and radio program. A frequent guest is his brother, Adan Chavez, who is running for governor in their home state of Barinas.

Talk show host Mario Silva, a Chavez ally seeking the governorship in the state of Carabobo outside Caracas, uses his nightly state-TV program to trash rivals and air his own campaign footage.

Venezolana de Television, the biggest state-owned network, "has become the ruling party's channel," while Globovision is "a campaign platform for the opposition," said Luis Tascon, who was expelled from Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela last year after accusing several of the president's allies of corruption.

Chavez's use of state resources to help his supporters goes even farther, some critics suggest, accusing the government of using military trucks and planes to ferry allies to political rallies. The ruling party denies having ever done so.

In response to the complaints, the National Electoral Council is slated to draw up new campaign rules this week, said Vicente Diaz, one of the council's five directors.

Diaz says he opposes state media's promotion of pro-Chavez candidates, but critics argue that his four colleagues are Chavez backers and unlikely to take a tough stand.

That makes it easy for the government to comply with their rulings ї which Izarra pledged the government would do.

"We always have," he said, according to AP.

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