Updated: Thursday, 30 January 2014 15:39 | By Agence France-Presse

Venezuela thrusts soap operas into firing line

Latin American soap operas watched by millions of people every day are feeding Venezuela's spiralling crime rate -- or so says President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuela thrusts soap operas into firing line

Image taken on January 8, 2014 shows people gathering in Caracas to protest over the deaths of former beauty queen turned soap opera star Monica Spear and her partner - by Juan Barreto

But while he accuses the wildly popular "telenovelas" of spreading negative values, his critics say he is grappling for excuses instead of taking responsibility.

Venezuela's reputation as one of the most violent countries in the world was reinforced by the high-profile murder earlier this month of former beauty queen turned actress Monica Spear and her British-born partner on a deserted highway. 

They were shot in front of their five-year-old daughter Maya, who was injured.

The fatal armed robbery made headlines around the world and prompted Maduro to launch a major campaign against the violence that plagues Venezuela.

As part of his response, the socialist president homed in on television, ordering a review of programming on all Venezuela's channels and saying that he would build "a new film and television culture." 

He particularly had "telenovelas" in his sights -- ironically, Spear was the star of one of them -- saying they were spreading "anti-values​​" such as "death, the cult of drugs, weapons and violence."

Warming to the theme, he recently declared, referring to the popular series "De Todas Maneras Rosa": "I do not watch novelas because I do not have time, but I saw one where the heroine kills her own mother. How can she be the heroine of the story?"

Murder rates continue to rise in Venezuela, now up to between 39 and 79 per 100,000 victims annually, according to figures from the government and local NGOs respectively.

Even the lower figure is among the highest in South America.

"To put the magnifying glass on the telenovelas in Venezuela is a mistake and it is irresponsible because all Venezuelans know crime has nothing to do with that and is about more complex structural causes," the television writer Leonardo Padron told AFP.

The government is trying "to hide its own responsibility," he said, adding that 92 percent of homicides go unpunished and that the authorities do not have a "firm hand" on criminals.

In an open letter, the screenwriter writer of "De Todas Maneras Rosa," Carlos Perez, said that the character Maduro had criticized was not the heroine of the soap opera, but a wicked woman "irreversibly doomed to fail and be punished for her wickedness."

The telenovelas always describe "a battle of good against evil, and good always reigns over evil," Perez said.

Socialist novelas

Carolina Acosta, a professor of mass media at University of Georgia, also dismissed Maduro's criticism.

"We cannot say that telenovelas incite violence," she said, noting that no studies back up the assertion.

Venezuelans like their television, spending an average of six hours a day glued to the small screen. But interference from the very top has a precedent.

Maduro's predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, in 2011 prohibited the dissemination of popular "narconovelas," Colombian or Mexican television series that for many people reflected the reality of drug trafficking.

In 2010 Chavez called for the production of "socialist novelas." 

Six years earlier, a ruling prohibited scenes of sex or violence on radio and television.

"Most telenovelas conform to a model. Through the stories, love or action can be transmitted into humanistic values​​," said Delfina Catala, who last year produced "Teresa en Tres Estaciones," considered the first "socialist" series. 

Scriptwriters are finding that the boundaries keep narrowing -- but point out that crime keeps going up.

"For example, you cannot show scenes with a compulsive gambler in a casino," said Acosta.

And it is becoming "very difficult" to address issues such as sex, drugs or alcohol, Padron added.

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