The Media on Venezuela: Double Standards and First Impressions

The swearing in of the Constituent Assembly meant the return of the portraits of Bolívar and Chávez to the Legislative Palace (photo from Alba Ciudad)

While street violence in Venezuela virtually evaporated after chavismo’s strong showing on July 30 and the Constituent Assembly being sworn in, the war against Venezuela is far from over. After months of threats and targeted sanctions, the US, cheered on by the Venezuelan opposition, imposed financial sanctions targeting the Venezuelan government and the state oil company PDVSA. Another war front that has remained hyperactive has been the media. It is impossible to go after the (fake) news and distortions one by one, so in this piece we will try to pinpoint some of the techniques used by the mainstream media in recent times when reporting about Venezuela.

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Who shoulders the burden of proof?

The lead-up to the Constituent Assembly elections was full of threats and refusals to recognise the results from the US and its subordinates near and far. After the vote took place, with over 8M voters participating, the mainstream media started behaving like the audience of “The Price is Right”.1 Any claim of a different turnout, invariably without any evidence, was thrown at the readers.

But the ideal weapon came when Smartmatic, the company responsible for the voting machines and software, claimed that “without any doubt” the voting total had been inflated by, according to their “estimations”, at least 1M votes. The Venezuelan electoral authorities (CNE) promptly reacted by saying that the company, while responsible for the system, had no access to electoral data, and as such whatever estimates they produced were baseless. Given that the electoral results were published a few days later, the logical reasoning would put the burden on Smartmatic to release evidence to back their claims. In the press conference, Smartmatic CEO Antonio Mugica said that the company had not shared the evidence with the CNE because they would not be “sympathetic” to it. But why not share it with the western media, which is more than sympathetic to it?

As it turns out, there was no need to present evidence, because the standards are different when it comes to Venezuela. Smartmatic’s press conference was more than enough for the media, who now parrot that it was “revealed” that the voting figures were inflated. So any allegation that conforms to the mainstream narrative and goes against the Venezuelan government does not need to be proven, and is used henceforth either as a fact or to provide instant denial. By contrast, the Venezuelan opposition enjoys a free ride when it comes to fact-checking of their statements. We can thank the BBC for a blatant demonstration of these double standards:

Venezuela’s electoral authorities said more than eight million people, or 41.5% of the electorate, had voted, a figure the company that provided the voting system said was inflated.

The opposition boycotted the poll and also held an unofficial referendum in which they said more than seven million Venezuelans voted against the constituent assembly.

The official vote, whose results have been audited, vouched for, and published, has to be immediately countered, even though Smartmatic provided nothing to back their claims. In comparison, the opposition’s claimed turnout from their “consultation”, of which all records were burned, is free from anyone contradicting it, even though there are strong reasons to doubt it.

Tibisay Lucena, president of the Venezuelan electoral council, gave a press conference in which she dismissed Smartmatic’s allegations based on the fact that the company has no access to electoral data. Smartmatic has yet to provide any evidence to back their claims that the vote total was inflated.

The New York Times went one step further, echoing an opposition leader’s claim that people had voted multiple times. This was, in fact, proven to be impossible by a journalist. And we can only wonder where these fears of multiple voting were when this actually did happen during the opposition’s consultation, an event that the New York Times considered as a supreme democratic event with “staggering” results.

But when it comes to double standards, the Guardian was determined not to be outdone. Here is what appeared on a recent piece about Trump’s “military option” threat:

[Venezuela’s] economy has collapsed in recent years as the country led first by the late Hugo Chávez and then by his successor, Maduro, has resorted to increasingly authoritarian measures to consolidate power.

Trump’s remarks come in the shadow of a 2002 coup attempt against Chávez that he blamed on the US.

So Maduro’s resort to “authoritarian measures” is not “according to his opponents”, or to fancy “international observers” that always come in handy on these occasions, it is supposed to be an absolute fact. On the other hand, US involvement in the 2002 coup, which has been amply documented, is just Chávez’s opinion!

And in what is not a case of double standards but rather one of no standards, we have to mention this article by the Guardian. What happened was the following: the Constituent Assembly invited the leaders of the opposition-controlled National Assembly to participate in a session to work out their legal status2 and how both bodies will co-exist. The opposition leaders refused, and the Constituent Assembly assumed power to legislate on some matters, namely national security. The Guardian, clearly preparing for their future as a tabloid3, titled their article “President Maduro strips Venezuela’s parliament of power”, along with a picture of Maduro swinging maracas. It does not get more disingenuous than that.

Shoot first, do not ask questions later

A distinctive reporting technique involves sticking to first impressions, however biased they may be. Let us illustrate with an example: on April 11, Brayan Principal, a teenage resident from a public housing project in Lara state, was shot dead. Rather than gather the facts, the media simply let an opposition lawmaker state that he thought armed pro-government groups were responsible. And that was that. The testimony of the victim’s mother, as well as other residents from the project, showed this was another example of an opposition attack against the public housing mission, one of chavismo’s flagship projects. But the media were happy with the initial opinion and not interested in reporting further.

However, no case is more symptomatic than that of Oscar Pérez. A police officer, he hijacked a helicopter and then proceeded to shoot at and throw grenades at government buildings with people inside. It was more of a stunt than an armed uprising, but still the media were charmed by a character that would be instantly, and rightly, called a terrorist had he done this anywhere else. And if that was not enough, they started floating this idiotic idea that he might be a “government plant”. “This colourful B-movie actor attacked public buildings with grenades. Could it be that he is a government plant?” No, no he is not. He appeared in an opposition rally a few days later, but none of the outlets that pushed the “government plant” theory bothered to report on it.

A more recent case involved Colombian channels RCN and Caracol being taken off the air in Venezuela. While these channels are well-known for giving a platform to right-wing people like Álvaro Uribe, and for being part of large corporate empires, the BBC pinpointed this closure to the channels’ close coverage of the events surrounding Luisa Ortega. It appears they were only guilty of doing journalism, just like the BBC pretends to do. The fact that former Mexican president and loyal US servant Vicente Fox had just appeared on these channels telling Maduro to “resign or die” was not worth mentioning.

One wonders if a channel where people came on the air telling Emmanuel Macron, or the Queen of England, to “resign or die” would stay on the air in France or the UK. And where was all this concern about “censorship” when Argentinian president Mauricio Macri ordered TeleSur taken off the air? (Needless to say, TeleSur never ran anything remotely comparable to these threats)

Former Mexican president Vicente Fox on Colombian channel RCN

Silence is golden

Another common technique of biased reporting involves reporting only stories that fit into the mainstream narrative and shying away from anything that might cast doubt on it. For example, OAS chief Luis Almagro always has the floor for his regime-change efforts against Venezuela, which come coated in the language of defending “democracy”. But if the media pointed out his lack of interest in the parliamentary coup in Brazil, or reported on his praise of Israel’s democracy, then his standing as a “pro-democracy” actor would be very questionable. Similarly, ridiculous statements such as Almagro claiming that Cuba has an “occupying army” in Venezuela are nowhere to be found in the mainstream outlets.

Luisa Ortega Díaz4, former prosecutor turned anti-chavista hero, also benefits from this kind of selective reporting. Now portrayed as a defender of the rule of law, it would be useful to recall that not so long ago she was vilified by the opposition for the prosecution and conviction of Leopoldo López for his role in the previous edition of the violent guarimbas in 2014. Ortega’s outlandish comparisons of the Venezuelan government to “Stalin and Hitler”, were they to be reported, would also make it harder for her to be taken seriously.

Presented by the media as a fierce defender of the Constitution, the idea is to imply that she is a genuine chavista and Maduro and co. have gone off the rails. But her presence in a forum “in defence of the Constitution” tells a different story. There she was surrounded by who’s who of the opposition leadership, people who would do away with the Constitution in a heartbeat, and actually did during the 2002 coup.

Ortega and her husband have been accused of running an extortion operation out of the Public Prosecutor’s office, getting money in exchange for not prosecuting companies accused of misuse of subsidised dollars. Ortega’s replacement, Tarek Saab, presented documents of alleged bank accounts opened by members of this circle in UBS bank in the Bahamas. But this evidence, or Ortega’s baffling response that UBS does not exist in the Bahamas (!), are not mentioned by western journalists, who could actually investigate the claims if they wanted to.

Luisa Ortega in a forum “in defence of the Constitution” surrounded by opposition leaders. The three figures from the right are Freddy Guevara, Julio Borges and Henrique Capriles.

Sanctions and solidarity

The most recent US-imposed sanctions were a significant escalation that could do serious damage to the average Venezuelan, as opposed to freezing Maduro’s non-existent US assets. With the strategy of street violence clearly exhausted, having been unable to spread unrest to the barrios or to cause a split in the armed forces, there is now a switch towards economic asphyxiation of the country. The US is even resorting to blocking food shipments destined to Venezuela, so it is clear that the plan is to be rid of the Bolivarian Revolution by imposing as much pain as possible on the Venezuelan people.

For all the media propaganda, chavismo has actually struck a very conciliatory tone in recent years, both in domestic and international terms. But it should be clear that no dialogue is possible with those who incessantly dig our graves, be they opposition leaders who call for sanctions and even military intervention, or US officials who would never accept a threat like this in their backyard. Nevertheless, chavismo has political room to manoeuvre with the Constituent Assembly in place, and now might be a good time to suspend debt payments and prioritise elsewhere. Ultimately, if the Bolivarian Revolution is to defend itself against imperial aggression, the only way is to increase the power and influence of its greatest resource: a conscientious and mobilised working class.

As for the mainstream media, we should not have illusions about holding the mainstream media to any kind of journalism standards. Anyone on the left should be able to analyse the corporate nature and track record of the major media outlets and figure out which interests they ultimately serve. Rather than lazily echo media propaganda and preach a “plague on both your houses” analysis, those who stand in solidarity with the Venezuelan poor and working class have the task of finding and spreading truthful information as a first step in opposing imperialism in Venezuela and Latin America.

  1. Television game-show in which contestants have to guess prices of merchandise, and the audience shouts suggestions. []
  2. The National Assembly has been in contempt of court ever since three lawmakers from Amazonas state were sworn-in despite being under investigation for electoral fraud. []
  3. The Guardian recently announced it will come in tabloid format (smaller pages) starting in 2018 to save money. UK tabloids are known for their sensationalism and poor standards. []
  4. Luisa Ortega has been touring the Americas announcing that she has evidence of corruption involving chavista leaders and Odebrecht. But in line with what we discussed, claims against chavismo never need to be substantiated. Quite frankly, if there was any evidence of something as egregious as Maduro receiving a multi-million dollar bribe from Odebrecht, it would have been out there already, especially when the opposition was closer to taking power by force. The media headlines would have written themselves []

Ricardo Vaz writes for Investig’Action. Read other articles by Ricardo.