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Opinion and Analysis: International | Media Watch | Venezuelan Media

Private Media on Chavez’ Health: 70 Days of Speculation and Necrophilia

A Venezuelan sociologist and media analyst has described the private media’s reportage of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s health as based on speculation and “constant necrophilia.”

The analyst, Maryclen Stelling, argued that this reporting is part of a campaign by the right-wing opposition and its domestic and international media allies to exploit Chavez’ battle with cancer in order to create a political “crisis” in the country and seek a “transition” of power.

The comments were made on Monday when Chavez returned home from Cuba after recovering from his cancer operation last December. He will continue treatment in a hospital in Caracas.

Stelling recalled how the day after Chavez left for Cuba in December, leading Venezuelan conservative daily El Nacional led with “the MUD will be capable of presenting an alternative for Venezuelans,” reflecting the stance taken by the opposition MUD coalition toward Chavez’s absence from the country.

When Chavez was unable to be present for his presidential inauguration on 10 January, much of the Venezuelan opposition declared the continuance of the Chavez government illegitimate, despite a Supreme Court ruling to the contrary, subsequently backed by the OAS.

However, in line with the opposition’s stance the private Venezuelan media campaign intensified. Through January and February  headlines and article titles  appeared such as “two months without seeing nor hearing from Chavez” (El Tiempo), “he’s still breathing” (Tal Cual), “Chavez’s illness is fatal”, (Tal Cual), “his options are running out “ (Tal Cual), “the death of stand-alone bosses” (El Nacional) and “is your coup making over?” (El Universal).

Stelling also reviewed the international media’s treatment of Chavez’s illness and stay in Cuba, finding that the Spanish press went furthest in their speculation and “necrophilic” reportage.

Leading Spanish daily ABC printed several “exclusive” reports in which the paper predicted the Venezuelan president’s imminent death, to the extent to which Vice President Nicolas Maduro was provoked to comment in an interview that the paper had become an “attack center” of lies over Chavez’s clinical progress.

However another Spanish paper, El País, went further than speculation when on 24 January it published a photograph purporting to show Chavez undergoing treatment, accompanied by the headline “the truth about Chavez’s illness”.

The photo quickly turned out to be false and taken from someone else undergoing treatment in 2008, and while the paper apologized to its readers, it didn’t extent that apology to Chavez or the Venezuelan people.

Many articles printed in Spain’s national press were written by Washington-based journalist Emili Blasco, who, based on supposed “sources” in Havana, wrote a series of articles with headlines such as “Chavez on the edge of death” and “doctors consider continuing Chavez’s treatment useless”.

Media analyst Stelling explained that the Spanish media had been more “virulent” than that of any other country because Spain is where the Venezuelan opposition lobby has the greatest weight.

She added that media in the United States had been less speculative over Chavez’s health, after the US had invested a lot in the Venezuelan opposition without receiving the hoped-for results in return.

However, US media have used Chavez’s absence from the political scene while he fights cancer to trash his legacy and question the constitutional situation in the country, with leading outlets such as the Washington Post erroneously describing the delay in Chavez’s inauguration as “a stretch of the constitution’s ambiguous wording” and the San Francisco Chronicle claiming “Venezuela’s Chavez ruining country”.

Using self-justificatory and self-serving logic, the same media outlets and the Venezuelan opposition have accused the government of being “secretive” over Chavez’s health and thus having “caused” speculation over his condition and Venezuela’s political situation. The Venezuelan government has countered this by pointing to regular updates over Chavez’s clinical progress while still respecting his right to privacy as a patient.

With Chavez’s apparent recovery progressing to the point where he was able to return to Venezuela earlier this week, Venezuelan communication minister Ernesto Villegas argued that the official information on Chavez’s health had been vindicated as accurate.

“The ominous voices - those who were calling into question the information emitted by the national government with respect to Chavez’s health, are defeated,” he said on Monday.

It seems that while the “ominous voices” will continue to speculate on Chavez’s health and try to create the impression of a “crisis” in Venezuela where and when they can, the surprise return and apparent improvement of the Venezuelan president has demonstrated the falsity of many of their claims, highlighting 70 days of speculation and necrophilia as exactly that.