Barack Obama had a few choice words for Bill and Hillary Clinton
after the South Carolina primary, about people who would "say anything
and do anything to win an election."
Imagine if the U.S media had
reported his remarks without ever reporting what the candidate was
responding to. (He was reacting to former president Bill Clinton's
comparison — widely seen as racial politicking — of Obama's South
Carolina victory to Jesse Jackson's in the 1980's; and Hillary
Clinton's attack ads).
It would not be considered acceptable
journalism in the United States to omit these key facts. But in U.S.
coverage of Latin America, the same standards do not apply.
example, the press has run a number of reports lately on a diplomatic
dispute between Venezuela and Colombia, which is important because the
two countries share a 1300 mile border that has been plagued for
decades by paramilitary and guerrilla violence. The press was quick to
report some rather undiplomatic remarks from President Hugo Chavez of
Venezuela about President Uribe of Colombia, whom Chavez called "a
liar" and "fit to be a Mafia boss" rather than president.
from US and English-language press coverage were the key events to
which Chavez was responding, and indeed the main cause of the current
dispute. In the days before last New Year's eve, the Venezuelan
government had arranged for the release of high-profile hostages held
in the Colombian jungle by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia) guerrilla group. A high-level international team of observers
were on hand, including former President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina,
Brazil's top presidential foreign policy advisor, and representatives
from France, Switzerland, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba and the Red Cross.
mission failed, and recriminations followed. President Uribe said that
the FARC were lying the whole time, that they never had any intention
of releasing the hostages because they did not have one of the three
that they had promised to deliver (a 3-year old boy who was born in
captivity). President Chavez angrily accused Uribe of "dynamiting" the
mission. He said that the FARC was in fact ready to release the two
hostages that they held, but had to retreat from Colombian military
operations. President Uribe maintained that his military, under orders
from him, had held to a cease fire in order to allow the release. Who
was telling the truth?
When the two hostages, Consuelo Gonzalez
and Clara Rojas, were finally released on January 10, Gonzalez – a
former Colombian congresswoman — told this story to the press:
December 21, we began to walk toward the location where they were going
to free us and we walked almost 20 days. During that time, we were
forced to run several times because the soldiers were very close,' she
said. Gonzalez also lamented that on the day that Alvaro Uribe set as a
deadline for the release, the Colombian armed forces launched the worst
attack on the zone where they were located. 'On the 31st, we realized
that there was going to be a very big mobilization and, in the moment
that we were ready to be released, there was a huge bombardment and we
had to relocate quickly to another place.'"
reporters questioned the truth of Gonzalez' testimony; it was simply
not reported. The one exception was an Associated Press article, where
it was buried and barely mentioned,
and edited out of most newspapers. By eliminating this vital
information, the media prevented readers from knowing that the
Colombian government had reneged on its end of the bargain, putting the
lives of the hostages at risk in what looked like an attempt to
embarrass Chavez and abort the mission.
This kind of coverage of
Latin America is all too common. For example, the democratic government
of President Evo Morales in Bolivia is trying to reverse centuries of
apartheid rule over the country's indigenous majority. Yet these
efforts are often portrayed in the U.S. media as a "power grab" by the
president and as "Chavez's project." This is despite the fact that the
rewriting of the constitution is a long-standing demand of Bolvia's
powerful social movements, long before Evo Morales ever met Hugo
Chavez. The omission of crucial information plays an important role in
creating a false impression. Thus, CNN reported
that "Governors in eastern Bolivia opposed the proposed constitution
because it was passed without the presence of opposition legislators,"
without mentioning that this was because of a boycott by these
legislators. (The same report also erroneously states that the new
constitution would allow "Morales to run for president indefinitely.")
Editorial boards then use this "half-reporting" to produce even more exaggerated editorials
denouncing Latin America's new democracies as "authoritarian" and
worse. The result is that those who follow the news coverage of Latin
America here can end up with less understanding than those who ignore
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis
(University of Chicago Press, 2000). He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.