The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) holds it's biyearly meeting in Caracas this week - the first to be held in Venezuela in many years. But that doesn't mean that the organization hasn't been deeply involved in Venezuela. Since President Chavez took office in 1998, the organization has sent 10 delegations to the South American country and distributed dozens of press releases criticizing the Chavez administration for continually "violating press freedoms" and launching "attacks, repression, and assaults against the media." Last fall, the IAPA denounced Venezuela for the "largest number of press violations" during the six months prior.
The IAPA stance on Venezuela could be understandable if it were balanced, researched and based on reality. But it is not. It is as polarized as the Venezuelan media, offering unconditional support for Venezuela's private media, while unable even to recognize the advances in support of Venezuela's community media. As Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) pointed out in a letter to the editor of the Editor & Publisher in January:
"By taking sides in Venezuelan politics, without investigating the facts of the situation, the IAPA discredits itself as an avowed advocate of press freedom."
Nothing new. The IAPA stance against the Chavez government has remained consistent throughout the last decade. The Association even reached an ironic highpoint in the midst of the 2002 coup d'etat, which wrenched democratically-elected President Hugo Chavez from office for 48 hours. On April 12, 2002-the day after the assassination of twenty innocent Venezuelans, which precipitated Chavez's brief removal from office-the IAPA sent out a press release stating the following:
"Inter American Press Association President Robert J. Cox said today that political developments in Venezuela demonstrate to nations throughout the world that there can be no true democracy without free speech and press freedom... "This is a classic example for the new government headed by Pedro Carmona, which hopefully will turn things around, respect freedom of the press and encourage the independence of the judiciary, and thus, ensure restoration of true democracy," Cox added." (3)
As these words where being released to the press, community media in Venezuela was being sacked, the state-owned Venezolana de Televisión was occupied, and the private media (Venevision, Globovision, Telemundo, & RCTV) which had led the coup, were complacently refusing to report the news on the ground.
The IAPA's consistent criticism against the Chavez administration could first be shrugged off as innocent or naive, but only for so long.
While the organization may at first appear to be an association of journalists, it would be more accurate to call it an association of media directors. The 6-decade old IAPA has deep roots in almost all of the most powerful media outlets of the Western Hemisphere and claims to represent 1,300 newspapers and magazines throughout the region. IAPA authorities, members of the board of directors, the executive committee and the advisory board are all at least important editors in each of their respective publications. Many are Presidents, directors, publishers, founders and (in various cases) children of those in the highest position of the publication. IAPA members are often representatives of the most powerful media family or group in the country.
For instance, IAPA Executive Committee member Jorge Canahuati Larach, has been President and CEO of Honduras' la Prensa since 1986; IAPA Executive Committee member Fabricio Altamirano, is Executive Director of El Salvador's Diario de Hoy (son of Enrique Altamirano, General Director of the Grupo Altamirano); IAPA member of the Executive Committee and the Board of Directors, Juan Francisco Ealy Ortiz, has been President and General Director of the Compañía Periodística Nacional de México since 1969. The company owns one of Mexico's largest dailys, El Universal; President of the IAPA Commission on Press Freedom, Fernando Gonzalo Marroquín Godoy, is Editorial Director of one of Guatemala's largest daily's, Prensa Libre, and a member of the most important media family in Guatemala; Chile's powerful Edwards family- which owns El Mercurio, La Segunda and Las Ultimas Noticias -also counts numerous representatives among IAPA's members.
The connections are not only with the powerful. Some integral IAPA members also have disturbing historic link with Latin America's right wing dictatorships. For example, Alejandro J. Aguirre is President of the IAPA Executive Committee. Aguirre is assistant editor and assistant publisher of Miami's largest Spanish daily, Diario Las Americas. Alejandro is the son of Horacio Aguirre Baca, founder of the newspaper, who in 1999 was profoundly thanked at the Miami International Press Club, by the Miami Cuban community, for his long years in "defense of the freedom of Cuba." According to an investigation from various sources, it appears that Horacio Aguirre Baca was born in New Orleans and grew up in Nicaragua, where he and his family had relatively tight connections with then-General (and soon to be Dictator) Anastasio Somoza García. As history knows, Somoza Garcia was responsible for the assassination of the infamous left-wing Nicaraguan guerrilla leader, Augusto César Sandino. Over the next fourty years, the Somoza family would control the country on and off until Somoza Garcia's second son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was ousted by the Sandinistas in 1979. In the 1940s, during one of these power shifts, Horacio fled to Panama with his brother Francisco, and afterwards to the United States in the 1950s. Horacio Aguirre is an historic member of the IAPA, and now belongs to the Advisory board.
Not everyone is so tightly knit to the region's dictators, but almost all top-ranking IAPA members are in-line with Washington's interests in the region. Vice-President of the IAPA Executive Committee, Rafael Molina Morillo, is the founder of the Dominican Republic Ahora! Publications, which among other things, publishes the important daily, El Nacional. Molina Morillo admitted in an interview last December that "the magazine (where he worked) played an important role in the North American invasion of the country in 1965."
IAPA Executive Committee member, Luis Alberto Ferré Rangel is current editor of El Nuevo Dia. He is a relative of the late Luis A. Ferré, former Puerto Rican governor, who acquired El Nuevo Dia in the 1940s. Governor Ferré studied in the United States and supported the idea of converting Puerto Rico in to a US state. Upon his death in 2003, President George W. Bush personally sent his condolences to the Ferre family. "He was a good friend of my family and I valued his advice and counsel," Bush wrote.
Further connections between some IAPA members and the US government are even more uncomforting for Latin Americans used to intervention. Current IAPA Secretary, Elizabeth Ballantine, Director of the McClatchy Company since 1998, is a former lawyer for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). IAPA Director, Julio Munoz, was recently appointed by the State Department to represent the IAPA in the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO.
But not all members of the organization appear to be so tightly integrated into Washington's agenda. Bruce Brugman, for example, is a member of the IAPA Executive Board, and is publisher, founder, and the largest share-holder of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, one of the most progressive weeklies in the region. Nevertheless, Brugman is no copy editor. He's been at the helm of the Bay Guardian since 1966, and has been criticized for being anti-union.
By analyzing IAPA's members-like those mentioned above-the story behind the IAPA campaign against Venezuela begins to unfold. But Venezuela isn't the first country in the region to be put on the IAPA watch list. Over the last sixty years, countries with progressive governments have always received a high level of criticism for their "violations of press freedoms," regardless of the reality.
According to various sources, the IAPA carried out a relatively extensive campaign in Chile against the Allende government before the democratically-elected Salvador Allende was violently removed by the bloody coup led by Augusto Pinochet.
Enrique Altamirano, from the Diario de Hoy, wrote the following excerpt from an article in 1984, where he recommended treading lightly regarding the Communist threat in the region, especially from the media.
The West should not ignore, as it was expressed by Dr. Horacio Aguirre, of the "Diario Las Americas" (Sept. 2, 81) that there exists, "strong Marxist influence in the media throughout the free world", a danger that is also highlighted by Venezuela's ex-president, Caldera, when he referred to the existence of "a world publicity strategy, admirable for it's impressive organization."
Venezuela is also not the only country in the region that is currently being criticized by the organization. The IAPA has programs across the whole of the Western Hemisphere, and they are critical even in those countries allied with Washington, such as Colombia or Mexico. Nevertheless, the IAPA media campaign against countries with progressive governments is often blatantly one-sided.
Take, for example, last year's IAPA resolution against Bolivia, which begins:
"Press freedom in the country has not improved, President Evo Morales Ayma has created a hostile climate for media outlets and particularly media owners."
Or last years' IAPA Conclusions, which appear to paint Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba (currently, Latin America's four most progressive governments) as the worst violators of press freedom in the region:
"Venezuela continued to lead with the largest number of transgressions over the last six months. On May 27 President Hugo Chávez shut down RCTV's on-air broadcasts and confiscated its 48 repeater stations and transmission equipment, which was then used by the government to create a new state-run television channel. The government is also committed to setting up official radio stations and providing financial aid to the governments of both Bolivia and Ecuador for the same purpose.
The situation in Cuba remains alarming after 48 years of dictatorship with no signs of a transition towards democracy. A total of 27 independent journalists continue imprisoned, a number of them seriously ill. Others are prevented from leaving the country despite having been issued humanitarian visas by neighboring countries.
Constitutional reforms announced in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela threaten to curtail individual freedoms and rights, especially press freedom and freedom of expression."
The Campaign & the IAPA Agenda
With this fairly blatant campaign against the Left, some have suggested that the CIA could be at the heart of IAPA activities. Just days before last December's Constitutional Reform Referendum, the Venezuelan government announced that it had obtained a CIA memorandum from the US Embassy in Caracas which supposedly revealed a plan to destabilize Venezuela in the lead-up to the Referendum, with the involvement of the IAPA.
Investigator Fred Landis pointed out the following in the mid 1980's, after an investigation in to IAPA collaboration with the CIA:
"Obviously the owner of a conservative newspaper in Latin America does not need CIA money to be against a socialist government. The assistance provided by the CIA is primarily technical, not financial. Without CIA help, the local newspaper's opposition would be openly stated on the editorial page in language reflecting the ideology of the local conservative elite. That would be ideological warfare, not psychological warfare. But the CIA is not concerned, in these operations, with local ideology; it is concentrating on the use of its bag of technological dirty tricks. One of these tricks is disinformation."
At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter whether or not the CIA is supporting the IAPA. The result is the same. The owners of Latin America's conservative papers are going "to be against a socialist" or progressive government in the region. Not necessarily because these governments threaten press freedoms any more than any other, but because these governments aren't usually willing to tolerate the abusive control which the owners hold over the public airwaves and media outlets. As CEPR's Weisbrot pointed out in his letter to the editor earlier this year:
"A private media as exists today in Venezuela would not be tolerated in the United States, where we have a Federal Communications Commission and rules that would prevent it... In Venezuela, the government decided in May 2007 not to renew the broadcast license of RCTV, the largest TV station. The international media tried to make this look like an act of censorship, but in fact such a station would not get a broadcast license in the U.S. or probably any democratic country. In addition to its activist role in the oil strike described above, the station also used faked film footage during the April 2002 coup to convince people that the government was murdering people in the streets. This deception played a major role in the coup, which was reversed when hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans - not shown on Venezuelan TV -- took to the streets to defend their democracy."
The same is true all across the region, where IAPA members represent powerful conservative media families and conglomerates, groups with a vested interest in strengthening their control and pushing their own agenda. If this "agenda" is their definition of "press freedom", than perhaps it makes sense why the IAPA has completely ignored the hundreds of new independent community radio stations, newspapers, and media outlets in Venezuela and written them off as "government controlled."
As Al Giordano, publisher of the Narco News Bulletin, wrote to then-IAPA President Robert J. Cox, after he visited Venezuelan on the heels of the 2002 Venezuelan coup:
"We found that an entire class of journalists in Venezuela is under attack and has been left undefended by your organization and the other large-budget "press freedom" organizations: the journalists of the Community Media."
A book should not be judged by its cover. The same could be said of the IAPA- An organization, painted to defend "press freedoms" across the hemisphere, but used as a pretext to push its own agenda, as it did in its complacent support of the 2002 media coup against Chavez. As Giordano concluded in his letter to IAPA President Cox:
"Your organization is nothing more than a lobbying group for the owners of a commercial industry - newspapers - and the IAPA's cynical use of the "press freedom" issue is only wielded to expand the economic and political powers of the owners of commercial media, abusive powers that are increasingly in conflict with the free expression rights of working journalists and of a majority of members of the public."
Footnotes & Links
1. http://www.sipiapa.org/pressreleases/srchcountrylisting.cfm, http://mercury.websitewelcome.com/~sipiapa/resolucion.php?id=109&tipo=2&...
4. www.sipiapa.org (see authorities & IAPA members)
5. Jorge Canahuati Larach: http://portal.rds.org.hn/listas/libertadexpresion/msg01312.html, http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=35869
Juan Francisco Ealy Ortiz: http://www.el-universal.com.mx/disenio/directorios/directorio.htm, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0DE3DE1731F934A1575BC0A...
Fernando Gonzalo Marroquín Godoy: http://www.guatemalaaldia.com/2007/04/el_poder_mediatico_de_los_marr.html, http://guatequerida.wordpress.com/2007/08/13/renuncia-fajardo/, http://www.trincherasdeideas.eu/Espa/MonroyC/021108MonroyC.html;
Edwards family: http://www.amazon.com/review/product/0307376788?filterBy=addOneStar, http://www.sergioramos.com.br/Noticia.asp?noticia_no=224
6. (http://archivo.elnuevodiario.com.ni/2004/julio/15-julio-2004/opinion/opi..., http://www-ni.laprensa.com.ni/archivo/2007/abril/30/especiales/reportaje..., http://www.amigospais-guaracabuya.org/oagnc018.php, http://www.juntapatriotica.org/Archivo/Articulos/pressclub.htm)
8. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Nuevo_D%C3%ADa), http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/10/20031022.html
9. Elizabeth Ballantine: http://www.nndb.com/gov/235/000043106/, http://www.grinnell.edu/offices/president/trustee/memberintro/ballantine/
Julio Munoz, http://www.state.gov/p/io/unesco/members/49480.htm
11. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/42a/123.html, http://www.namebase.org/news17.html, "http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Inter_American_Press_Associat...
13. Although Mexico was praised last year for bringing about "the decriminalization of libel." Mexico is also a country which the IAPA itself pointed out in January, has four reporters disappeared and still missing. (http://mercury.websitewelcome.com/%7Esipiapa/resolucion.php?id=109&tipo=...)
17. Fred Landis, "CIA Media Operations in Chile, Jamaica, and Nicaragua", Covert Action Information Bulletin, Number 16, March 1982, pp. 34 -- 35. (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Inter_American_Press_Association)