Human Rights Coverage of Venezuela and Colombia Serving Washington’s Needs

Rather than independently and critically assessing the Colombian and Venezuelan records, major corporate newspaper editors, to one degree or another, have subordinated crucial human rights questions to what they see as the U.S.’s interests in the region.
Editorial evaluations of human rights situations.
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Any evenhanded comparison of the Colombian and Venezuelan governments’
human rights records would have to note that, though Venezuela’s record
is far from perfect, that country is by every measure a safer place
than Colombia to live, vote, organize unions and political groups,
speak out against the government or practice journalism.

But a new survey by FAIR shows that, over the past 10 years, editors at
four leading U.S. newspapers have focused more on purported human
rights abuses in Venezuela than in Colombia, and their commentary would
suggest that Venezuela’s government has a worse human rights record
than Colombia’s. These papers, FAIR found, seem more interested in
reinforcing official U.S. policy toward the region than in genuinely
supporting the rights of Colombians and Venezuelans.

Colombia’s ‘appalling’ record . . .

Over the past 40 years, Colombia has been known for its rampant human
rights violations, untouchable drug cartels, government-linked death
squads and violent guerrilla groups. The principal specialist on
Colombia for the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch (HRW), Maria
McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, told Congress (4/23/07),
“Colombia presents the worst human rights and humanitarian crisis in
the Western Hemisphere.” She also noted that government-linked
paramilitary groups are largely responsible for Colombia’s grim status.

Though Colombia is not the chaotic state it was in the late 1980s and
early ‘90s, and violence and repression have not been uniform, HRW’s
Americas director José Miguel Vivanco has called Colombia’s current
human rights situation “appalling” (Human Rights Watch, 1/22/08).

Killings of civilians by uniformed Colombian military and police totaled 329 in 2007 (Los Angeles Times, 8/21/08),
and the country’s unfolding “para-political” scandals have revealed
“links between rightist death squads and dozens of officials loyal to
President Álvaro Uribe” (Boston Globe, 12/14/06).
Everyone from senators to cabinet members to judges have been
implicated—even Colombia’s top general, Mario Montoya, whom the Washington Post (9/17/08) described as “a trusted caretaker of the sizable aid package Washington provides Colombia’s army.”

A 2005 report by the Colombian Commission of Jurists (6/21/05)
estimated paramilitaries have killed at least 13,000 people since 1996

The country is, in Sánchez-Moreno’s words (4/23/07),
“the murder capital of the world for trade unionists”; estimates of the
number of unionists killed in the last two decades range from 2,700
(Human Rights Watch, 11/20/08) to 4,000 (AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, 6/06; U.S. State Department, cited in Miami Herald, 4/16/07).

Journalists have not fared much better. In 2001, the Committee to
Protect Journalists described Colombia as “by far the most dangerous
country in Latin America for journalists” (New York Times, 7/12/01). According to recent statistics by the organization (12/31/08),
there were 40 journalists killed in Colombia from January 1992 until
January 2009, making it the fourth-deadliest country during that
period, following Iraq (137), Algeria (60) and Russia (49).

. . . vs. ‘relatively open’ Venezuela

Although Colombia’s human rights record ranks among the worst of the
worst, it is Venezuela’s record that seems to grip the attention of
U.S. newspaper editors.

HRW has published numerous reports in the past on the state of human
rights in Venezuela. In a 230-page retrospective titled “A Decade Under
Chávez” (9/18/08),*
HRW attempted to assess the Venezuelan government’s impact on vital
democratic institutions—“the courts, the media, organized labor and
civil society”—during the Chávez presidency. The report judged Chávez
on two main fronts—political discrimination and limits on freedom of
expression and association.

Among the worst charges HRW listed against the Venezuelan government:
practicing political intimidation by, among other things, blacklisting
Chávez opponents from government jobs; packing the country’s supreme
court with allies; denying a license renewal to a popular television
station for political reasons; and restricting the public’s access to
official information by taking, on average, 38 days, “almost twice the
legal maximum,” to reply to journalists’ requests for information.

Some of these are serious matters, worthy of press attention. But they
do not compare to the situation in Colombia; Venezuelan journalists,
trade union activists and innocent civilians do not live in fear of
government-linked death squads.

When all is said and done, though, Vivanco described Venezuela as a “relatively open society” (New York Times, 9/19/08),
and HRW’s report pointed out that, excluding the court-packing charge,
“the most dramatic setback” to Venezuelan democracy was the 2002 coup
that temporarily removed Chávez from office—an action cheered by both
the White House and many U.S. newspaper editors (L.A. Times, 4/17/02; New York Times, 4/13/02; Chicago Tribune, 4/14/02).

By the numbers

FAIR’s survey looked at every editorial addressing human rights in
Colombia and Venezuela over a 10-year period (1998–2007) in four
influential U.S. newspapers—the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald.

The four papers ran a total of 191 editorials on both countries’ human
rights records: 101 addressing Venezuela’s record and 90 on Colombia’s.
(FAIR’s study,focused on assessing the editorial treatment of the
Colombian and Venezuelan governments, did not address coverage of human
rights abuses by the FARC and ELN in Colombia, or other
non-governmental groups in either country.)

While the overwhelming majority of Venezuelan pieces presented a
strictly negative view of its record, a majority of the Colombia
editorials presented either a mixed or wholly positive view of its
record. Of the 101 editorials on Venezuela, 91 solely described the
country’s record negatively. Ten had both positive and negative things
to say. Not a single editorial portrayed Venezuela’s record in a
strictly positive light. Of 90 editorials on Colombia, 42 only
portrayed Colombia’s situation as negative, 32 expressed a mixed
assessment, and 16 were entirely positive.

At one end of the spectrum, Washington Post
editors offered the most positive view of the Colombian government’s
human rights record. Of the paper’s 13 editorials on Colombia’s record,
seven presented a positive view and six were mixed. No Post piece was exclusively negative about the Colombian record. Of 23 Post editorials on Venezuela, 22 were negative and one was mixed.

At the other end of the spectrum, the New York Times
held the Colombian government’s human rights record in the lowest
esteem. Of its 29 editorials on Colombia, 20 were negative, none were
positive, and nine held a mixed view. The Times,
whose views on Colombia were closer to those of human right advocates
than the other papers’, wrote that Uribe’s claims to have cleared up
death squads rang hollow (9/20/03). But the Times did not stray far from the norm with regard to Venezuela, with nine out of a total of 12 negative and three mixed.

The Miami Herald published the
most editorials on each country. Of its 36 editorials addressing
Colombia’s human rights record, 17 were negative, nine were positive,
and 10 were mixed. Fifty of 51 editorials about Venezuelan rights
characterized the Venezuelan government negatively.

Official echo chamber

What leads editors to discuss Colombia’s nightmarish human rights
record with less alarm than Venezuela’s flawed but clearly superior
record? The answer seems to lie in the relationship between the
editors’ views and U.S. strategic thinking. Over the time frame of this
study, U.S. officials have highlighted human rights concerns in
Venezuela out of opposition to the populist policies of its President
Hugo Chávez, which they see as threatening to U.S. interests. At the
same time, officials have tried to diminish the gravity of Colombia’s
human rights problems in order to sustain political support for a
number of military, anti-drug and trade projects the U.S. shares with

Much of the editors’ human rights commentary on Colombia came in
editorials supporting President Uribe and his predecessor Andrés
Pastrana, U.S./Colombia projects such as the drug war collaboration
Plan Colombia (e.g., L.A. Times, 8/3/05; Miami Herald, 9/11/01) and so-called “free trade” agreements (Washington Post, 11/17/06; Miami Herald,
7/24/07). Commentary on Venezuela was often found in editorials
disparaging populist Venezuelan policies such as oil nationalization
and land reform (e.g., Miami Herald, 5/6/07; New York Times, 8/22/07).

The editors have created a virtual echo chamber for official U.S.
concerns regarding Venezuela’s record on human rights and democratic
liberties: “Chávez and his cronies have been . . . stripping
Venezuelans of their basic rights and freedoms” (L.A. Times, 12/18/04); he has taken steps to “eliminate independent media and decapitate the opposition” (Washington Post, 3/1/03)
and “has regularly called the commercial news media the ‘voice of the
oligarchy,’ thus targeting reporters as enemies of the state” (Miami Herald, 3/11/04).

In particular, Chávez has been heavily criticized for his refusal to renew the license of the privately owned Radio Caracas Television station (RCTV) in 2007 (Extra!, 11–12/06).
This decision “quashed freedom of expression” and “was payback for the
network’s ongoing criticism and support of the opposition in 2002” (Miami Herald, 6/13/07). Generally unmentioned was that RCTV’s
“support of the opposition” involved backing the 2002 coup by
“incit[ing] people to join a general strike, march through the streets
and topple the government,” leading coup leaders to thank RCTV for its help during their two days in power (Guardian, 12/10/07).

The theme that Chávez, who enjoys high approval ratings and has been
repeatedly re-elected, is waging a war on democratic freedoms is a
common editorial refrain, with editors characterizing him as a
“strongman” intent on an “outrageous power grab” (New York Times, 12/4/07), and seeking “to intimidate the private sector and independent media” (Washington Post, 8/19/04). Chávez’s nationalization of the oil industry, wrote Miami Herald
editors (5/6/07), “is not, as Mr. Chávez would have it, a victory for
‘the people’ or any such neo-Marxist nonsense, but rather part of a
giant power grab that takes Venezuela further down the road to
totalitarianism.” A piece in the Los Angeles Times (2/10/07) closed with a quip: “[Chávez] is no Hitler. Now Mussolini, on the other hand. . . . ”

The most frequent human rights theme addressed in Venezuela editorials
was democratic rights, mentioned in 75 percent of the pieces, followed
by abuse of journalists (46 percent) and the rights of dissenters (15
percent). Treatment of labor activists was addressed in just 2 percent
of Venezuela editorials.

Unspecified abuses

Specific human rights themes in stories about Colombia were harder to
find. Despite the wealth of information about Colombia’s human rights
record, editorials about Colombia tended to be vaguer, often mentioning
human rights without specifying the nature of the abuses. For example,
a Washington Post editorial (9/24/07)
questioned human rights activists who were opposed to passage of the
Colombia Free Trade Agreement, “because, they claim, President Álvaro
Uribe hasn’t done enough to punish human rights abuses,” but the
editors never specified what those abuses are.

When specific abuses were raised, democratic rights was also the top
theme in Colombia editorials, but these were discussed in only 21
percent of the editorials—less than one-third as often as in editorials
about Venezuela. Abuse of journalists was a theme in 15 percent of
Colombia editorials, or one-third the rate at which it was a theme in
Venezuela editorials, despite Colombia’s far bloodier record of
repressing journalists.

When praising the Colombian government’s record, editorials focused on
one of two interlocking subjects: Colombia’s reincarnation as a
tough-on-crime, peace-making nation, and its support for various pieces
of U.S./Colombia legislation. A Washington Post piece (5/6/07)
applauded Uribe as perhaps “the most popular democratic leader in the
world,” claiming he had brought Colombia back from the brink of failed
statehood, and that “for the first time thugs guilty of massacres and
other human rights crimes are being brought to justice, and the
political system is being purged of their allies.” The same paper,
years earlier (11/9/99), had similarly commended Pastrana’s
“commit[ment] to ending the abuses that fueled the insurgencies,” and
argued that U.S. aid should continue because “making peace requires

Many of the Colombia editorials included in the mixed category were
classified as such due to one or two negative lines in an otherwise
neutral or positive piece. For instance, following George W. Bush’s
March 2007 visit to Colombia, the L.A. Times (3/10/07)
praised him for “rightly back[ing] President Álvaro Uribe in his
efforts to strengthen Colombia’s democracy.” It called Uribe “one of
the most successful Latin American leaders in recent years” and
described Colombia’s “democratic institutions, civic society and
independent media” as “stronger than those in most other Latin American
countries.” While noting news of further government links to death
squads, including links which caused Uribe’s own foreign minister to
resign, the L.A. Times editorial still found a way to praise the government over the news:

Even the recent scandals are telling.
Independent courts are holding powerful interests accountable, and the
connected paramilitary leaders are being locked up. This is not the
“banana republic” that some in the U.S. nostalgic for ideological
battles over Central America want it to be.

Curiously, though government-linked Colombian death squads were in the
habit of killing journalists, political activists and trade unionists
over the entire time span of this study, virtually no editorials
questioned the health of Colombia’s democracy, in stark contrast to the
editors’ almost obsessive concern about the perilous state of
Venezuela’s. Indeed, though President Uribe has been linked with death
squads (Washington Post, 4/18/07),
and former President Pastrana presided over a government with extensive
death squad ties, the editors felt a need to insist time and again that
the Colombian leaders were true and dedicated democrats.

True to the propaganda model

A similar twisted standard holding Venezuela to far greater scrutiny
was observed in a recent report by the North American Congress on Latin
America (NACLA).

In the report (12/19/08), author Kevin Young studied editorials and news articles in the New York Times and Washington Post
concerning parallel news events to see how they fit with the Edward
Herman/ Noam Chomsky propaganda model which predicts, as Young
explained, “that the news media will look favorably upon the Colombian
government of Álvaro Uribe, a close U.S. ally, while consistently
vilifying the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez, whom the U.S.
government frequently identifies as an antagonist.”

Young found, true to the Herman/ Chomsky model, that while much disapproving ink was dedicated to the Venezuela stories about RCTV
and Chávez’s 2007 push to have presidential term limits lifted, very
little attention was paid to closely analogous stories in Colombia,
where Uribe in 2004 pushed through a term-limit extension and
dismantled Inravisión, a public broadcasting station that occasionally criticized the president and whose workers belonged to a powerful union.

As with the FAIR study, selective concern for these issues was the
rule, a system in which editors seemed to have internalized U.S.
strategic thinking, subordinating human rights commentary and reporting
to politics, where a given country’s human rights record is held to
greater or lesser scrutiny based on how friendly the country is with
the U.S.

Rather than independently and critically assessing the Colombian and
Venezuelan records, major corporate newspaper editors, to one degree or
another, have subordinated crucial human rights questions to what they
see as the U.S.’s interests in the region.

* In a 12/15/08
letter addressed to HRW’s board of directors, more than 100 Latin
American scholars accused HRW of harboring a “politically motivated”
bias against Hugo Chávez and Venezuela, and stated that HRW’s report on
Venezuela “does not meet even the most minimal standards of
scholarship, impartiality, accuracy or credibility.” The letter,
circulated by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, has sparked an
exchange between its authors and HRW.