Mis-reporting Venezuela: Hugo Chavez as Processed by the “Independent” Newspaper

Three recent articles in the British newspaper "The Independent" have displayed characteristics typical of the biased reporting on Venezuela.

Editor’s note: While we believe it is important to call journalists and news outlets to task for accurate and balanced reporting, we also believe that this should be done in a way that treats journalists with respect.

We reprint this critique of The Independent’s news coverage because it raises some important issues, even though in our view, the author makes some errors of his own. For example, he refers to the signature collection process as a “vote” and then compares this with voting procedures in other countries. This is not a fair comparison. Rather, a more accurate comparison would be the petition drives conducted in California for the recall vote of Governor Gray Davis. Second, the author criticizes Gunson’s statement that the opposition would reject the re-verification process of the signatures as “impractical.” However, this is precisely what many in the opposition have said about the process. Finally, with regard to Rupert Cornwell’s article, the author criticizes the Cornwell’s apparent contradiction between Chavez being engaged in a “bitter battle” with the Supreme Court and an electoral council that apparently favors Chavez and was appointed by that same court. However, it is important to note that these were two different chambers of the Supreme Court that took these actions, one that is said to be sympathetic to the government and which appointed the electoral council (the Constitutional Chamber), and one that is said to be sympathetic to the opposition and which nullified the electoral council’s signature count (the Electoral Chamber). Finally, one must not forget that the Supreme Court as a whole exonerated the coup plotters who overthrew the Chavez government in 2002.

Many people read the London based Independent newspaper because among its reporters is the outstanding Robert Fisk. The anti-war stance of the newspaper on Iraq and its stance on genetically manipulated foods and other environmental issues may give the impression that the Independent is a responsible newspaper across the board. But a look at its coverage of Venezuela reveals the same old story of distortion, omission and deceit on US intervention in Latin America that one finds everywhere else in the corporate media.

It may be worth pointing out that the owner of the UK Independent is Tony O’Reilly, one of Ireland’s most prominent businessmen, formerly head of H.J. Heinz. H.J. Heinz heiress Teresa Heinz is married to Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry. Also of note is that O’Reilly shares philanthropic concerns through the Ireland Fund with fellow fund member Peter Sutherland, former GATT and World Trade Organization chief, also chairman of oil giant BP-Amoco. [1] It’s unlikely their corporate philanthropy extends to Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president.

Three important stories on Venezuela have appeared in the Independent during March. [2] One by Phil Gunson on March 2nd, one by Andrew Buncombe on March 13th, and one by Rupert Cornwell on March 20th. Phil Gunson’s article is crude anti-Chavez propaganda. Buncombe’s is a straightforward account of US funding for the Venezuelan opposition. Cornwell’s is a more insidious anti-Chavez piece employing classic BBC-style bonhomie and “balance”. Both pieces depend on ignoring crucial facts.

Chavez rubbished among Gunson’s garbage

The keynote in Gunson’s piece comes in the second paragraph:

“Three months after the opposition umbrella group, the Democratic Co-ordinator (CD), gathered more than three million signatures for a referendum against the leftist President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s electoral authority was poised to reject the petition.

The only way to revive the referendum, guaranteed under Mr Chavez’s 1999 constitution, would be for hundreds of thousands of signatories to reaffirm their intentions – an option that seemed certain to be rejected by the CD as impractical.”

Phil Gunson whimsically attributes to himself the authority to judge the number of signatures collected. He says nothing about the circumstances of the recall vote – which no European country would have regarded as acceptable. For example, voting lists were taken from the voting stations by opposition party representatives so as to register votes by going from house to house. The Chavez government accepted that and other abnormal voting procedures, presumably so as to quit the opposition of any excuse were they to lose the vote.

In the event the opposition failed to collect the necessary 2.4 million clearly valid votes they needed. They only got 1.8 million votes ratified by the national electoral council. 600.000 votes were disqualified outright by the electoral council as being obviously invalid. A further 800,000 thousand votes are in question, mainly because many of the signatures presented as valid share identical handwriting. These questionable votes are now to be made available in voting stations to allow the people to whom the signatures were attributed a second chance to confirm their vote. Contrary to Gunson’s comment, the constitutional procedure for the confirmation process is no more impractical than the original recall vote itself.

Gunson’s article then notes the widespread violent protests by the US-funded Venezuelan opposition. The impression he gives is of broad based popular opposition to an oppressive unpopular regime. But he offers no support for any of his assertions. This example of weasel-like “sourcing” gives the flavour: “Election observers from the Atlanta-based Carter Centre and the Organisation of American States (OAS) were preparing to leave, convinced – say diplomatic sources – that the process has been manipulated by the electoral authority, on whose board the government has a majority of three to two.”

Gunson failed to get the answers he wanted from the Carter Centre or from the OAS, so he resorted to unattributed “diplomatic sources”. What might count as “diplomatic sources” for Phil Gunson is unclear – two US embassy staff? Or one US embassy Information Service hack and a Colombian embassy representative of death squad-friendly President Alvaro Uribe? An impartial reader cannot tell.

Similarly, in the penultimate paragraph Gunson refers to Chavez’s “increasing authoritarianism” with nothing to support this description of the Venezuelan President. One just has to recall the savage repression of peaceful protest in Miami around the FTAA meeting there last year to imagine what measures might be taken against demonstrators throwing petrol bombs and shooting civilians in the US. But in the alchemist’s transformation of dross into sensationalism worked by Phil Gunson, security measures applied with minimum force in Venezuela against murderous assaults by the anti-democratic opposition become “increasing authoritarianism”.

Gunson’s report could be dismissed for the pap that it is and forgotten were it not part of an international media campaign to disparage and demonize Hugo Chavez and to intervene in Venezuela’s internal affairs. The campaign gives aid and comfort to the anti-democratic US-funded opposition. The crisis in Venezuela stems from the opposition’s lack of electoral support. They tried to rig the recall vote and became bogged down in constitutional process. Then they instigated violent insurrection to try and force the issue, so far without success. These basic facts are entirely absent from Gunson’s report.

Chavez re-historied – the Buncombe version

Andrew Buncombe’s article may well have been an attempt by the Independent to make good Gunson’s crude bodge. Ostensibly, Buncombe highlights US funding for the Venezuelan opposition through the CIA’s ugly sister, the National Endowment for Democracy. But his piece plays its part in the editorial management of perceptions about Venezuela against President Chavez. The final paragraph reads: “In recent days, Caracas and other cities have been rocked by demonstrations in support of the recall vote. Those intensified after the supposedly independent elections council ruled that government opponents lacked enough total signatures to force the vote. There have also been large and vociferous marches by thousands of supporters of the president who oppose the vote.”

Note here the “supposedly independent elections council”. In fact, the electoral council was chosen by the Venezuelan Supreme Court, not by the government nor by the government controlled legislature. Would Buncombe dare to describe the US Republican-packed Supremes as the “supposedly independent Supreme Court”? Hardly. But it’s good enough when you’re writing about Venezuela. And then the chimera “balance” rears one of its many heads. Buncombe reports the anti-Chavez demonstrations and the pro-government march as if they were somehow equal manifestations of political opinion in the country.

In fact, the limited insurrectionist outbreaks, directly encouraged and heavily hyped by the uncensored Venezuelan media under Gunson’s “increasingly authoritarian” Chavez, were rejected even by the opposition’s own middle class supporters. (No one likes paid riff-raff burning tires and shooting people at the bottom of their smart driveways.) Whereas the pro-government demonstration brought out half a million Chavez supporters – a degree of magnitude far greater than the “thousands” reported by Buncombe. So even in pieces that seem to offer a respite from the unremitting demonization of Hugo Chavez, history is retouched to serve mainstream media inventions about events in Venezuela.

Chavez weighed in the Cornwell Balance

Balance plays an enticingly plausible role for the unwary in Rupert Cornwell’s piece, which presents information about current events in Venezuela through a profile of President Chavez. The article is cleverly done, several degrees more sophisticated than Phil Gunson’s mediocre hatchet job. Anyone unfamiliar with Venezuelan affairs would leave it thinking what an agreeable fellow Cornwell must be and what an unstable jerk those bewildering Venezuelans elected to be their President.

But the giveaway comes in the first paragraph. Noting Washington’s hemispheric concerns, Cornwell writes of Fidel Castro “as far as can be judged, that particular tormentor of the US is as firmly in the saddle as ever.” So, even taking into account the flippancy, which serves it’s purpose here by distracting the reader from the sense of what is being said, the perspective is clear. It is Cuba’s Castro who is the aggressive tormentor. Never mind 40 years of US funded and organized sabotage, economic blockade and terrorist attacks that have claimed thousands of Cubans as well as foreign tourists among their victims. It is poor old Washington and the United States that deserve our sympathy.

The rest of the article flows naturally and fluently from that perspective. Cornwell presents Venezuela as a country in social crisis and “on the brink of civil war”. A coherent broadly based force capable of mounting effective organized military action against the Venezuelan government for now exists only in Cornwell’s own prose although it almost certainly figures in the planning of the State Department and the CIA. Never mind, Cornwell goes on. Chavez “has divided his country by class and race” – as if Venezuela’s has not been precisely the history of a country ruthlessly dominated by a wealthy white elite who kept the poor non-white majority in miserable poverty with corrupt, undemocratic politics and brutal repression. In Cornwell’s version it is wanton Chavez who has divided the country.

Cornwell relates, “In 1992, as economic crisis and social unrest gripped the country, he made his first attempt to seize power…” This account leaves out the context in which the Andres Perez government of the time, following riots against disastrous IMF imposed reforms, oversaw the massacre and disappearance of around 3000 people. Cornwell’s “economic crisis and social unrest” reinforces the racist stereotype of unstable Latins who can’t run their own countries. In fact the 1992 uprising was a response to the endless interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs by the United States and its dogs bodies, the IMF and the World Bank.

Another suave way Cornwell uses to undermine Chavez is to make invidious comparisons with Salvador Allende and Juan Peron, as if Chavez is already doomed to meet one or other of their fates. Cornwell tends to sneer at Chavez’s “narcissistic” use of TV to reach his political constituency. But in fact Chavez uses TV for his political purposes in a very similar way to the Venezuelan opposition – both talk dramatically and intimately to camera as if speaking directly to an audience at a political meeting. Anyone who has not watched Venezuelan TV would not know that. Meretriciously, Cornwell makes Chavez seem a poseur.

Cornwell quotes Larry Birns of the Council for Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. Binns complains that Chavez is “far too dependent on the military.” Ah, so we are to conclude that Chavez must surely be a militarist despot…. or then again, maybe he just doesn’t want to end up like Salvador Allende. Allende died because he trusted the army. The army murdered him. Chavez isn’t making the same mistake. So, in Cornwell-speak he must be described (this time by an attributed source because Cornwell is a better journalist than Phil Gunson) as “far too dependent on the military” at the same time as Chavez’s extrovert character is unfavourably contrasted against the more sober demeanour of Allende.

The “Independent” ‘s incredible shrinking masses

Recounting the April 2002 coup, Cornwell has the hundreds of thousands of Chavez supporters that defeated the US managed putsch shrink– just as in Buncombe’s report – to mere “thousands”. The effort in all these pieces is to minimize the massive popular support enjoyed by Chavez and to magnify the militant opposition – which is in many ways a virtual creation of the corporate owned Venezuelan media. US involvement in the 2002 coup becomes just some funding and some verbal encouragement from White House officials Roger Noriega and Otto Reich. In fact, US war ships entered Venezuelan territorial waters. US military helicopters landed in at least one Venezuelan airport. Venezuelan terrorists have been and probably continue to be trained at camps in Florida to carry out terror attacks against targets in their country. [3] All this information is available and has been for some time. But it does not inform the reports that appear in the Independent.

Also in Cornwell’s account, Chavez “has failed his country with his erratic and sometimes blundering style, and his inability to deliver on promises.” As if the US inspired April 2002 coup never happened. As if the crippling economic sabotage inflicted by the business classes and their media allies never happened. As if the opposition controlled Central Bank’s mismanagement of inflationary measures were benign. As if the management strike in the country’s nationalized petrol company had no effect. But, of course, it is Chavez who has failed his country, Chavez who has failed to deliver on his promises. For Cornwell’s narrative, it seems, the murderous and destructive Venezuelan opposition are innocent children who fail to figure as significant actors.

Non-existent bitter battles

And now, Cornwell writes, “crisis looms, as the president wages a bitter battle with the Venezuelan Supreme Court to prevent a recall vote that could legally drive him from office. If a vote were held today, almost certainly that would happen.” In fact, the Chavez administration has repeatedly publicly declared that it will accept whatever verdict the Supreme Court hands down. So where is this “bitter battle”?

If Cornwell is so sure that Chavez would lose a new election why is it that the opposition had to resort to systematic fraud in order to try and win the recall vote? Why is it that only 1.8 million votes were ratified by the electoral authority while a further 800,000 have had to be submitted for confirmation because most of them appear in identical handwriting? Oh, but of course, we are now back to Andrew Buncombe and the “supposedly independent elections council”- a body appointed by the Venezuelan Supreme Court with whom Cornwell alleges President Chavez is engaged in a “bitter battle”. The editorial manipulation over the three articles is clear.

Gunson, Buncombe and Cornwell and their editors operate from assumptions that implicitly support the aggressive imperialist policies of the US while apparently maintaining a certain distance or even, occasionally, expressing apparent disapproval. But through consistent innuendo, distortion and omission they misrepresent the Venezuelan government’s efforts to resist US intervention in the country’s internal affairs. Whatever may be the truth about Hugo Chavez the man is indeed a matter of interpretation. On the other hand, no one seeking factual coverage of events in Venezuela will find it in the Independent.

There is no need to resort to deep Chomskyian analysis of what’s going on in the media on Venezuela. Gunson, Buncombe and Cornwell and every other journalist at work in the international corporate media have the same access to the Internet as anyone else. The fact that their reporting on Venezuela is so abysmally prejudiced may well simply be because they are biased and lazy. If Robert Fisk can deliver factual coverage on Iraq, his Independent colleagues can well do it on Venezuela. They don’t.

Toni Solo is an activist based in Central America. Contact: [email protected] 

Other Articles by Toni Solo

* Via Haiti US, Megaphones Venezuela: “Will You Comply?”
* Colombia-US Free Trade Treaty: Far More Than Trade
* “Poor People Can’t Be Engineers”: Free Market Corruption, Neoliberal Pretexts
* Energy and Repressive Politics in Central America
* Robert Zoellick and “Wise Blood”: The Hazel Motes Approach to International Trade
* Authentic Americans: US Martyrs Pose Questions for John Negroponte
* CAFTA Thumb Screws: The Nuts and Bolts of “Free Trade” Extortion
* Trashing Free Software – More Neo-Lib Flim-Flam
* Coming Soon to the United States? Plan Condor, the Sequel
* How Do You Like Your Elections – Fixed and Murky?
* Colombia: The War on Terror as Waged by Outlaws: Interview with Caitriona Ruane
* Terrorists, Their Friends and the Bogota 3
* Neo-liberal Nicaragua: Neo Banana Republic


[1] US oil giant Occidental Petroleum has a deal with BP-Amoco on exploitation rights in land of the U’wa people, and Catatumbo on the Venezuelan-Colombian border. The area has been militarized and serves as a platform for Colombian army and paramilitary provocations against Venezuela. “Plan Colombia: Throwing Gasoline on a Fire” , Héctor Mondragón, 2000 Translated by Jens Nielson and Justin Podur, August 2001

[2] “Venezuelans use people power to attack Chavez”, Phil Gunson, Independent, 2nd March 2004; “US revealed to be secretly funding opponents of Chavez”, Andrew Buncombe, 13th March 2004; “Hugo Chavez: Champion of the poor, or just another despot?”, Rupert Cornwell, Independent, 20th March 2004

[3] ”Waiting for a response to U.S.-based terrorists” Dozthor Zurlent, Yellow Times, October 13, 2003; “ Chavez Accuses CIA as Bombings Rock Venezuela”, Agence France-Presse, 11 October 2003. Both Otto Reich and the US ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro are veterans of the coup against Allende.

Source: DissidentVoice.org