Exchange on DissidentVoice.org's article on Venezuela Media Coverage

An Exchange by several journalists about "The Indepdent's" coverage of Venezuela.

By Toni Solo, Francisco Toro, Greg Wilpert, Andrew Buncombe
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DissidentVoice.org Editor's Note: On March 22, we posted "Mis-reporting Venezuela: Hugo Chavez as Processed by the “Independent” Newspaper," by DV contributing writer Toni Solo, based in Nicaragua. The article critiques The Independent (UK) newspaper's coverage of electoral politics in Venezuela. The following is an exchange over Solo's article. First is a critical letter to Solo and Dissident Voice by Francisco Toro, editor of the weblog Caracas Chronicles.com, followed by a response by Solo and Gregory Wilpert, co-editor of the excellent website Venezuelanalysis.com. Mr. Toro posted his letter on his weblog with the following preface: "Another recent notable in the contempt for evidence department is one Toni Solo writing in something called Dissident Voice. Solo's attempted debunking of Phil Gunson's piece in The Independent (March 2nd - link by subscpription only) is either funny or alarming, depending on my mood. I realize people in the US read this stuff and believe it, and it alarms me. I have fresh reports of sightings of Chavez banners at the recent anti-war rally in New York, and I start to think, Jesus, they're taking the bait! So, Solo's debunking job is in serious need of some public debunking of its own. I'll just post the email I sent to his letters section. Lets see if they post it (doubt it)."  Next is a letter from Andrew Buncombe, one of the Independent reporters critiqued in Solo's article, followed by Solo's response.

Pesky Facts
From: "Francisco Toro"

Hi dissident,

Just came across your website. As a former journalist based in Caracas, I wanted to pick you up on something. You write:

"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."

Vamos parte por parte...

1. The basis for the 3 million signature claim was not on the record when Phil wrote his piece, it has since been put there by the Financial Times. As you'll recall, the signature gathering process was closely observed by the OAS and the Carter Center, following an agreement signed between government, opposition, OAS and the Carter Center in May 2003. As part of its remit, the Carter Center was charged with carrying out a statistical sample of the signatures collected to check their validity according to the criteria published before the gathering process was concluded, (not after.) The Carter Center sample revealed that 93% of the 3.2 signatures collected (discounting 200,000 dismissed for double-signing and underage signing) were valid.

That's the source of Phil's certainty on the signature tally: every diplomat in Caracas (except Sanchez Otero) stands by that number off the record. Now, maybe you think Jimmy Carter is a tool of the American imperialist machine, but I think he's an honorable man and he is certainly highly regarded by both sides in the conflict. He's 79 years old, has helped mediate over 13 conflicts, has a nobel prize, oversaw the first and only peace treaty between Arabs and Israelis in the modern era, teaches Sunday school, and is clearly not going to come and spoil it all by lending his organization's name to a sample carried out unfairly. For that reason, I take it very seriously when the Carter Center/OAS statement on the referendum says clearly that there were more than enough signatures to call a referendum, and the CNE leadership calls them "biased." The simple fact is that if the right criteria had been applied properly, the referendum date would have been set long ago.

Eventually, the exact Carter Center results were leaked. Can't be sure who leaked, but in any event the statistical results are sure to be included in the final report by the secretary general of OAS, Cesar Gaviria, who practically lived in Venezuela for months hammering out the May 2003 agreement. Its open violation is not likely to go down well.

2. You write that no European country would have regarded the signature gathering drive as acceptable? This EU presidency statement, published by the current EU president country (Ireland), explicitly backs the OAS/Carter Center conclusions that there were more than enough signatures to convoke a vote. Even the Eastern European accession countries sign - and they know a thing or two about living under authoritarianism. Europe is UNITED in believing the signature gathering process was fair.

3. As for the door-to-door canvassing being unfair - this is a joke, right? You do know that there was a pro-Chavez witness accompanying each opposition canvasser at all times? You do know that the chavista witnesses had to sign each form for the signatures to be tallied at all (otherwise, it's part of the 200,000 initially invalid ones?) You do know that the government controlled Elections Council approved the legal framework -explicitly including the canvassers- and oversaw the whole process? You do know that forms that left each signature gathering center in the morning had to be back before 6 pm that same evening with a Chavista witness signatures, otherwise they did not count, don't you? You do realize the forms were printed on special, water-marked bank security paper that cannot be photocopied, that each had an individual number and location it was assigned to, a bar code, and that signature tallies had to be produced at the end of each of the four days of signing at each of the 2700 signing centers and signed by each of the CNE representatives, the pro government and pro opposition witnesses and a number of nonpartisan civilian witnesses, don't you? You do know that this material was guarded overnight by armed troops all over the country, don't you? You do know that international observers witnessed the signature process at almost half the collection centers nation wide and that 90% called the process "good" and the other 10% called it "reasonable"? You do know these things, right?

I obviously don't have the time to pick apart the rest of your essay on this level of detail, but let me just say this: I have a feeling you didn't actually know these things. Facts are such pests. In future, please make an attempt to inform yourself more fully before spewing off on matters that are, literally, of life and death for the people involved.

And do look through my web-site now and then.

cheers,

Francisco Toro
CaracasChronicles.com


Toni Solo Replies

Francisco Toro's disingenuous letter offers nothing cogent to address the points I make in my article. The main point to note is that the international corporate controlled media present the crisis in Venezuela as if it were all the fault of a dictatorial Hugo Chavez. On the contrary, the crisis in Venezuela results from the refusal of the middle class opposition in Venezuela to abide by democratic constitutional norms.

Toro's espousal of the Carter Center as the prime arbiter of the fate of the Venezuelan recall process is interesting. In January this year Jimmy Carter himself said "Venezuela's political future rests on the shoulders of the CNE authorities. We are satisfied and gratified by the job carried out by them, and we think that their decisions are consistent with the law and the Constitution of this country,"

As it happens, I wouldn't trust the Carter Center's impartiality on the basis of what I have seen of their work in Central America any more than I would trust the impartiality of the European Union's representatives. But even Carter accepts the Electoral Council is doing its best, something the Independent's articles by Gunson and Buncombe seek to question without presenting any factual evidence whatsoever.

The EU declaration Toro refers to states clearly, "The European Union calls on all parties to continue to implement the agreement of 29 May 2003 in a climate of mutual respect, tolerance and restraint, and to fully abide by the Declaration against Violence and for Peace and Democracy of 18 February 2003, within the framework of the rule of law and democratic principles." Clearly, the Chavez government has abided by those agreements and the opposition has not.

Francisco Toro may accept that the European Union as an institution has the right to intervene in the Venezuelan electoral process by making recommendations about how the National Electoral Council should do its job. I do not. As for the procedural basis of the recall vote, among the anomalies Toro fails to mention is the fact that thousands of the voting sheets were handed in to the National Electoral Council up to three weeks late.

No European country accepts for their own electoral processes the kinds of procedures used in the Venezuelan recall vote -­ such as allowing representatives of political parties to carry voting documentation away from voting stations to seek out potential voters. Whether the European Union in its declarations as an institution regards it as acceptable practice in Venezuela is a completely different matter. For all his indignant huffing and puffing, Toro's list of the steps intended to protect the integrity of the vote just goes to show at how many different points that vote was subject to the widespread fraud and subordination which took place, as the disqualification of hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes by the National Electoral Council demonstrates.

Toni Solo
Nicaragua
 

Gregory Wilpert Replies

I saw the hoopla that Francisco Toro tried to generate. In my opinion, though, his comments are a bit misleading. I'll explain in the text below:

Toro: 1-The basis for the 3 million signature claim was not on the record when Phil wrote his piece, it has since been put there by the Financial Times. As you'll recall, the signature gathering process was closely observed by the OAS and the Carter Center, following an agreement signed between government, opposition, OAS and the Carter Center in May 2003. As part of its remit, the Carter Center was charged with carrying out a statistical sample of the signatures collected to check their validity according to the  criteria published before the gathering process was concluded, (not after.) The Carter Center sample revealed that 93% of the 3.2 signatures collected (discounting 200,000 dismissed for double-signing and underage signing) were valid.

First off, if the Carter Center calculations came out only after Gunson's article and Gunson does not say where he got his number from, then Solo is perfectly within his rights to criticize Gunson for throwing out a number like that.

Secondly, the Financial Times article quotes an "unnamed diplomat" about the Carter Center figure and buries the quote deep in the article. This would have been big news if it had been publicly available. Since Webb-Vidal (the author of the article) does not make a big deal of the figure, he might have a good reason not to. Perhaps the figure is unreliable? 

That's the source of Phil's certainty on the signature tally: every diplomat in Caracas (except Sanchez Otero) stands by that number off the record. Now, maybe you think Jimmy Carter is a tool of the American imperialist machine, but I think he's an honorable man and he is certainly highly regarded by both sides in the conflict. He's 79 years old, has helped mediate over 13 conflicts, has a nobel prize, oversaw the first and only peace treaty between Arabs and Israelis in the modern era, teaches Sunday school, and is clearly not going to come and spoil it all by lending his organization's name to a sample carried out unfairly. For that reason, I take it very seriously when the Carter Center/OAS statement on the referendum says clearly that there were more than enough signatures to call a referendum, and the CNE leadership calls them "biased." The simple fact is that if the right criteria had been applied properly, the referendum date would have been set long ago.

To say that "every diplomat in Caracas stands by that number" is an absurdity. Where does Toro get off to jump from one unnamed diplomat (perhaps the CIA operative at the US embassy?) who was quoted deep in a Financial Times article (by one of the most anti-Chavista foreign journalists in Caracas, I might add) to "every diplomat"? Toro is writing from Holland, by the way.  

2-You write that no European country would have regarded the signature gathering drive as acceptable? This EU presidency statement, published by the current EU president country (Ireland), explicitly backs the OAS/Carter Center conclusions that there were more than enough signatures to convoke a vote. Even the Eastern European accession countries sign - and they know a thing or two about living under authoritarianism. Europe is UNITED in believing the signature gathering process was fair.

Neither the OAS, nor the Carter Center, nor the European Union ever said that that "there were more than enough signatures". Rather, they said that "The European Union shares the concern of the OAS with regard to the application by the CNE of specific verification criteria and their possible impact on the outcome of the process." The OAS "concern" had to do with the temporary invalidation of suspicious signatures. To jump from this to "there were more than enough" is again a bit of a stretch. The details of this are technical, but there are two types of signatures that are under suspicion: those where several persons' personal data seemed to be filled out by the same handwriting and those where the signatures appeared to be by the same handwriting. While both together might add up to "more than enough", it is obviously against the regulations to have someone else sign for you and we do not know how many signatures fall into that second category. From what I have heard (and I know Toro would never buy it) is that if you just count the signatures with similar handwriting, the count would have been very close to the 2.4 million needed, so certainly not "more than enough". 

3-As for the door-to-door canvassing being unfair - this is a joke, right? You do know that there was a pro-Chavez witness accompanying each opposition canvasser at all times? You do know that the chavista witnesses had to sign each form for the signatures to be tallied at all (otherwise, it's part of the 200,000 initially invalid ones?) You do know that the government controlled Elections Council approved the legal framework -explicitly including the canvassers- and oversaw the whole process? You do know that forms that left each signature gathering center in the morning had to be back before 6 pm that same evening with a Chavista witness signatures, otherwise they did not count, don't you? You do realize the forms were printed on special, water-marked bank security paper that cannot be photocopied, that each had an individual number and location it was assigned to, a bar code, and that signature tallies had to be produced at the end of each of the four days of signing at each of the 2700 signing centers and signed by each of the CNE representatives, the pro government and pro opposition witnesses and a number of nonpartisan civilian witnesses, don't you? You do know that this material was guarded overnight by armed troops all over the country, don't you? You do know that international observers witnessed the signature process at almost half the collection centers nation wide and that 90% called the process "good" and the other 10% called it "reasonable"? You do know these things, right?

Toro is right to point out the fairly strict rules surrounding the door-to-door petitions. However, people I know and trust were witnesses to instances where these rules were not followed and forms were filled out without witnesses present. For all I know, these forms might have been invalidated by the CNE - I don't know.

Gregory Wilpert
Venezuelanalysis.com


Chavez and the Independent
From: Andrew Buncombe, The Independent

Mr. Solo,

I read your article today on dissidentvoice.org and was a little dismayed by your attempt to lump my article with others as part of a some anti-Chavez drive by the newspaper.

You claim: "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."

You include me in this criticism by seizing two points in my article you don't like while ignoring the main point of the report: (1) my use of the word "supposed" in relation to the elections council and (2)my reporting of the scale of pro and anti-Chavez demonstrations.

Since you claim to be interested in the actual process of journalism, I'll explain why I used these formulations. I referred to the council as "supposedly" independent because the government holds a controlling vote in it. In regard to the second point, as I am based in Washington and not Caracas, I used the Reuters report to describe the size of the marches. Not as good as being there myself, but better than nothing, I'd suggest.

You ask would I refer to the US Supreme Court as supposedly independent? Indeed I would, Mr. Solo if I was writing about the US Supreme Court, but for some reason you answer the question for me. Oh, you've already decided I wouldn't. Good reporting.

You then claim my article "ostensibly" seeks to report on Washington's funding of anti-Chavez parties, while in fact that is exactly what the piece does.

You claim you are an activist interested in "truth" but I suspect you are interested merely in seeing your views and opinions replicated. You cannot accept that anyone else may genuinely hold a different opinion and so you do the usual tired old trick of affording me and others a "corporate media" mindset and of being lazy. A cheap - and idle - shot.

Regards,

Andrew Buncombe


Toni Solo Replies

Dear Andrew Buncombe,

Thank you for your message which I have noted.

I note that you confirm my suggestion that you might suffer from laziness by stating that you relied on Reuters for estimates of the size of demonstrations - you might easily have checked this.

I have read many of your reports on the US and have never seen you write as slightingly of US institutions as you did when you referred to the Venezuelan National Electoral Council -- I refer you to President Carter's fulsome praise of the Electoral Council for their work when he visited Caracas in January -- something else you might have looked up if you had bothered. It seems to me I am as entitled to attribute less than total integrity to you as you are to do so with regard to the Venezuelan authorities and indeed as you do to me. Bon chat bon rat, really good luck with your work.

Sincerely,

Toni Solo