February 4 marked 11 years since Hugo Chavez first assumed the presidency in Venezuela, following a landslide election victory that swept the country’s discredited traditional parties out of power.
Since then, Chavez has presided over a radical process of reforms that has been the subject of ever increasing levels of demonisation by the corporate-controlled mainstream media.
The English-language media has been no exception — in fact it has been at the forefront of the attempts to systematically smear Venezuelan democracy under Chavez.
Right-wing outlets, such as Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News channel, regularly refer to Chavez as a dictator, even though there have been 12 national elections during his time as president — most of which received unprecedented levels of scrutiny by international observers and were systematically deemed as free and fair.
More surprising is the position taken towards the Chavez government by media outlets generally viewed as “liberal”. For example, the coverage of Venezuela by the BritishGuardian’s Latin America correspondent, Rory Carroll, has been shamefully superficial and misleading.
One analysis of Carroll’s reporting on Venezuela, published by the left-wing British magazine Red Pepper in September 2008, carefully dissected his anti-Chavez bias.
The BBC has also had its coverage of Venezuela questioned recently. In December 2009, researchers at the University of the West of England published the preliminary findings of a 10-year study.
Of 304 BBC reports published between 1998 and 2008, the researchers found that only three mentioned any of the Chavez government’s positive reforms — such as poverty reduction programs that have halved the poverty rate from 46.5% in 1998 to 23% in 2009.
Instead the BBC’s reporting has been characterised by insinuations that Chavez lacks electoral support, and even compared Chavez to Hitler in one instance.
The research also suggested the BBC has fallen short of its legal commitment to impartiality, truth and accuracy.
It is within this context of media disinformation that I decided to make my new feature-length documentary, Inside the Revolution: A Journey into the Heart of Venezuela.
Filmed in the capital, Caracas, in November 2008, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Chavez’s presidency, I wanted the documentary to provide audiences outside Venezuela an alternative narrative to the one offered by the mainstream media.
I thought that in order to better understand the process underway in Venezuela, two things were essential.
The first was to move away from simplistic interpretations that focus virtually all developments in Venezuela around the figure of Chavez, and instead provide a platform for the voices of the government’s grass-roots supporters.
The mainstream media routinely ignores these people, but they are instrumental in driving the process forward and should be at the centre of the story.
The second was to provide some basic contextual information about the type of democracy that existed in Venezuela prior to the Chavez presidency. Only then can one better understand the attraction of someone such as Chavez to large sectors of Venezuelan society.
I wanted to offer an interpretation of events in Venezuela that moved beyond the ahistorical accounts served up by the mainstream media that promote the idea of Chavez as a buffoon-type figure, devoid of articulate, rational support.
I was motivated by the experience I had living and working in Venezuela for a year and half between 2005 and 2007.
During that time, I initially worked as the Venezuela researcher for John Pilger’s documentary The War on Democracy, which explores the brutal interventions against democracy in Latin America by successive US governments.
For the research, I spoke to Venezuelans from all sectors of society but especially to the government’s grassroots supporters and community activists in the barrios (low-income neighbourhoods) that encircle Caracas.
These activists repeatedly told me that they were aware of the international media’s obsession with Chavez the individual — and were frustrated that their voices were ignored in the foreign media compared with the government’s domestic and international opponents.
They admired Chavez’s leadership qualities and recognised his charisma, but most insisted they were the true force behind Venezuela’s process of radical change.
This view was typified by Joel Linares, a Christian grassroots community organiser in eastern Caracas barrio Winche: “Here there is only one leader, and it is called the people.”
It is views such as Linares’s, which emphasise the role of ordinary people in spearheading the struggle to redefine Venezuelan democracy, that the corporate-controlled media is unwilling to reflect.
It is scandalous that journalists who serve as vehicles for interpreting reality are allowed to either contemptuously gloss over or ignore the views of more than three fifths of Venezuelan society. Chavez won the 2006 presidential election with 62.8% of the vote.
The mainstream media’s lies, smears and half-truths on Venezuela — often hiding behind lofty platitudes about “accuracy”, “objectivity” and “balance” — reveal a deep malaise at the heart of our own ailing democracies.
Edgardo Lander, a highly respected Venezuelan academic who I interviewed for the film, provided a simple yet profound statement when he said: “We cannot confuse the right to access to information with the rights of the corporate media. They are two completely different things.”
Those of us who believe that another type of democracy is urgently required need to explore more effective ways to challenge the grotesque conflation of freedom of expression with the right of media tycoons such as Murdoch to own vast tracts of the world’s media — and to use these to incite violence, racism and hate.
This task is especially urgent in light of an expected intensification in the media attacks on the Chavez government in the run up to key parliamentary elections in September
The threats to Venezuelan democracy are very much clear and present with the increased US militarisation of Colombia, the return to US-backed coups in the region (with the overthrow of the elected Honduras government last year), and the threatening anti-Chavez rhetoric coming from important sections of the Obama administration.
Despite its flaws (and there are many), Venezuelan democracy has deepened under Chavez and it is now at the service of the many and not the few.
Those of us who believe in the sovereign right of Venezuelans to choose their own form of democracy have a duty to defend that country’s process from foreign intervention and attack, whether military or propagandistic.
We should also ensure that the “other” Venezuela, which the mainstream media refuse to cover, is heard.
Inside the Revolution: A Journey into the Heart of Venezuela
Director Pablo Navarrete, 65mins, Alborada Films, 2009.