The presidency of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and those of other Latin American leaders whose policies are at odds with those dominant in Europe and the US, are often labelled as ‘controversial’ in BBC coverage, regardless of how overwhelming their election victories might be. Defining the news, business leaders or opposition figures are often called upon for opinion on leaders such as Chávez, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, and Ollanta Humala of Peru. Overwhelmingly, what differs between the new leaders and these opposition sources is their stance towards business interests. In our media business interests are treated as though they are one with the national interest; at times there is little distinction between the two. Often it seems that what is ‘controversial’ about Chávez is that he ‘does not pretend to be a friend of business’, as Sarah Grainger put it in a report for the BBC in October 2011. She expands: ‘His policies are designed to share the country’s wealth more widely between all Venezuelans’ – i.e. not just the business class.
There is a clear divide here, and in much of the reporting about Venezuela, in the way in which the working class and business owners are treated by the media. Grainger’s article, ‘The challenges of doing business in Venezuela’, is an example of how business leaders (the core of the opposition to Chávez’s government) are given a frequent platform to have the final comment on government policies. The ‘policy of expropriation has created fear and uncertainty amongst property owners’, among them ‘Britain’s Vestey family, which raised cattle for decades, and … US bottling company Owens Illinois’.
The refining of the anti-Chávez media campaign
Following his election in 1999, Hugo Chávez was endlessly described as a ‘dictator’ by the media. Research carried out by a team at the University of West England led by Dr. Lee Salter produced interesting findings regarding the reporting of the early days of Chávez’s leadership:
According to the research the BBC seems never to have accepted the legitimacy of the President, insinuating throughout the sample that Chávez lacks electoral support, at one point comparing him to Hitler (‘Venezuela’s Dictatorship’ 31/08/99).
Although BBC News did report the [April 2002] coup, the only time it mentioned the word “coup” was as an allegation of government officials and of Chávez’s daughter.
Since the early days of the presidency, the adversarial position of the media, both within Venezuela and abroad, has evolved to become less overt. Reference is no longer made to a ‘dictatorship’; it seems that this battle has, for the most part, been lost. Instead, we now see an apparent balance which presents the views of both supporters and opponents (discussed above). But many of the old practices continue; for example successful outcomes of government policies receive little, if any, coverage. When the 2012 election date was announced in Venezuela, the BBC reported that ‘personal charisma and promise of revolutionary change’ were the reasons for Chávez’s repeated election wins. Rarely is it mentioned that government policies have benefitted the Venezuelan people (with the number of households in extreme poverty dropping from 21% in 1998 to 7.1% in 2010, for example). The idea that social gains may have led to victories is hardly entertained, instead the victories are attributed to charisma and ‘promises’.
Portraying the government as authoritarian
Subtle attempts at presenting the Chávez government as authoritarian continue. In October 2011, the BBC reported on Dr Salvador Navarrete (‘Hugo Chávez cancer claim doctor flees Venezuela‘), who claimed he fled Venezuela fearing for his life after he speculated in an interview with a Mexican magazine on the condition of Chávez’s cancer. Despite the fact that there has never been an instance of government-ordered assassination during Chávez’s presidency, the legitimacy of Navarette’s claim went unchallenged.
In September 2011, the BBC aired Jonathan Dimbleby’s ‘A South American Journey‘, in which he ‘searches for a sense of the real Venezuela’, described as ‘a polarised country where all is not always as it seems’. Dimbleby interviews a café owner about his opinion of Hugo Chávez:
Dimbleby: What do you think of Chávez?
Café owner: I don’t want to talk about that
Café owner: Well…it’s a delicate matter
Dimbleby: Really? But this is a free country; you can say what you like?
Café owner: You reckon?
Dimbleby: You think if you speak freely, what will happen?
Café owner: No, I don’t have any problems but some doors would be closed, you know how things are.
Dimbleby: If you want to do good business, if you want to have your livelihood, you have to be careful that you don’t make unnecessary, um, enemies with those who have power or authority in the area.
Café owner: Yes, something like that.
[Dimbleby asks for food, then turns to the camera]
Dimbleby: That is so interesting. On the surface, it’s all easy, free; you can say what you like. In reality, you have to be just a little bit careful if you want to get on. And in this very complicated country which is so difficult to penetrate, I think that’s one of the key factors.
This discussion was, put simply, a business owner who didn’t seem to want to discuss his politics on television. We might even imagine that some people in the UK would not want to openly discuss their personal politics, knowing that this could affect job opportunities and other matters. Yet Dimbleby asks a series of leading questions aimed at depicting a country where a café owner (who, incidentally, didn’t claim to be either pro- or anti-Chávez) is afraid to voice his opinion about the government.
In July 2011, The Observer published an article entitled ‘Noam Chomsky Denounces Hugo Chávez for “Assault” on Democracy’ (The title on the Guardian website reads: Noam Chomsky criticises old friend Hugo Chávez for ‘assault’ on democracy). The article by Rory Carroll, based on a telephone interview with Chomsky, the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent, suggested that one of his ‘best friends in the west’ had ‘turned his guns’ on Chávez. Chomsky subsequently called the report ‘dishonest’ and ‘deceptive’, resulting in the Guardian publishing the transcript of the interview in full. The report is a prime example of selective reporting (discussed in detail in a report by the news monitoring group MediaLens). During the interview they discussed a range of issues about Venezuela, the US and democracy, including the case of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni (jailed without trial in Venezuela) as well as Bradley Manning (jailed in the US). Chomsky noted that ‘Concentration of executive power, unless it’s very temporary and for specific circumstances, let’s say fighting world war two, it’s an assault on democracy.’ The headline was formed by contorting this comment to appear to refer to an “‘assault” on democracy’ by Chávez, and is a blatant example of the manipulation that can occur through selective reporting.
Writing yesterday in the Guardian’s Comment is Free, Hugh O’Shaughnessy asks ‘when were western audience and readerships ever given much chance in their media to learn about Latin America since the death of Che Guevara and Carmen Miranda?’
Despite the attention Chávez garners in the western news, the media consistently refuse to analyse the roots of his popularity. Particularly considering the majority support for the Chávez government, there is a failure to represent the concerns of the majority of the Venezuelan people, with news instead functioning to provide platforms for business and the political elites of the opposition.
News reporting on Venezuela is marked by a lack of understanding (however wilful) of the changes which have taken place in Venezuela over the past decade, many of which are aimed at tackling the effects of the neoliberal policies which were imposed on Latin American since the 1970s and are now widespread throughout Europe. With both the legacy of the opposition parties, and past interference of the United States in Venezuelan affairs – both very relevant factors in the country’s politics – overlooked, there is no place for historical understanding in today’s news coverage.