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The media's misunderstanding of Venezuela

Hugo Chavez is definitely going to lose, isn’t he?

A supporter of Chavez wears a homemade mask of him
A supporter of Chavez wears a homemade mask of him as during his campaign closing rally in Caracas. Photograph: Getty Images

In the run-up to this year’s Venezuelan election, one thing is clear. The incumbent, Hugo Chavez, may lose this time. Indeed he probably lost in 1998, 2000, 2005 and every election contested. At least that’s what we can judge from British news media coverage. Tales of a “shock victory” and of winning an “unexpected majority” will no doubt animate reporting after, as is almost certain, Chavez wins.

It is unsurprising that reporters in the UK remain confused after each election. After all, the business and private media elite take great pride in assuring the world that real Chavez supporters are few, and those that there are are largely brainwashed.

Indeed mention Hugo Chavez to a reasonably well-informed person in the UK and the response will probably be one of suspicion. The outspoken president of Venezuela does manage to get himself noticed, but rarely with a favourable reception in the British press. Often those who may otherwise support a left wing movement that has made significant advances in social welfare at a time when the West seems only capable of punishing the neediest know little of such progress but a good deal to be cautious of.

The challenge is to understand how the vague notions that there’s something perhaps illegitimate, undemocratic and maybe corrupt about the Venezuelan president emerge. To this end, it helps to look to the source of most people’s information on foreign affairs – corporate news.

Venezuela was hardly on the news radar in 1989, the year of the Tiananman Square massacre, when repression of protests in Caracas against IMF-imposed austerity led to a massacre of roughly as many as perished in China. However, when Hugo Chavez was first elected ten years later the press did take interest.

Chavez won a landslide victory in 1998, with 56 per cent of the vote. A new constitution was passed in 1999, supported by 72 per cent of the electorate, all parliamentary votes have been won by Chavez’s supporters since, and Chavez has been re-elected President with between 59.8 per cent and 62.8 per cent of the vote.

Despite this democratic mandate, as Chavez began to confront Venezuela’s internal elite and its allies in the US, reporting on Venezuela was found to be biased in a number of studies (1). One I've conducted examined 10 years of BBC online coverage. Within a year of Chavez’s election, the BBC reported that “Opposition leaders in Venezuela have appealed to the international community to intervene to protect democratic rule” (12 April 1999). Four months later it had reported that Venezuela was already a dictatorship.

Few reports referenced Chavez’s electoral legitimacy, and only a tiny percentage even mentioned the widespread social programmes implemented by the government.

At times the BBC’s reporting was beyond comprehension. A subheading in one article referred to the 2002 coup as “Restoring Democracy”. Despite the coup leader having assumed office by military force, the BBC reassured us that “In forming a transitional government, Venezuela has looked not to an existing politician, but to the head of the business leaders’ association”. What was meant by “Venezuela” was obvious yet unexplained.

There is much to be concerned about in Venezuela, as any honest supporter of the government will admit: corruption, crime, inadequate water supplies, repression of journalist by all sides, inadequate housing... the list goes on. Yet a dominant theme in BBC online news reports throughout the 2000s was the legitimacy of the president.

It should therefore be no surprise that a scoping survey I conducted this year (2) found that 20 per cent of respondents thought Venezuela was a dictatorship (only 46 per cent knew it was a democracy), and only 40 per cent thought Chavez was elected by a fair vote.

The same study of the UK press identifies interesting trends. Sixty percent of articles published by six major British newspapers between March 2011 and February 2012 characterised Chavez as “mismanaging”, “threatening”, “misguided or dishonest” etc. Only six per cent included positive characterisations. Much of the coverage of Venezuela’s foreign relations focussed on Iran and Libya, which, whilst problematic in the eyes of many, are not very dissimilar to Britain’s relations with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Again, many of the progressive policies introduced in this period were roundly ignored. There was apparently no room to mention the proposal to construct 1,200 public healthcare projects, the free treatment of 100,261 people for visual impairment, the Special Contribution Law for Oil to ensure that oil profits be shared among the Venezuelan people, or for news that the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean’s found poverty to have been halved in Venezuela between 2002-8 (in spite of the coup and the oil industry lockout). The introduction of a plan to assist up to one million poor children in leisure activities passed without mention, as did the launch of a mission to build two million houses. The sequestration of “idle land” belonging to collapsed banks passed without comment.

There was little or no reporting of USAID funding of “the opposition”, nor of opposition attacks on pro-government journalists. It was also unimportant that a Colombian senator accused Venezuelan Presidential candidate Capriles of having paramilitary ties in Colombia.

We did hear that the person the Express called “Venezuela's crackpot wannabe dictator” was, according to The Times and Telegraph, teetering near the edge, facing growing hostility from Venezuelans. It is indeed a long-established trend that before each election the number of stories predicting Chavez’s decline increases dramatically.

The concern of many in the Bolivarian movement is that such stories act as priming for the inevitable announcement from “the opposition” and perhaps from the odd US diplomat the elections were questionable or perhaps even invalid.

The big news was Chavez’s cancer, the story of which read as an allegory for Venezuelan politics. The Sun told us that “medics claimed” and “sources said” “bungling surgeons” “botched” the operation on Chavez, leaving him just months to live.

It’s not difficult to see the links between the “botched” operation, Chavez’s health and the fate of Venezuela. In its article “World’s worst dictators”, the Times found Chavez’s cancer may lead to the fall of a “dictator”. One may assume that with the cancerous dictator gone, Venezuela would be healed.

In spite of this prospect, the Telegraph informed us that without an “authoritarian” to rule, colleagues in government would initiate a power struggle that would lead to crisis at “unprecedented levels”.

It also used the opportunity to remind us that “Critics accuse [Chavez] of authoritarian instincts, mismanaging the economy and squandering billions of dollars of oil revenues”. Given that his only well-wishers seemed to be Castro and Ahmadinejad, Chavez’s cancer was a good opportunity to note that “His stridently anti-Western foreign policy and vigorous promotion of his “socialist Bolivarian revolution" across Latin America has left him with few allies beside President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran”. Kirchner, Zayala, Rousseff, Correa, Ortega, Humala, Morales and Funes must have felt somewhat jilted.

The few times policies in Venezuela get mentioned, more often than not they act as vehicles for speculation on Chavez’s prospective threats to democracy.

The policy to repatriate Venezuelan gold reserves from the UK was designed provide for economic stability and further economic integration in Latin America. But we hear in the Times that “others suggested” Chavez’s  was motivated by his worry “about international sanctions in the case of violence during the presidential elections ... the transfers will allow him to keep control of the country if he refuses to accept defeat”. Presumably that’s why he “planned to siphon off Venezuela's gold wealth for personal gain.”

It is no surprise then that the British public’s perceptions of Venezuela, on the left as well as on the right, are largely of a dysfunctional state ruled a megalomaniacal tyrant.

Venezuelan politics can be difficult for British journalists to report outside liberal democratic and bureaucratic capitalist frameworks. It is true that there are genuine concerns about the political situation in the country. The concerted efforts to destabilise the government over the past 14 years have met with government responses that have restricted the freedom of some media outlets, and have not lessened the existing tension between social classes.

Vehemently anti-Chavez news reports are rare in the UK press, but this does not negate the softer power of anti –Chavez voices, whose claims often frame reporting.  These voices also often act as the originators of memes that spread around copy.

There was the odd expression of old-fashioned imperialism, as when the Telegraph told us Iran was “audacious” by launching a Spanish language Iranian television channel in “America’s backyard”, a month after the Times reported Ahmadinejad’s “tour of America’s backyard”, but in the main the memes of “opposition concerns”, political instability, and the threat of Chavez dominated.

Many of these memes arise from rumours and speculation that circulate in Latin American news and opinion programmes, and from discussions in well-to-do parts of Caracas (where most correspondents are based). One need spend only a few minutes in conversation in an Alta Mira cafe before one is struck by tales of government wrongdoing.

The selection of memes reflects the affinities between the dominant culture of UK journalism and preoccupations of Western states. Yet the need for information, and the rarely adhered to professional ethic of balance, provides some space for filler memes from the “other side”. For example there was an admission that Chavez has some support, but that was only in reproduced Reuters copy that reported he “appeared on the balcony of his presidential palace in front of thousands of supporters”.

There was also the odd reference to the 2002 coup. The same sentence, that Chavez was the target of a failed coup attempt that year and the claims of plots against him, was reproduced in four articles in different papers published in July 2011, seemingly pasted from agency copy. It’s probably worth noting that of those four mentions, one was in an piece titled "Chavez's absence makes rivals and older brother grow bolder" (Times), and one in a piece titled "Region in turmoil as Chavez reveals battle with cancer" (Times).

One of the biggest restrictions on accurate journalism has been one of resourcing. With foreign reporting budgets – especially covering Latin America – ever reduced in most news companies, the reliance on agency copy, stringers, and domestic media is increased. But when this is received with ideological suspicion of a government, the latter will always be at a communicative disadvantage. So too, the beneficiaries of government social policies are marginalised when they lack international communicative power.

In the meantime corporate media audiences remain largely uninformed should. They’ll know of this or that spat, of some concerns about democracy and a little about a president who seems rather like a tyrant. No doubt they will be surprised at the outcome of the election, and will take the opposition’s challenge to the legitimacy of the vote as necessary.

(1) Castillo, A. (2003) ‘Breaking Democracy: Venezuela's Media Coup’ Media International Australia #118 pp145-156; Abalo, E (2012) ‘First hegemony, then democracy: On ideology and the media discourse on the coup against Hugo Chávez’ Observatorio Journal, vol.6 - nº3 (2012), 105-128; Gill et al (2006) ‘Covering Chavez in U.S. media: How the elite newspaper reports a controversial international figure. Investigación y Desarollo 14(2), 240–267; Salter, L. and Weltman, D (2012) ‘Class, Nationalism and News: the BBC’s reporting of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution’, The International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 7(3)

(2) A random selection of 84 people

Dr Lee Salter is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of the West of England