Good Pres, bad press

Hugo ChavezHugo ChavezLeft-wing Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez has been aggressively attacked by the corporate media worldwide. Here Thomas B Claydon explores the ways in which English national newspapers caricature and misrepresent a country and its president.

Several prejudiced and erroneous articles about Venezuela have been published in major newspapers this year. Some people see this as part of a wider campaign to discredit the government of Hugo Chavez, paving the way for his removal at the hands of local oligarchs and the US government in next month's presidential election.

Chávez promotes his vision of democratic socialism,Latin American integration, and anti-imperialism. He is also an ardent critic of neoliberal globalisation and U.S. foreign policy.

A career military officer, Chávez founded the leftist Fifth Republic Movement after orchestrating a failed 1992 coup d'état against former president Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chávez was elected President in 1998 on promises of aiding Venezuela's poor majority, and was reelected in 2000.

The Times
and the Daily Mail have, predictably, been the most egregious and consistent offenders when it comes to printing misleading and malicious copy relating to Chavez and his Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) administration. General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, Jeremy Dear' said:  'You saw some of the worst of it when Chavez was in London and we got the Daily Mail's  "Taliban-loving, drug running dictator" stuff.'

The offending Daily Mail article, written by Jonathan Foreman and printed on Monday May 15, 2006' is riddled with pejorative language and unsubstantiated accusations. Chavez, Foreman writes, is an  'authoritarian' who has  'exploited his country's oil wealth to launch an onslaught on democracy'. Chavez is  'bizarre', the  'beret-wearing, coup-launching President of Venezuela'.

The fact that the coup that almost brought Chavez to power was an attempt to forge democratic change and social progress from the rubble of the disastrous neo-liberal reforms of then president Carlos Andres Perez (who was subsequently indicted on charges of corruption) is ignored.

Foreman continues:  'Chavez has hit global headlines by supporting Iran's dreams of building nuclear weapons, by befriending North Korea, by subsidising Castro's creaking but still vicious dictatorship, by cosying up to the Taliban  — after September 11  — and by offering a haven to Colombia's narcoterrorists.'

Dear wrote to the Daily Mail to ask if they could demonstrate that Chavez had ever given political, financial or military support to the Taliban and could prove that the British and US governments had not. Because, said Dear:  'as we know, we helped create, fund and arm them when we were fighting the Soviet Union.' Dear did not receive a reply.

So, is The Times a  'newspaper of record' or purveyor of prejudice? Julia Buxton is an expert on Venezuelan politics and works with the Venezuela Information Centre (VIC). She has criticised work by Aleksander Boyd published in The Times. Boyd has been linked to threats of violence against people working and writing on Venezuelan issues.

Boyd's Times article of Tuesday May 9, 2006, headlined  'Guess who's coming to dinner with Red Ken' is a mean-spirited and venomous outburst, more suited to a personal weblog. Opening with the statement:  'The Venezuelan President aligns himself with dictators, human rights abusers and notorious narcoterrorists', the tone is set. Boyd follows the all too familiar pattern of de-contextualisation and selective sourcing to misrepresent Chavez as existing  'in the murky twilight between democracy and dictatorship'. The narcoterrorist claim comes from the US State Department, who have declined to produce any substantiating evidence.

Tony Allen-Mills, in his article of Sunday May 7, 2006, is generous with clichés and sneering; Chavez is  'swashbuckling',  'venomous', and a  'belligerent strongman'. He quotes Phil Flynn,  'a Chicago-based analyst' who says:  'Power has gone to the heads of these countries (referring to Bolivia and Venezuela in particular). It's a very dangerous trend.'

There is a common theme among newspapers that represent elite interests. It is their apparent argument that Chavez is somehow cheating, that by helping the poor he is somehow  'buying' votes. In a democracy, doing the will of the people, for the good of the people, sections of the press seem to say, is wrong, anti-democratic, subversive.

In his Times article of Thursday May 11 2006, Gerard Baker, their US editor, comments that Bolivian President Evo Morales is  'like a kind of Mini-Me to Senor Chavez's Dr Evil'. The extraordinary loathing contained in this image against two men who are risking their lives to improve the living conditions of the poor majority of their populations borders on the obscene.

What about the left-wing, liberal press, surely they are different? In some cases they certainly are, occasionally carrying the kind of positive articles that are absent from the Times/Telegraph/Mail axis. But the pervasiveness of the agenda set in Washington, which, judging by statements made by Blair and Labour MP Denis McShane is shared in Whitehall, is not to be underestimated. The contemptuous tone set by the right-wing press is not recreated to the letter, but the clichés and curious language continue.

In The Observer's review section, on Sunday May 7, 2006, Peter Beaumont's opening paragraph asks if Chavez is:  'a revolutionary democrat or a dictator in the making?' Beaumont does mention many of the benefits Chavez's government has brought to the people, such as the cut-price food and new schools. But he too uses terms such as  'firebrand', and quotes Donald Rumsfeld calling Chavez  'Hitler', and Condoleeza Rice's comment that Chavez is  'the most dangerous man in the region.' Beaumont calls the 2002 coup  'farcical', which may seem insensitive to the families of the more than 100 people killed by police and military forces backing the junta.

Beaumont is one of the few in the English press who contextualises the situation in Venezuela, as he notes the background to Chavez's coup attempt in 1992, and Perez's failed neoliberal reforms. In a generally well-written and clearly well researched major feature, it is unfortunate that the writer finds it necessary to entertain the  'dictator Chavez' idea at all.

Daniel Howden, in The Independent of Saturday May 13, 2006, writes that Chavez  'seems immune to nuance', calls him  'the high-priest of political theatre',  'colourful', and repeats the Rumsfeld  'Hilter' smear as well a Rice's  'most dangerous man in the region' line.

In her article of Tuesday May 16, The Mirror's political correspondent Rosa Prince uncritically quotes London Assembly Conservatives' leader Bob Neill, who said:  'I am appalled that Londoners are paying to entertain this dictator. I believe this man should be shunned by every moderate regime in the world, not wined and dined like a legitimate world leader.'

Julia Buxton has an explanation for the disappointing coverage of Venezuelan issues in the English press:  'The problem' she says,  'with the media in the UK, US and other European countries is that most journalists are just too lazy to spend time researching the past history of the countries they find themselves in. What you tend to have is this very simplistic and US-shaped version of what is going on. As a result we've had appalling coverage of Venezuela and the complete failure by the media to actually engage with what Chavez represents or what he has changed in that country.'