[An edited version of this article appears in today’s Washington Times]
With every passing day, life for Venezuelans becomes more dangerous. Since his election in 1998, President Hugo Chavez’s has presided over the most dramatic decline in the nation’s fortunes: Analysts predict that in the first quarter of 2003 the economy will contract by 40%; more than one million jobs have been lost; approximately 900,000 people have gone into voluntary exile (most of them middle-class professionals); unemployment is at a staggering 17%; Almost 70% of the country’s industries have gone bankrupt; 70% of Venezuelans live in a state of poverty (up from 60% when Chavez began his rule); and the income of more than 15% of Venezuelans has dropped below the poverty line. As Venezuelan historian Anibal Romero says, "President Chavez’s government, literally speaking, is the ‘government of the poor’."
Chavez’s policies have left the nation in shambles. Stratospheric levels of corruption, collectivist central planning, mismanagement, and incompetence during the greatest oil boom have squandered a historic opportunity to cultivate a stable middle class. But stability is hardly the goal of Lt. Col. Chavez, who uses the nation’s wealth to fund and supply weapons to the FARC and ELN drug trafficking guerrilla terrorists in Colombia and the ETA Basque terrorist organization in Spain. Chavez has cozy relationships with the strongmen in Cuba, Libya, Iran, and Iraq (Chavez has said that Saddam Hussein is his "brother" and "partner"), and earlier this month he was accused by his personal pilot of funneling $900,000 to Osama Bin Laden. Chavez has publicly described the U.S. military response to Bin Laden as "terrorism" claiming that he saw no difference between the invasion of Afghanistan and the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.
Readers of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press and viewers of CNN, are fed a dramatically different story. Most Americans are unaware of Chavez’s radicalism and affection for some of the world’s harshest dictators. There is an enormous divide between what the world is hearing about Venezuela and what is really happening there. Reporters have so controlled the flow of information and disfigured the truth that their coverage of Venezuela is a caricature of the "liberal media bias" conservative critics complain about. What we are seeing in media coverage of Venezuela is not liberal bias, but totalitarian bias. The press has shown little concern either for the fate of Venezuela or journalistic objectivity.
A recent example is Christopher Toothaker of the Associated Press. Toothaker has spent a considerable amount of time in Venezuela, he speaks Spanish, and he has access to government and opposition sources. In a January 4 report, he minimized the importance of the upcoming constitutional referendum, stating that the opposition presented "over 150,000 signatures" to election authorities calling for a vote on whether Chavez should resign. This is a dramatic and deliberate understatement. The Venezuelan Constitution, approved by Chavez himself, provides for a referendum if 10% of the electorate petitions in writing. The opposition presented 2 million 57 thousand signatures—some 15% of the voting rolls—a startling error that any fact-checker should catch. The smaller figure appears in dozens of other Associated Press reports, CBS, CNN and even in a story bylined by Ginger Thompson of the New York Times that was carried in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel .
Thompson is no fan of objectivity. On January 3 the opposition organized a march to protest Chavez. Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent demonstrators carried flags, posters and signs calling for a peaceful resolution. The protesters were ambushed by members of Chavez’s armed militia who dispersed the march with a hail of bullets and rocks. The Chavez police blithely watched the armed thugs shoot at the defenseless crowd. I was there. To our incredulity, we then saw the Chavez police supply the criminals with tear gas grenades. In her Times story Thompson characterizes the violence as a "clash" and a "street fight"—moral equivalency at its worst. American readers would never know it was an ambush.
The sympathies of Thompson’s colleague, Juan Forero, are revealed by Larry Birns, director of the Council for Hemispheric Affairs (ww.coha.org). In late December, Birns, a refreshingly sincere D.C. activist who acts as a Chavez cheerleader and apologist, told a Venezuelan government official the names of the four reporters he believed were most amicable to the Chavez government. This Times scribe made the top of his list: "He is committed to the revolution," Birns said of Forero. Reuters and the Associated Press were also praised for their "strong support" of Chavez.
The Washington Post’s reporting is just as cant-laden as the Times’s, and its editorial page is utterly one-sided. Eight days ago, Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research penned a column complaining that the Venezuelan and American media are biased against Chavez. He calls the Chavez government, responsible for dozens of political deaths, "one of the least repressive in Latin America." He should travel more.
Spotting errors in Weisbrot’s article on Venezuela, one might assume, is a matter as simple as reporting the truth. Weisbrot states that "no one has been arrested for political activities." This is nonsense. Some of these arrests are so public that Weisbrot cannot credibly claim ignorance. For instance, Carlos Alfonso Martinez, an outspoken political opponent of Chavez and one of the most respected officers in the armed forces, was arbitrarily arrested on December 30 by the secret police. The act caused public furor both because it was a further indication of government repression and also because Martinez was arrested without a warrant and remains under arrest even though a judge ordered his immediate release. How did this fact slip by the editors at the Post?
Weisbrot has the gall to call the Venezuelan media "shamelessly dishonest" and uses a demonstrably false example to prove his point. His assertion that the Venezuelan media is biased is repeated elsewhere in the American media. In light of this, Americans should know President Chavez has systematically persecuted and maligned the media and this has caused all privately-owned newspapers, radio, and television networks to take a position against his ferocious assault on freedom of the press. Chavez has instigated violent verbal and physical attacks against the owners, editors, and employees of the media. Buildings have been bombed, reporters have been injured and killed, and automobiles, cameras, and other media property have been destroyed by armed members of the Chavez militia. The International Broadcasting Association, Interamerican Press Society, and the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights of the Organization of American States have pleaded in vain with Chavez to protect freedom of the press. The homes of prominent journalists have been raided by the authorities and these journalists have been compelled to testify to the secret police. In Venezuela, there is no freedom of the press. Consider that Venezuelan reporters and camera crews refuse to go on the streets of Caracas without bulletproof vests – a "hostile work environment" few Americans can even imagine.
Weisbrot ends his Post column by saying that Chavez is Venezuela’s best hope for democracy and social and economic "betterment." And yet Weisbrot does not support the referendum that would let the voters declare whether Chavez rules with the consent of the governed. Chavez told voters in a television broadcast: "Don’t waste time…. Not even if we suppose that they hold that referendum and get 90% of the votes, I will not leave. Forget it. I will not go." Putting aside Chavez’s miserable track record on the economy, does this really sound like the best hope for democracy?
Meanwhile, many members of the U.S. government, business, and diplomatic communities make their decisions based on the "knowledge" they acquire from the media. Venezuelans are suffering unnecessarily because of the arrogance and favoritism of a handful of journalists. It is wicked. Yet what is worse is that, no matter what happens, the media will never be held accountable.
Thor Halvorssen is a human rights activist. He lives in Philadelphia.