November 2012        


Venezuela: Why the media got it so wrong

In 7 October, Hugo Chávez won the presidential election in Venezuela, and he now starts on a new six-year term of office. Out of the fifteen times he has gone before the electorate he has won on all but one occasion. For neutrals who watched the preparations for the election, one of the most surprising and most worrying aspects must have been the unanimity of the view in the Western media of a possible defeat for Chávez.
      Practically all print and broadcast media promoted this. By itself this “error” is not surprising, but in the light of the fact that every trusted opinion poll in Venezuela pointed to the opposite, one would be entitled to ask why the media got it so wrong.
      Even allowing for the awful standards of reporting on Latin America in our press, surely somebody in the media in the West would have been interested in what Venezuelans were saying.
      A few explanations come to mind.
      (1) Lazy and indifferent reporting. This excuse might be sufficient for a few incorrect analyses but hardly on a worldwide scale. Remember that this story was covered by American, British, Spanish, French and probably many other media.
      (2) Self-censorship. In a recent article in the Irish Times on the Jimmy Seville case and the BBC, the paper explained: “In some parts of the organisation, it seems to have evolved into a kind of defensive self-censorship, shutting down all discussion on decisions, and leaving dissenting voices with nowhere to go. As Jeremy Paxman put it on ‘Newsnight,’ ‘after a while, you understand osmotically or intuitively what is wanted by the organisation, and you deliver it.’”
      (3) Deliberate policy. Months before the election, Chávez supporters were worried about a move by the opposition to discredit the election results, to ask for them to be declared void and create civil unrest, which could give the United States a pretext for involvement. Any result different from the one announced by the world media would have been a reason to cast doubts. Fortunately this ploy was so well advertised in advance by the government that it was no longer an option.
      But Venezuela has good reason to be worried, as this is exactly the kind of scenario that led to the attempted coup in 2002, while more recently, in 2009, the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was removed in a US-backed coup. A constitutional coup by right-wing elements in the Paraguayan parliament in June this year removed the democratically elected president, Fernando Lugo.
      In the past, right-wing dogma was associated with certain media, and so one could choose to go somewhere else to find more balanced views, but that choice now seems to have gone. From time to time there have been complaints in the Western media about the lack of press freedom in Venezuela; this must seem very ironic to Venezuelans, who have access to a whole range of views from across the political spectrum; even more ironic is the fact that about 70 per cent of the views come from right-wing media, all highly critical of Chávez.
      So, what lessons can we take from the Venezuelan election? It would seem that an examination of so-called press freedom here in the West is called for, and maybe a demand for legislation to allow more access for alternative political content in our mainstream media. A good starting-point might the 70/30 balance that applies in Venezuela.
      In the meantime, Venezuela is a healthy democracy, with more than 80 per cent of the electorate voting in the recent election. The electorate has been consulted fifteen times since Hugo Chávez became president in 1999; that is more than in the forty years before his election and the highest number of polls in any country in the world in that time. New schools, hospitals and housing for the poor are being built. Old people are receiving good pensions for the first time in the history of the country.
      Maybe there’s an element of envy in the Western press, or maybe an element of fear on the part of the press barons and the interests they serve.

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