Sunday, July 31, 2005

Soul Searching (or how the Venezuelan press finally realized it screwed up) 

Here is an interesting article from the Columbia Journalism Review. Apparently they sent a journalist to Venezuela to see the state of the craft down here. Needless to say, he wasn't impressed with what he saw. Although nothing written here comes as a surprise it does make for interesting reading. It is interesting to note how at least some journalists now claim to be repentant for there total lack of objectivity and journalistic standards over the past few year. One has to wonder if this is a sincere change of heart or if they just realized their original strategy was a complete failure and are now moving on to plan B. Me thinks the latter.

Also, the attentive Oil Wars reader will note at least one major error in this article itself. Feel free to note it in the comments section.

Soul Search
By John Dinges
For the last seven years, the press in Venezuela has had a story that would be the envy of any red-blooded, news-addicted reporter. It is a story of political upheaval and social change that began when Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, and promptly rewrote the constitution. He has fended off efforts to dislodge him ever since. Chavez is floating vast income-redistribution programs, including housing and land reform that have peasants squatting on private property, on bonanza prices for Venezuela’s oil. He talks — often in public speeches or on televised talk shows that can run half a day — about revolution, socialism, and liberation from the “interventionism” of the United States. It is a formula that has earned him the adulation of the poor and lower middle class at home and throughout Latin America, invited comparisons to leftist icons like Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende, and sparked a war of words with the Bush administration.
Indeed, there is no more compelling story in Latin America, and journalists here know they should be aggressively chronicling this powerful narrative whose ultimate outcome is still in the God-only-knows category of speculation.
And yet, until very recently, they were not. Many journalists in Venezuela, where the press has a tradition of high quality, confess to having lost their way. They openly admit that they and their editors failed miserably in their duty to provide information that their fellow citizens needed to navigate the storms of Venezuelan politics under Chavez. Instead, media owners and their editors used the news — print and broadcast — to spearhead an opposition movement against Chavez. They sided with Venezuela’s wealthy business community, which sees in Chavez a threat to its economic power and ultimately to Venezuela’s democratic way of life. Shades of Chile, 1973.
Ordinary street reporters found themselves caught in the middle. Verbal attacks by Chavez and his officials — sometimes singling journalists out by name — stoked their hostility toward the government, which, given the urban, middle-class backgrounds of most journalists, needed little prodding anyway. Editors, meanwhile, began routinely winking at copy containing unfounded speculation, rumor, and unchecked facts. The polarization was so complete that for a time, reporters were regularly attacked in the streets by Chavez supporters wielding bottles and sticks. Many reporters interviewed for this story expressed profound anguish at the low quality of Venezuelan journalism during the past several years. “The common attitude has been that we can leave aside ethics and the rules of journalism,” says Laura Weffer, a political reporter for El Nacional, one of the three major dailies in Caracas.
The crisis of conscience is occurring in a media community that is among the most prosperous, best trained and equipped, and — until recently — most respected in Latin America. The country has had a half-century of continuous democratic government — since throwing out a military dictator in 1958 — and decades of petroleum-fed prosperity that allowed it to build a solid and well-educated middle class. In Caracas, three ad-fat and well-designed dailies and a scattering of smaller papers have traditionally divided among themselves a combined readership (on Sundays) of up to a million. Venezuelan readers appear to demand good writing, long descriptive pieces, artistic displays, and lots of political coverage. They are much less obsessed with the random violence, crime, accidents, and gore that dominate popular dailies in other countries, especially in Central America. Lively talk shows on television and radio explore every shift in the political landscape.
This made the Venezuelan press’s stumble all the more disturbing. “This has been the darkest moment in the history of Venezuelan journalism,” says Alonso Moleiro, a prominent journalist. “Reporters bought the argument that you have to put journalistic standards aside, that if we don’t get rid of Chavez, we will have communism and Fidelismo.”
The result has been bad not only for journalism but for democracy. “For a media organization to take a political position is not necessarily bad journalism,” said Andres Cañizalez, a columnist and head of the Institute for Press and Society in Venezuela, one of the major Latin American organizations defending press freedoms. “But here you had the convergence in the media of two things: grave journalistic errors — to the extreme of silencing information on the most important news events — and taking political positions to the extreme of advocating a nondemocratic, insurrectional path. They lost the guiding star of democratic discourse.”
There are signs, however, that the press is getting back on course.
On a Saturday morning in late May, a dozen reporters gather in a room at the Canadian embassy on Caracas’s Altamira Plaza to hear a briefing from a human rights lawyer on two laws passed during the past year by the Chavez government that the reporters fear will seriously damage freedom of expression. Outside, several hundred people are marching to protest the government’s prosecution of opposition figures, including several journalists. Most face charges related to the abortive military coup against Chavez in 2002, which was reversed in less than forty-eight hours. Four people are in jail for violence connected to the coup, and prosecutions have begun in more than two dozen cases arising from the three-year-long series of strikes and civil uprisings against the government that followed the coup. This, according to the protesters, has had a chilling effect on opposition activity. An hour later, a larger (and louder) pro-Chavez demonstration will take place.
But the sounds of protest are muffled inside the embassy meeting room. One of the laws under discussion at the meeting, called the Resorte law after its Spanish acronym, was promoted as a means of keeping sex and violence off TV and radio during hours when children are watching, and also to increase the proportion of Venezuelan-produced programming. But the journalists contend that the law is aimed as much at political expression as it is at protecting children. “The law allows for seventy-eight reasons to bring sanctions against a station,” said Andres Cañizalez, of the Institute for Press and Society. He points out that none of these provisions have been enforced yet, but as he and the other journalists go through the clauses one by one, it is clear the majority have little to do with children.
The other, more overtly ominous, law increases prison sentences and fines for “offending by word or in writing, or in any other manner, showing disrespect for the President.” It creates some vague new crimes, such as propagating false information that might cause “panic . . . or anxiety” among the population, instigation to commit “an act in contravention of the law.” Fines can be levied for “shouting and other vociferations, including abuse of bells or other noisemaking instruments.” If the noise disturbs a public official in the course of his duties, the offender can be jailed for up to three months.
What most concerns the journalists in Venezuela is that the Chavez government has strengthened and broadened the possible applications of the law against the press. That, they point out, goes against a strong current in other countries to eliminate such “insult” laws. So far, no one has been prosecuted under the new laws. In fact, there are no journalists in jail at all in Venezuela, and no media outlets have been shut down. Chavez and his aides are quick to point this out: “Freedom of expression is alive and well and kicking every day,” says one aide. “Everyone says whatever they want everyday without the government messing with them.”
That statement is from Andres Izarra, Chavez’s minister of communication and information. Izarra was trained as a journalist in the U.S., where he worked for Spanish-language programs on CNN and NBC. He speaks fluent, idiomatic English and is in his mid-thirties. Izarra’s story, and his powerful position, illustrate why issues of the media and the government in Venezuela are so intriguing, and why journalists here are so wracked by self-doubt. Izarra’s portfolio includes not only being Chavez’s spokesman but also supervising the commission — appointed by Chavez — that will enforce the new content regulations for television and radio. And that’s not all. He also heads the government’s ambitious effort to build a state-run broadcasting empire to compete with the commercial networks, which are dominated by Chavez’s opponents. One of those projects, Telesur, which is expected to be launched later this year, is a satellite news network supported by the governments of Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay to provide an alternative to U.S.- and European-based broadcasters such as CNN and the BBC.
As spokesman, Izarra has a reputation for toughness, and is often combative in his responses to the press’s criticism of Chavez. In an interview for this story, he called an American editorial writer with whom he has been trading public letters a “scumbag.” He has criticized journalists by name, including one who wrote that Venezuela was preparing for war against the U.S. and had provided visas to Iraqi terrorists, baseless charges that, according to Izarra, fed the Bush administration’s portrayal of Chavez as a destabilizing and dangerous force in the region.
Yet Izarra was a working journalist during the most critical moment of recent Venezuelan history. He speaks the language of journalistic standards and ethics, and this gives his critique of Venezuelan journalism unusual force. Here is Izarra’s experience, as he tells it:
In 2002, Izarra was news operations manager for RCTV Channel 2, in charge of organizing coverage for the main news program, El Observador. President Chavez’s government had been in office for more than three years, and, after putting a new “Bolivarian” constitution in effect, had foundered in an increasingly bitter fight with opposition civic groups and political parties, while the Bush administration cheered the opposition from the sidelines.
Izarra says he first noticed the end of “journalism as usual” when the government and opposition groups staged huge and competing marches a few days apart in March of that year. The station manager, he says, ordered him to give blanket coverage to an opposition march, so Izarra sent ten camera crews. The pro-Chavez march was not covered at all.
A few weeks later, on April 11, another huge march was called to support a national strike against Chavez. Izarra’s station, along with the other three major television stations (Venevision, Globovision, and Televen), began coordinated, wall-to-wall live coverage, including frequent on-air admonitions for people to join the strike and the day’s march. Eventually, some half a million people, by opposition count, streamed from all parts of the city toward the presidential palace, demanding Chavez’s resignation or overthrow.
By early morning, they had their wish. There had been gunfire during the march, and the television stations repeatedly broadcast the image of several men who appeared to be firing pistols at the marchers. A faction of the military, citing the shooting, took Chavez into custody and installed the head of the main businessmen’s association, Pedro Carmona Estanga, as president.
For a journalist, this was the story of a lifetime. Izarra went home for a few hours of sleep. When he returned to work, he says he was given strict instructions from the station’s information manager: “Cero Chavismo en pantalla” — zero Chavez supporters on the screen. The television coverage portrayed the military takeover not as a coup d’état but as a voluntary resignation by Chavez. At the time that was far from being a fact — a general had announced that Chavez had resigned, but there was no signed resignation and Chavez’s whereabouts were unknown. It later turned out to be purely wishful thinking by the media.
Izarra says he had orders that no one was to appear on the air to contradict the official story, even though international news agencies were reporting a different series of events. Protests by Chavez supporters, riots, and looting had broken out in many parts of Caracas. Eventually nineteen people were killed among both the pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez demonstrators. RCTV covered none of it. Izarra says he was instructed to send reporters to parts of town where it was quiet, to get live shots of tranquility.
On Sunday, the new military-installed government began to collapse, and the world outside Venezuela began getting the news. Inside Venezuela, however, only one Catholic radio network continued to broadcast news reports of what was actually happening. All four major television networks halted news reports entirely. Izarra, still working on the story, received a transmission from RCTV’s correspondent in Maracay, a provincial capital seventy-five miles west of Caracas, where the general in command of a major military unit had declared his support for Chavez’s return. It was an exclusive. No other network had a reporter at this pivotal event. Izarra says his boss ordered him to keep it off the air. “I was very outspoken about my opposition to this,” Izarra says. “The vice president [of RCTV] called me up and said this is the policy, either follow it or leave. I said, ‘I’m leaving. This is against my principles.’ It was one of the biggest stories of our modern history and we were not covering it.”
Late that afternoon, Chavez supporters began taking control of the presidential palace. It was all but over, but still no television network had broadcast the news. The official explanation from the networks was that the situation in the streets was too dangerous for reporters. That rationale held little water, according to a study by the Catholic University Human Rights Center, since the networks had blanketed the streets with reporters in the equally tumultuous days before the tide turned against the opposition. Meanwhile, two of the three major newspapers, El Universal and El Nacional, made similar decisions, explaining afterward that they sent the printing-plant staff home for safety reasons. Both canceled their Sunday editions, whose lead stories should have been on the crumbling coup and Chavez’s imminent return to power. One of the big papers, Ultimas Noticias, refused to line up with the opposition. It hit the streets with a limited edition that accurately reflected the country’s plunge into confusion and chaos. Several tabloids in Caracas and some of the provincial TV stations also resisted the opposition line.
Chavez survived, but the story continued. The opposition offensive soldiered on for two more years, with competing, often violent marches, a national strike, an economically devastating shutdown of oil production for two months, and, finally, a recall referendum in August 2004 that, instead of forcing Chavez out of office as the organizers intended, ended in a decisive victory for the president. During this period, again with the exception of Ultimas Noticias, the major press and broadcast media were seen as the leaders of the opposition.
For Laura Weffer, the El Nacional reporter, this experience was profoundly frustrating. She had continued to report from the streets even after she was told by her editor to stay inside. Soon after the failed coup, Weffer and a small group of journalists, all of them street reporters, began to meet at Weffer’s home to talk about what had happened to their journalistic principles. They were particularly shocked by the hateful slogans that were hurled at them whenever they approached Chavez supporters. “Before, when we went up to the hills” — the poor residential areas surrounding the city — “we were welcomed as if we were the Red Cross,” says Tamoa Calzadilla, an investigative reporter for Ultimas Noticias. “Afterward, reporters were showered with rocks and bottles at the bottom of the hill.” One woman reporter, in tears, told Weffer about being called a puta, a whore, when she tried to enter a poor neighborhood wearing a press pass. Calzadilla began to compile testimonies of attacks against journalists, intending to bring cases to court. (The Institute for Press and Society issued its own study in May, documenting nearly 600 attacks during the past three years, the vast majority by Chavez supporters. Only a handful have been prosecuted.)
After a few meetings, these reporters gave themselves a name, Los del Medio — those in the middle — and organized a series of events to bring together working journalists similarly determined to put their journalism back on track. An early member, Sandra La Fuente (who would later write a book, El Acertijo de Abril, about the coup), says she was especially moved by a Catholic mass organized by Los del Medio four months after the coup as a “call to reconciliation,” that was attended by hundreds of journalists. For the part of the mass when the faithful bring offerings — typically bread — a handful of reporters solemnly walked to the altar carrying gas masks, helmets, bulletproof vests, tape recorders, and notebooks. “Those things are the new equipment of journalists,” La Fuente told me.
As the story continued to unfold in 2003 and 2004, the group held workshops to help journalists regain the basic values of fairness, objectivity, and respect for their subjects. They discussed the use of polarizing language and insults in their stories. (Their papers have routinely printed epithets such as “invertebrates” and “toothless ones” when referring to Chavez supporters.)
Perhaps inevitably, Los del Medio itself became the object of criticism in the polarizing climate that enveloped the whole country. Skeptical colleagues at their own papers dismissed members of the group as “closet Chavistas” — even though all but one of a dozen members I interviewed for this article said they were personally opposed to the Chavez government. Pro-Chavez journalists, meanwhile, such as Izarra and the radio personality Ernesto Villegas, ridicule Los del Medio’s advocacy of reporting without taking sides. “They are opposition, perhaps in the closet, but opposition,” Izarra says.
Villegas, like Izarra, is a refugee from the opposition media. During the coup, he worked at Universal as a reporter and hosted a talk show on the government’s VTV Channel 8. “I was working in the channel of the revolution and the newspaper of the counterrevolution,” he says. He told me that he has become disillusioned with journalism and is now — at age thirty-five — studying law, although he continues to host the talk show. “I ask myself how autonomous and effective we journalists are in the practice of a dignified, independent, and fair profession,” he says, and his answer to himself is stark. “The journalism of the five Ws and the distinction between fact and opinion is in crisis. Journalists were telling people with a straight face that the world was square, instead of round. We run the risk of turning ourselves into buffoons, or cooks turning out hamburgers on order.”
Still, Villegas says that he, too, called on his journalist friends “to reflect,” but that he would have nothing to do with Los del Medio, who he says, using a pun, were really just Los del Miedo — those who are afraid. He quickly softened his tone, though, and added that he understands that they were trying to defend an “impartial role” for reporters.
If there is common ground in Venezuelan journalism, it might be where Alonso Moleiro stands. A fervent Chavez critic who is eager to talk in detail about the government’s mismanagement and financial irresponsibility, Moleiro wrote a series of investigative stories earlier this year in El Nacional about the effect of Chavez’s social programs on the lives of the poor. His articles caused a stir not so much for what they revealed but because seven years into the Chavez government few media organizations had done that kind of in-depth reporting.
The stories were critical, cold-eyed, and descriptive. The “missions,” as the programs are called, are designed to expand literacy, education, and primary medical care (provided by 30,000 Cuban doctors who live in the poorest neighborhoods all over the country). The programs, which reportedly cost nearly $3 billion, are financed directly by the national oil company, PDVSA, and benefit millions of people. The missions went into full swing in 2004, thereby giving Chavez a timely boost in the looming referendum, and they clearly help explain why Chavez’s approval ratings since the referendum have surged to 70 percent.
What Moleiro wrote was no secret; it just had been virtually invisible in the mainstream press. “After seven years of this government, there is a concern for the poor, there is a connection that is impossible to ignore,” he told me. “The missions are helping, the poor people feel they are better, they feel they are being helped. But they are not the solution.”
More than half the population in Venezuela is officially classified as being below the poverty line, and nearly every public act by Chavez is designed to show those previously ignored people that they are his top priority. One woman told Moleiro, “With Chavez, I exist.”
I heard similarly adoring comments among people served by the Fabricio Ojeda facility in Catia, a poor neighborhood clinging to steep slopes on the western edge of Caracas. A year ago, Chavez converted a PDVSA gasoline pumping station that had become a hazard in the crowded neighborhood into a free pediatric clinic treating 250 patients a day, and several cooperatives, including a clothes-making factory, a subsidized food market, and an agricultural project. A sixty-year-old woman who works at the agricultural project told me that she hadn’t been paid yet, but still feels her life has changed, however modestly, because of Chavez. “Before we had nothing. I mean nothing,” she said. “Now I’m working here planting vegetables. I’m advancing a little.”
An economic survey published in April confirms this duality about poverty in Chavez’s Venezuela. Datos Information Resources, a polling firm, reported that the proportion of the population in the poorest segment has been growing steadily since the 1980s, and that the growth has continued under Chavez. Nevertheless, those poorest Venezuelans feel that they are better off than they were before Chavez came to power, and in fact they are, according to the study. The biggest reason for this seeming paradox is the impact of Chavez’s social programs, which have provided cash subsidies to millions of people in the form of discounted food, living allowances for students, housing subsidies, and greatly improved delivery of free medical care. The study calculated that household incomes in the poorest segment had increased 33 percent after inflation.
In other words, there is more poverty in Venezuela, but the poor feel their lives have improved and they give credit to Chavez for helping them in ways that previous governments have not.
Good, hard-hitting journalism has never been more needed in Venezuela, and there are some harbingers of its return, if only because editors realize Chavez is solidly entrenched for the foreseeable future. And they have a business motive. The two newspapers most indelibly identified with the opposition have lost advertising and readers, according to two sources with access to confidential reports. Ultimas Noticias, meanwhile, the only large paper to have steered a generally non-partisan path, has increased circulation by at least 10 percent.
Recently both El Nacional and Ultimas Noticias have published tough, factual stories on the decline of oil production by PDVSA, the government-run company, and succeeded in putting the government on the defensive. Op-ed pages regularly match opposition, pro-Chavez, and independent columnists — a major change from the monolithic editorial policies of the recent past. The major television networks also seem to be making an accommodation with Chavez. The networks have pulled off the air three of the opposition talk shows with the most extreme rhetoric, which included wild talk about violence against Chavez and his followers.
Teodoro Petkoff may be the closest thing to a genuinely independent journalist in Venezuela. It helps that he owns his own newspaper, Tal Cual, a thin afternoon daily that combines brainy, fact-laden editorials with bitingly humorous news reports. He is an acerbic critic of the government, but he condemned the military coup and keeps the opposition at arms length. Petkoff describes himself as a one-time revolutionary who learned to appreciate democracy and to reject all forms of militarism and totalitarianism. He is a man of the left who wants the Chavez experiment to succeed, and while he applauds its attention to the poor he faults the government for not using its oil profits for long-term investment and job creation. He sees Chavez as a military man with an authoritarian streak and an indelible suspicion of a free press. “He has one foot in democracy, one foot in authoritarianism. But he is going to maintain that ambiguity, that unstable equilibrium. He is not going to become a dictator,” Petkoff predicted.
Petkoff is optimistic about the future of both democracy and the media. More than devotion to journalistic principle, it is the prospect of six more years of Chavez, plus the fear of sanctions under the new press laws, that have put the media owners on a more balanced path, he says.
For journalists like Alonso Moleiro, Tamoa Calzadilla, and Andres Cañizalez that new path — call it moderation or just tough reporting — needs to quickly produce painstaking anticorruption investigations, a campaign for government accountability, access to information, and resistance to the laws making it a crime to offend the president. In at least part of that agenda they may have an unexpected ally in Izarra, the former journalist inside the government. When I asked him to defend those laws, he said that in fact he opposes the special protections they give to high officials, and that he favors a freedom-of-information law for Venezuela like the one in the U.S.
The reporters who had felt caught in the middle are now eager to end the soul-searching and pursue the abundance of great stories in Venezuela. Calzadilla, for example, has uncovered possible connections between the unsolved murder of a government prosecutor and an extortion ring. Cañizalez is tracking down reports of police carrying out summary executions of criminals and suspects.
It may be journalism as usual. But in Venezuela, that’s news.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?