Confidence in Newspaper Reporting in Latin America

This article was written in mid-April 2002, when there was a coup in Venezuela against President Hugo Chávez who subsequently returned to power.  Apart from the political fallout, this series of events raised serious questions about the role that the Venezuelan media played in the process.  We relay the following newspaper article that covered the situation:

Embarrassed pro-coup media silent as Chávez returns

VENEZUELANS have lived a dramatic 48 hours, but if they wanted to read about it yesterday, they were disappointed.

Venezuela greeted the return to power of the President, Hugo Chávez, only two days after his ousting in a coup, with collective silence. In part it was sour grapes and in part fear of retribution that no main Sunday papers appeared, while television and radio stations kept news to a minimum.

The reason was simple. After a battle with Señor Chávez over press freedom in recent months, media owners leapt to back Friday’s coup. Their hatred for Señor Chávez peaked on Thursday when a news photographer was shot dead by a sniper at a huge anti-Chávez rally in which 15 people were killed. It was this that prompted the coup only hours later.

In the few hours that a provisional government led by a businessman, Pedro Carmona, was in power, the top media barons were among the first to visit him at the presidential palace to offer support. “It was a media coup,” said a disgusted María Lilibeth Da Corte, a veteran palace reporter for Unión Radio, who said her editors censored all negative reporting on the coup. That included early signs that things were going wrong on Saturday. When a pro-Chávez crowd marched on the palace and members of the new government fled by an underground tunnel, no reports were aired. One photographer heard other journalists being told by their bosses to “forget being journalists for the next week, we’re all working for the government now”.

Señorita Da Corte said: “The saddest thing is that there were journalists who were in agreement with the bosses. Unless there is a serious internal investigation of what went on, professional journalism in Venezuela is finished.” Chávez supporters stoned one television station, demanding to go on the air.

Among the worst offenders were the powerful networks, Globovision, Televen and Venevision. According to sources, Globovision executives even called CNN in Atlanta to request that it cease broadcasting negative coup images. The request was denied.

Señor Chávez reappeared at the palace yesterday in a conciliatory mood, promising there would be no witch-hunt.

After publicly thanking the international media for their coverage of the coup, he turned to the Venezuelan media. “For God’s sake, reflect a little,” he appealed. “This country is yours too.”

And here is an excerpt from another relevant article

Coup and Counter-Coup

April 15, 2002

... a group of top media executives rolled up in their limousines for a meeting with Mr Carmona, at the 19th-century Miraflores palace. All had been prominent critics of Mr Chavez’s alleged abuses of press freedom. Gustavo Cisneros, owner of the Venevision television channel and perhaps the country’s richest man, headed the group. Also present were Miguel Henrique Otero, publisher of the El Nacional group of newspapers, Alberto Federico Ravell, chief executive of Globovision (Venezuela’s answer to CNN) and Marcel Granier of the RCTV channel.

Mr Cisneros had been a stranger in the palace over the past few years, although in 1998 he and Mr Otero had contributed to Hugo Chavez’s steamroller of a presidential campaign and organised positive media coverage. Mr Otero’s right-hand man, Alfredo Pena, who is now the anti-Chavez mayor of metropolitan Caracas, was the first minister Mr Chavez appointed.

But as Mr Chavez, a former lieutenant-colonel who had staged a failed coup in 1992, drifted further and further away from the free market policies they had hoped he would espouse, Mr Cisneros and Mr Otero went into opposition. According to one veteran politician, many of the meetings held to plan the removal of the president from power were held at Mr Otero’s house, known as Macondo.

Eventually, they were successful: their man, Mr Carmona, head of the business federation Fedecamaras, was installed at Miraflores. They toasted the downfall of their adversary with 18-year-old Scotch. “We can’t guarantee you the loyalty of the army,” a presidential guard heard one of them tell Mr Carmona, “but we can promise you the support of the media.”

But by the time the media barons met on Saturday, their whole plot was unravelling. Precisely what was said at the meeting is a matter for speculation. But Mr Carmona was overheard telling them: “In your hands lie the safety and stability of the government.”

In a desperate bid to hold on to power, the government’s media allies conspired to suppress all news of its difficulties. A regime that had seized power while waving the flag of press freedom spent its 36 hours in office doing its best to keep the truth from the public.

The censorship which had begun the previous evening, with the first pro-Chavez riots, was tightened. Globovision, Venevision and RCTV blacked out the news completely, running videos of the previous day's inauguration, soothing music and requests to stay at home and remain calm. “The united TV stations of Venezuela,” commented political consultant Eric Ekvall, a longtime Caracas resident, “acted like the ministry of propaganda for the interim government. They not only damaged their own credibility, they helped undermine the coup.”

Pro-Chavez mobs soon realised what was happening and attacked the television stations and newspapers. A scared group of RCTV journalists, some seemingly close to tears, broadcast live from an apartment where they had taken refuge, pleading for help.

Less than two days after it had arrived there, the anti-Chavez faction fled the palace. Mr Carmona next appeared at the Fuerte Tiuna military base a few kilometres away, now, in effect, a prisoner of the army. Within hours, Mr Chavez was flown by helicopter back to the palace.

The American journalist Walter Lippmann said that the press "is no substitute for institutions.  It is like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly bringing one episode and then another out of the darkness into vision."  The idealized vision of the media is that of the Fifth Estate: the social layer of journalists, critics and intellectuals who do not celebrate the existing social arrangements and who acts as the guardians and watchdogs of truth and justice.  Unfortunately, the global trend is for media to be consolidated into a small number of oligopolies, which wield tremendous power because they encompass newspapers, radio stations, television networks, internet websites, magazine publishers, movie studios, cable/satellite delivery systems as well as other businesses, to the point where these media are amassed to serve their own interests.  Of course, in time, the people will catch on, thus causing a rapid erosion of confidence in all media.

We will now cite some survey data from the TGI Latina survey.  This is a survey of 48,885 persons 12 years or older in eight Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Venezuela) conducted during 2001.  In terms of timing, the survey work was completed before two major political crises in Latin America --- the December 2001-January 2002 crisis in Argentina and the April 2002 coup-countercoup in Venezuela.

Within the TGI Latina survey, the respondents are shown this statement: "I trust the information that I read in newspapers."  Out of the 48,885 persons, 17.7% 'completely agreed' with this statement.  Considering the current circumstances, the greatest interest must surely in the differences by country:

On the positive side, it must be said that however bad the political situation is in Colombia, the national newspapers such as El Tiempo and El Espectador are held in the highest esteem.  During the drug wars and the guerrilla wars of the country, these newspapers were the targets of bombings and assassinations but they never wavered in their editorial positions.  On the negative side, Mexico came in as the second lowest because of a history of collusion between many newspapers and the previous government (see A Culture of Collusion: An Inside Look At The Mexican Press edited by William A. Orme), with the widespread practice of inserting paid articles ("gacetillas") into the newspapers.  And then Venezuela comes in at the lowest incidence.

The Venezuelan coup was thought of as an elitist coup against a populist president.  The many links at the bottom of this page focus on the roles that the major media might have played in the coup, specifically about whether they had manipulated their coverage and reporting in favor of the coup.  In the next chart, we show the trust in newspapers by socio-economic level, occupation status and education.  This is extraordinary because the newspapers are read most (see link) but in fact trusted least by the rich, powerful and educated, which surely implies a highly cynical set of attitudes.

We feel obliged to point out once again that not all sheep are black.  For example, during the Venezuelan coup, the newspaper Tal Cual was objective, forthright and principled in its coverage and editorial of the situation, in spite of its anti-Chavista position.  Upon his return, even Hugo Chávez praised that newspaper.  It is just unfortunate that there are a few black sheep around.  Among those black sheep must also be included some international stalwarts such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and Dow Jones News, who issued grossly erroneous reports (such as Chávez having resigned or even flown to Cuba) or celebrating the coming down of oil prices as well as already offering political advice to the new government.  


(posted by Roland Soong, 4/18/2002; last updated on 02/06/2003)

(Return to Zona Latina's Home Page)