Thursday, 10 April 2008

Challenging the Media War on Chavez.

Hugo Chavez - President of Venezuela

I had been planning a trip to Venezuela for some time now, I’d been reading about the history of the country; power handed from one group to the next, the natives and imported negro slaves being reduced, like the land itself, to commodities to be exploited by Europeans. The country has fascinated me since childhood, when I read Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World; conjuring up an image of Mount Roraima covered in luscious green Amazonian vegetation as far as the eye can see, rich with unusual and exotic animals. But this image of the country has been replaced in more recent years by that depicted by the media. I am filled with doubt and concern when I try to learn more about the reality of life in Venezuela under the rule of Hugo Chavez. There seem to be only two types of information distributed, both heavily coloured by emotional defence of deeply held ideological beliefs, whose assumptions are often so far apart, that it makes the work of a journalist attempting to fill in the gaps rather difficult.

So it was with a certain sense of optimism and hope that I stepped through the doors of the Venezuelan embassy in London on a pleasant April evening where his Excellency the Venezuelan ambassador Samuel Moncada was to give a speech. A speech in which I hoped the record would be set straight in regards to the relationship between Chavez and the people of Venezuela. I have no doubt that just as Chavez and Moncada say, the Western media is biased against his government. The night marked the 6th anniversary of the military coup that attempted to overthrow the government of President Hugo Chávez and to reverse Venezuela's social gains. Since then there have been ongoing attempts to isolate the Chávez government, including through the dissemination of misinformation. Sure enough, nearly all the news I have heard with regards to Venezuela has been negative; Student protests, widespread hunger, violation of the right to freedom of expression, exchanging insults with the king of Spain, dodgy oil deals with everyone from mayor of London Ken Livingston to President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Most of all - personal attacks on Chavez, who, if certain aspects of the media are to be believed, is taking away the rights of Venezuelans and destroying rival parties. I am assured by Samuel Moncada and the secretary and founder of the Venezuela Information Centre, Gordon Hutchinson, that this is all lies. Chavez, they say, is merely proposing a coalition of all the left wing parties, but opposition still exists and he allows free elections. The media say that Chavez has made a huge mistake allowing oil to be sold so cheaply in his country, and that many are starving, Mr. Moncada and Mr. Hutchinson say that social and economic progress has never been so advanced, and that the majority of their energy needs are met by hydro electric power, and that they are progressive in respect to investing in renewable energy technology.

Samuel Moncada - Venezuelan Ambassador

For every unsubstantiated claim made by Western journalists, both of liberal and conservative persuasions, there is a Venezuelan official or Chavez admiring socialist defender to call it lies and offer their own propaganda. To sort the truth from lies from half way across the world is virtually impossible for two reasons; firstly that the Western media is a propaganda tool obviously used as a means of perpetuating Western ideology and defending a global free market, secondly that some aspects of the media of Venezuela and many of the alternative sources of information such as the lecture of that evening, are merely a forum for socialist back-slapping and feeding the fires of anti capitalist conspiracy theories. The speakers at this evening's lecture were seemingly honest in that they acknowledged there are people in Venezuela, particularly middle class whites, who oppose Chavez, but they said as well as anti socialist students there are pro Chavez students. Their main concern was not just that the Western media makes up lies but more that it disproportionately reports political events in Venezuela with the intention of rallying Western support for deposing Chavez as a dictator despite the fact the vast majority of Venezuelans love him.

The evening ends with questions from the floor. Several people stand up to make vaguely relevant points about biased media broadcasts and socialist uprising in South America. There are also some contributions from bizarre individuals eager for any opportunity to shout their heads off about the evils of capitalism; none asks a proper question, which irritated me. I wanted to ask about speculations of Chavez being involved with the FARC and claims in the American media that evidence had been found on a laptop proving Chavez’ secret involvement with that Colombian terrorist organisation. Mr. Moncada doesn’t address this issue, but he makes it clear anyone who attempts to describe Colombia and Venezuela as being clearly defined separate nations with separate cultural traditions is misinformed; "they are as one" he exclaims, and many of the members of the Venezuelan government are Colombian or have Colombian ancestry. I walk away from the lecture even more confused than before. I respect Chavez’ government for making a stand against the Northern American superpower and raising the standard of living in Venezuela for those at the bottom of the pile but I have my suspicions that like in many Socialist countries, the voices of some citizens in Venezuela are being suppressed and the truth distorted amidst the barrage of lies being thrown back and forth by the government and their enemies, specifically European and North American media organisations.

“Come to Venezuela and see for yourself that the media are free and we have fully functional education and health care schemes” they say at the embassy. I intend to do just that.

(I travelled to Venezuela later that year)