The response of Britain's media to the conspiracy in Venezuela provided an object lesson in how censorship works in free societies

29 April 2002

Last month, I wrote about Venezuela, pointing out that little had been reported in this country about the achievements of Hugo Chavez and the threat to his reforming government from the usual alliance of a corrupt local elite and the United States.

When the conspirators made their move on 12 April, the response of the British media provided an object lesson in how censorship works in free societies.

The BBC described Chavez as "not so much a democrat as an autocrat", echoing the Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane, who abused him as "a ranting demagogue". Alex Bellos, the Guardian's South America correspondent, reported, as fact, that "pro-Chavez snipers had killed at least 13 people" and that Chavez had requested exile in Cuba. "Thousands of people celebrated overnight, waving flags, blowing whistles . . ." he wrote, leaving the reader with the clear impression that almost everybody in Venezuela was glad to see the back of this "playground bully", as the Independent called him.

Within 48 hours, Chavez was back in office, put there by the mass of the people, who came out of the shanty towns in their tens of thousands. Defying the army, their heroism was in support of a leader whose democratic credentials are extraordinary in the Americas, south and north. Having won two presidential elections, the latest in 2000, by the largest majority in 40 years, as well as a referendum and local elections, Chavez was borne back to power by the impoverished majority whose "lot", wrote Bellos, he had "failed to improve" and among whom "his popularity had plummeted".

The episode was a journalistic disgrace. Most of what Bellos and others wrote, using similar words and phrases, turned out to be wrong. In Bellos's case, this was not surprising, as he was reporting from the wrong country, Brazil. Chavez said he never requested asylum in Cuba; the snipers almost certainly included agents provocateurs; "almost every sector of society [Chavez] antagonised" were principally members of various oligarchies he made pay tax for the first time, including the media, and the oil companies, whose taxes he doubled in order to raise 80 per cent of the population to a decent standard of living. His opponents also included army officers trained at the notorious School of the Americas in the United States.

In a few years, Chavez had begun major reforms in favour of the indigenous poor, Venezuela's unpeople. In 49 laws adopted by the Venezuelan Congress, he began real land reform, and guaranteed women's rights and free healthcare and education up to university level.

He opposed the human rights abuses of the regime in neighbouring Colombia, encouraged and armed by Washington. He extended a hand to the victim of an illegal 40-year American blockade, Cuba, and sold the Cubans oil. These were his crimes, as well as saying that bombing children in Afghanistan was terrorism. Like Chile under Allende and Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, precious little of this was explained to the western public. Like the equally heroic uprising in Argentina last year, it was misrepresented as merely more Latin American chaos.

Last week, the admirable Glasgow University Media Group, under Greg Philo, released the results of a study which found that, in spite of the saturation coverage of the Middle East, most television viewers were left uninformed that the basic issue was Israel's illegal military occupation. "The more you watch, the less you know" - to quote Danny Schechter's description of American television news - was the study's conclusion.

Take US secretary of state Colin Powell's "peace mission". Regardless of America's persistent veto of United Nations resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, and regardless of Powell calling Ariel Sharon "my personal friend", an American "peace mission" was the absurd news, repeated incessantly. Similarly, when the United Nations Commission on Human Rights last week voted 40-5 to condemn Israel for its "mass killing", the news was not this near-unanimous expression of world opinion, but the British government's rejection of the resolution as "unbalanced".

Journalists are often defensive when asked why they faithfully follow the deceptions of great power. It is not good enough for ITN to say dismissively, in response to the Glasgow Media Group findings, that "we are not in the business of giving a daily history lesson", or for the BBC to waffle about its impartiality when some recent editions of Newsnight might have been produced by the Foreign Office. In these dangerous times, one of the most destructive weapons of all is pseudo-information.

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