Feb
22
2014

News From Venezuela–but Where Is It Coming From?

San Christobal, Venezuela (Caracas Chronicles)

Venezuela as it appears on Caracas Chronicles.

There's a post from the blog Caracas Chronicles (2/20/14) that's been making its way around social media, called "The Game Changed in Venezuela Last Night-–and the International Media Is Asleep at the Switch," written by Francisco Toro. It's not surprising that it's being shared widely, because it paints an exceedingly dire picture:

Throughout last night, panicked people told their stories of state-sponsored paramilitaries on motorcycles roaming middle-class neighborhoods, shooting at people and storming into apartment buildings, shooting at anyone who seemed like he might be protesting.

Who is Francisco Toro? He used to report for the New York Times, but stepped down, saying he couldn't conform to the paper's conflict-of-interest rules: "Too much of my lifestyle is bound up with opposition activism," he wrote, adding that "I can't possibly be neutral" about Venezuelan politics (FAIR Action Alert, 6/6/03).

Despite the Times' rules, one doesn't need to be neutral to be a good reporter–in theory; great journalism has been done by the politically engaged. But how trustworthy is Toro's actual reporting? Are, in fact, "state-sponsored paramilitaries…shooting at anyone who seemed like he might be protesting"? Two days ago, when Toro posted, the death toll stood at six (Reuters, 2/20/14). That's six deaths too many, certainly, but if paramilitaries were actually shooting at everyone who seemed to be protesting, there would be either very few protesters or the paramilitaries would have to be exceedingly bad shots.

And, in fact, not all the dead are protesters, or killed by pro-government forces. Yesterday, Venezuelanalysis (2/21/14)–a pro-government but independent website–put out a fuller list of people killed in the ongoing clashes, adding up to 10. Three people died after crashing into barricades set up by the opposition, and another person–the brother of a pro-government legislator–was shot while trying to open up a barricaded street. A protester was run over by a motorist trying to drive through a barricade; the driver was reportedly arrested. An intelligence service officer was also arrested in connection with a shooting incident on February 12 that left two people dead–one a protester, the other a government sympathizer.

There is dispute over responsibility for some of the killings, including that of one of the more publicized victims, 22-year-old former beauty contestant Genesis Carmona. But looking at the deaths as a whole, it's hard to see evidence of what Toro calls a "tropical pogrom."

The fact that FAIR was writing about Toro's reporting more than 10 years ago points to the fact that this is not a new story; since Hugo Chavez's first election in 1998, Venezuela's government has faced intense opposition, and despite this opposition, the government has repeatedly won elections that have been deemed free and fair (Extra!, 12/06). US journalists tend to identify with the opposition, which is generally wealthier and better educated–and not incidentally whiter–than government supporters (FAIR Blog, 2/25/13). This should be borne in mind when reading reports from Venezuela–from whatever source.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.