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Fox News Venezuela Coverage: ‘Fair and Balanced’ Or Quasi-Official U.S. Government Propaganda?

Given recent friction between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the White House it inevitably was only a matter of time before Rupert Murdoch's Fox News would start to ratchet up its shrill ideological pressure. Since taking office in 1998, Chávez has had a stormy relationship with his powerful northern neighbor. Chávez, who established close ties with Washington's anathema, Cuban President Fidel Castro, criticized U.S.-led efforts for a free trade zone in the Americas, which he insisted would primarily benefit the U.S., while opposing the war in Iraq, resulting in no mystery as to why he has long been so reviled by the Bush administration. Tensions have been bristling between the two nations particularly since April 2002 when Chávez, the democratically elected president, was briefly removed from power in a coup which involved U.S. funding.

 

A maverick politician and former paratrooper, Chávez accused (not without merit) Washington of sponsoring his attempted overthrow as well as supporting a devastating oil lockout in 2002-3. Not one to easily soften his language, Chávez bluntly referred to the United States as "an imperialist power." What is more, according to the Venezuelan leader, Bush had plans to have him assassinated. In a further rhetorical sortie, Chávez warned that if he were killed the United States would have to "forget Venezuelan oil."

 

In a series of recent television reports Fox News has derided the firebrand leftist leader, presenting the current Venezuelan political habitat entirely from the perspective of the country's conservative middle-class opposition as well as the Bush administration.

In siding with the opposition, Fox News joins the ranks of almost all of the Venezuelan television stations including Radio Caracas TV and Venevision which have launched a vitriolic and highly personalized savaging of Chávez over the past few years. In his reports, Fox reporter Steve Harrigan speaks solely with members of the Venezuelan opposition and shows Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice critical of Chávez. Of course, Fox News has the right to present the news as distortedly as it sees fit. However, its exclusive adherence to anti-Chávez sources completely caricatures the station's claim to be "fair and balanced." In fact, when it comes to Venezuela, it strives to be a propaganda mill.


Fox Source #1: Leopoldo Lopez


In short bits scarcely lasting longer than a television commercial, Harrigan, a former CNN Moscow correspondent, intones that Chávez is "moving towards totalitarian rule." To support this view he turns to such redoubtable Venezuelan political figures as Leopoldo Lopez. "The danger we are facing as Venezuelans," says Lopez, "is the possibility of one day waking up and all of the sudden not having any of our liberties." What Harrigan failed to disclose however is that Lopez, as the municipal mayor of the Caracas district of Chacao, has worked closely with the Primero Justicia party. According to Venezuelan human rights lawyer Eva Golinger, Primero Justicia is the "most extreme opposition party to Chávez." What is more, Golinger has written that after the April 2002 coup against Chávez, Lopez signed the "Carmona Decree" which dissolved all democratic institutions including the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General and Public Defender. Additionally, the Carmona Decree did away with "an overwhelming number of laws and constitutional rights implemented during the Chávez administration." At the time, this action was denounced by almost all of Latin America's leaders.

 

Lopez's colleague at Primero Justicia, Leopoldo Martinez, was promoted to Minister of Finance under the Carmona coup regime. Even more revealing, Golinger reports that Primero Justicia received training and support from the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit U.S. organization which receives millions of dollars in laundered funding from the U.S. taxpayer funded National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This piece further corroded Harrigan's fast disappearing reputation as a professional by failing to disclose vital information to Fox viewers about the political biases and special interests of his sources.

 

Fox Fails to Disclose Lopez' Record


What is more, Fox viewers were left woefully uninformed about Lopez's track record during the April 2002 coup. The day after Chávez was removed from power on April 12, Lopez and Baruta Mayor Henrique Capriles Radonski (see below) placed Chávez's Interior and Justice Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin under arrest. Chacin later claimed that as he was being escorted out of his residence into a police car, he was physically attacked by a mob. Lopez responded by saying that he was innocent and was ordered to carry out the order by the Public Ministry, now under the control of the leader of coup regime, Pedro Carmona. However, after Chávez was restored to power, Chacin asked the country's attorney general to open an investigation of the incident. In late 2004 Lopez was indicted by the Caracas metropolitan attorney for his involvement in the raid on Chacin's home and the subsequent arrest of the minister.

 

Fox Source #2: Capriles Radonski


Harrigan continued his assault against accuracy by once again indulging in over simplification when he interviewed the mayor of the Caracas municipality of Baruta (bordering Leopoldo Lopez's Chacao district), Henrique Capriles Radonski. Capriles remarks, "I spent 20 days without looking at the sun, without looking at the sky, without having open air." While it is true that Capriles was imprisoned in a highly controversial, politically-charged case, Harrigan omits important information that would help American viewers to better comprehend Venezuela's volatile politics and give some rare perspective to the course of events there. For example, in his report, Harrigan doesn't mention that Capriles was head of the U.S.-partly funded Primero Justicia party. This is not an insignificant point. Indeed, one can only imagine the reaction from Fox were the Democratic Party to accept money from a foreign government which was interested in getting rid of the Bush administration.

 

Radonski and the April 2002 Coup


What is the controversy swirling around Capriles and what did Fox neglect to tell its viewers? During the April 2002 coup against Chávez, hundreds of angry middle-class opposition demonstrators destroyed cars parked outside the Cuban embassy in Baruta. Not stopping there, the mob cut off water and electricity to the building and threatened to forcibly enter the facility and do harm to the frightened occupants inside. Later, Chávez officials charged that Capriles, as the leading authority in Baruta, did not enforce the law and allowed the demonstrators to run amok. Irate staff at the Cuban embassy later issued a statement reading, "The immediate responsibility of Mr. Capriles Radonsky and other Venezuelan state authorities was demonstrated when they failed to act diligently in order to prevent an increase in the aggression to which our embassy was subjected, causing serious damage and endangering the lives of officials and their families in clear violation of national and international law."

 

Meanwhile, the Baruta mayor insisted that he was merely trying to defuse a volatile situation. Later, the Cuban embassy denied assertions made by Primero Justicia deputy Julio Borges that the Cubans had asked for Capriles's mediation at the scene. In an official statement issued by the embassy, the Cubans claimed that "these actions (the mob-incited acts of vandalism) occurred with impunity in the presence of the Baruta police who had instructions not to impede these actions." Capriles claims that he notified authorities and asked for assistance. ``I talked with the people outside," he has stated. "I said, 'This is an embassy, you cannot go inside.'"

 

During the incident Capriles was videotaped at the scene asking Cuban officials for permission to inspect the embassy on behalf of the angry mob. Though the tape supports his claim that he tried to calm the crowd, it also shows him speaking with the Cuban ambassador. In fact, what he is shown asking is for the Cuban ambassador to supply him with proof that there are no members of the government hiding inside the embassy (in another court case, the tape was used as evidence by both prosecutors and defense). For their part, Chávez officials charged that Capriles was demanding the right to inspect the embassy, which was a violation of international norms.

 

Capriles Radonski Arrested


In March 2004, a warrant was issued for Capriles's arrest. On May 11 he turned himself in. Prosecutor Danilo Anderson, who had apparently developed a convincing case which linked US agencies to the coup, charged Capriles with property damage, intimidation, violating international principles and trespassing. Meanwhile, Leopoldo Lopez led a march of Chacao residents to the town hall to support Capriles. In an ironic twist, Lopez, who himself signed the Carmona Decree in 2002, remarked that the government was "kidnapping" the country's institutions in order to engage in "political persecutions." Lopez rejected the charges against Capriles and argued that Venezuelans should be outraged about "undemocratic maneuvers." Capriles was held for four months and was released conditionally in September. In October, an appeals court dismissed the case against him.

 

In a dramatic development however, Anderson was the victim of a car bomb assassination when his SUV blew up in Caracas. Anderson was in charge of prosecuting several Chávez opponents involved in the April 2002 coup, including Capriles. Though no arrests were made, early suspicions focused on the Chávez opposition. Capriles remarked, "The government and the judicial system must find those responsible and do justice." He added, "I had many differences with Danilo Anderson, but these were fought out in the public prosecutor's office." Since late last year, Venezuelan authorities have taken into custody a number of suspects who they accuse of playing a role in Anderson's assassination. Despite the irretrievable loss of Anderson, the state has chosen to go on appealing the Capriles case.

 

Capriles Radonski: Democratic defender or menace to democracy?  Once again, Fox fails to report


In his report on Venezuela, Harrigan again interviews Capriles who remarks, "If you don't have a rule or somebody who respects the rules, they can do whatever they want. They can be Fidel Castro second part." Clearly the young and somewhat flashily charismatic Capriles has become a symbol of popular resistance to the Chávez government. His supporters claim that he has been unfairly railroaded by the regime and that attacks against him have been politically motivated. But, does Capriles himself have any regard for the democratic process and "the rules?" Recent developments have cast some doubt on Capriles' legitimacy. In early 2004, the Chávez opposition, frustrated by the failed coup attempt of 2002 and by an unsuccessful lock out in 2002-3, initiated the "Guarimba Plan." As Venezuela analyst Steve Ellner has written, under this urban sabotage plan "small groups blocked traffic and burned trash on key avenues in Caracas and other cities. Street damage in Caracas alone, according to Infrastructure Ministry estimates, reached $1 million in the first week. In addition, armed bands of opposition organizations, including the ex-leftist guerrilla group Red Flag, hurled Molotov cocktails and attacked the National Guard—violence that police in areas controlled by opposition parties refused to stop." As Ellner reports, as mayor of Baruta, Capriles "said police were right not to interfere because protestors were doing 'nothing less than exercising their legal right to protest.'"

 

Fox's Over-Simplifications


Though recent developments have cast doubt on Lopez's and Capriles' self-serving claims to be militants in the cause of good government, Fox oversimplifies the bitter political fracturing of the country by ignoring its complex history. It would seem that it is far easier to lop Capriles and Lopez amongst the forces of good than to actually investigate, from the perspective of both sides, a far more complex picture that would better conform to reality. But this would not hold true to tabloid tendencies that Fox's Washington bureau, under Brit Hume, is universally seen as incorporating. If the network started to question Capriles's and Lopez's democratic credentials too closely, this might interfere with the underlying narrative with which Fox is very comfortable. In this scenario, Condoleezza Rice and the State Department fight for democracy and economic modernization and Hugo Chávez is a "totalitarian" who needs to be controlled, if not eliminated.

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Chávez Launches Hemispheric, ‘Anti-Hegemonic’ Media Campaign in Response to Local TV Networks Anti-Government Bias

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Bush Rebuffed in Venezuela (again)

For George Bush the news could not have been worse. Having failed, according to credible accounts, to dislodge firebrand Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez by force in an April 2002 coup d’etat, Bush now must come to terms with the fact that Venezuela has cultivated strong European ties. That point was underscored this week when Spanish prime minister Jorge Luis Rodriguez Zapatero agreed to sell ten C-295 military transport planes, two CN-235 naval patrol planes and eight coastal patrol vessels worth 1.3bn euros ($1.7bn) to Venezuela. Though both Zapatero and Chavez stated that the military equipment would be used to peacefully patrol land and sea borders and to prevent drug smuggling, and Zapatero also announced that he would donate three troop transport planes to Colombia, a close U.S. ally, the developments could not have pleased the Bush administration. The Spanish sale follows close on the heels of Venezuela’s plans to purchase 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 22 helicopters from Russia. The US state department has accused Venezuela of sparking an arms race. The rifles, claim U.S. diplomats, could wind up in the hands of the FARC, Colombia’s left-wing rebels. Now, the Spanish sale is adding fuel to the fire. The Spanish sale surely did not come as a surprise to the U.S. As early as January the Spanish minister of Defense, José Bono, made what Zapatero termed a “discreet” visit to Caracas where the Spanish official discussed the arms sales with Chavez. Currently, the U.S. is trying its best to deal with the diplomatic fall out from the sales. American diplomats in Spain stated the U.S. “was worried” but had not “complained” to the Spanish government about the arms transfers. When asked to clarify the U.S. position on Spanish arms sales to Venezuela, Robert Zimmerman of the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs commented delicately, “our concerns about arms sales to Venezuela are known to all the relevant parties.”

Chavez: a Thorn in The Side of the U.S.

Chavez has long been a thorn in the side of the Bush administration. A frequent critic of the White House, Chavez has lambasted U.S. led efforts for a free trade zone in the Americas. What is more he has criticized the U.S. war in Iraq and furthered ties to traditional U.S. enemies such as Cuba. For the United States, Venezuela is a nation of key geopolitical importance. The world’s fifth largest oil producer, Venezuela is also the fourth largest supplier of oil to the United States after Canada, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. Last year, Venezuela’s state owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (Pdvsa) accounted for 11.8% (1.52-million barrels a day) of U.S. imports. However, Chavez has used oil as a geopolitical weapon. In a provocative move he has shipped oil to the communist island nation of Cuba. In a further threat to U.S. interests, Chavez has sought to form a regional oil cartel with other left-leaning South American countries. For taking such unpopular positions, Chavez stated, the United States has sought to have him killed. If he were assassinated, Chavez remarked, the U.S. could “forget Venezuelan oil.”

Though the U.S. has tried to diplomatically isolate Chavez, with State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher accusing Venezuela of playing a “destabilizing role” in regional affairs, these efforts have not yielded tangible result. To the contrary U.S. efforts to pressure Venezuela through third parties such as Spain seem to have backfired. How did things go amiss for the Bush administration in Venezuela?


The Ties That Bind: Aznar and Bush

During Bush’s first term it seemed that the United States enjoyed a willing foreign partner in Spain. José María Aznar, who had reorganized Spanish conservatives into the People’s Party (Partido Popular or PP) had been Prime Minister of Spain since 1996. Aznar, whose grandfather served as Franco’s ambassador to Morocco and the United Nations and whose father was a pro-Franco journalist, was re-elected with an absolute majority in the 2000 general election. The Spanish prime minister, who had narrowly escaped a 1995 assassination attempt by the Basque terrorist group ETA, made fighting terrorism one of the hallmarks of his administration. Aznar’s emphasis on combating terrorism fit well with the Bush agenda after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. What is more, despite robust public opposition (with polls indicating 90% of the Spanish public opposed to the war) and street protests, Aznar supported Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. In August 2003 Aznar sent 1,300 Spanish peace keeping troops to Iraq as part of the government’s support for the U.S. invasion.

Bush and Aznar: Anti-Chavista Allies

Simultaneously Aznar was Washington’s willing ally in opposing Chavez. In 2002 the maverick Venezuelan president was looking increasingly vulnerable. Faced with a growing wave of protests supported by the United States, Chavez was briefly removed from power by the military in a coup d’etat. In his place, Pedro Carmona, previously the head of Venezuela’s largest business association, Fedecamaras, became interim president. However, after poor and marginalized residents of Caracas massed at the presidential palace Chavez was able to return to power and defeat the coup plotters.

Prior to the April 12 2002 coup Venezuelan businessman Carmona visited high level government officials in Madrid as well as prominent Spanish businessmen. Once the coup had been carried out Carmona called Aznar and met with the Spanish ambassador in Caracas, Manuel Viturro de la Torre. The Spanish ambassador was accompanied at the meeting by the U.S. Ambassador, Charles Shapiro. As Chavez languished in a military barracks, PP parliamentary spokesman Gustavo de Arístegui wrote an article in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo supporting the coup. According to anonymous diplomatic sources who spoke with Inter Press Service, the Spanish foreign ministry holds documents which reveal the Spanish role. The documents reportedly prove that de la Torre had written instructions from the Aznar government to recognize Carmona as the new president of Venezuela.

The diplomatic tit-for-tat continued. After the coup Chavez detained the president of Fedecámaras, Carlos Fernández, who was accused of helping to foment a lock out which reduced oil output in 2002-03. Fernández was charged with inciting unrest and sedition. In February 2003 Ana Palacio, the Spanish Minister of External Affairs, criticized the detention. During his Sunday radio and TV show, Chavez angrily shot back that Spain should not interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs. “We must respect each other,” said Chavez. “Don’t get involved in our things and we won’t involve ourselves in your things. Is it necessary to remember that the Spanish ambassador was here applauding the April coup?” Chavez added, “Aznar, please, each one in his own place.” The diplomatic chill continued late into 2003 when Aznar criticized Chavez for adopting “failed models” like those of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Chavez retorted that Aznar’s statements were “unacceptable” and added that “perhaps Aznar thinks he is Fernando VII and we are still a colony. No, Carabobo [a battle of independence] already happened. Aznar, Ayacucho [another battle during the wars of independence] already occurred. The Spanish empire was already thrown out of here almost 200 years ago Aznar. Let those whostick their noses in Venezuela take note that we will not accept it.” In a further snub Chavez stated that Aznar should respond to the Spanish public which protested PP support for the invasion of Iraq. “He should definitely take responsibility for that,” Chavez concluded.


The Tide Starts To Turn

In March 2004 the tide turned. Despite the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, Jorge Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, or Spanish Socialists’ Workers Party) trailed in the polls. With general elections called Aznar’s hand picked successor in the PP, Mariano Rajoy, looked likely to win. In part the PP owed its popularity due to its tough stand on Basque terrorism and ETA. Then, three days prior to the election the Madrid commuter train bombings killed 201 people and injured 1,500. The PP hastily blamed ETA for the bombings but as suspicions grew of al Qaeda involvement Aznar’s party suffered. Some analysts argued that the PP held some responsibility for the Madrid bombings because it sent troops to Iraq and acquiesced in U.S. foreign policy. Thousands poured out on to the streets to protest the PP. Zapatero was thrust to an upset victory in the election. The socialists quickly shifted away from the strongly pro-U.S. focus of the PP, allying closer to the nations of “Old Europe” such as France and Germany. Zapatero described Spain’s participation in the Iraq war as “a total error.” In May, two months after his electoral victory, he withdrew Spain’s 1,430 troops.

Chavez Receives A “Rock Star” Welcome

Needless to say Chavez was ecstatic about the socialist win and made no effort to conceal his high spirits. Shortly after Zapatero’s victory Chavez praised the Spanish government for withdrawing its troops from Iraq. The firebrand Venezuelan politician was further emboldened after an August 2004 recall referendum failed to force him from office. The final result showed that 59.25% of voters approved of Chavez and opposed his recall. Having then survived a coup attempt, a lock out in 2002-3 and a recall effort Chavez looked increasingly secure [what is more, in the October 2004 regional elections governing coalition candidates garnered 90% of the state governments and more than 70% of city governments]. Despite U.S. political pressure Chavez was now becoming a hemispheric leader with real clout. With Zapatero now in power Chavez traveled to Spain in November 2004. Chavez expressed his satisfaction with the change of government in Spain, commenting “How happy the Spain of today, and how sad the Spain that was subordinate to Washington’s mandate.” According to Reuters, Chavez received a “rock star welcome” in Madrid. Once in the Spanish capitol Chavez paid homage to the victims of “M-11.” At the Atocha train station where scores of Spanish had perished in the attack, Chavez was mobbed by the media and hundreds of supporters. Many waved Venezuelan flags and chanted, “Chavez, friend, the people are with you.” The indefatigable Chavez buoyed his supporters by criticizing the war in Iraq, the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba and U.S. threats against Iran. During a joint news conference Chavez advocated “a new progressive, transforming and liberating way of thinking,” that should confront the negative effects of the free market neo-liberal economic model. That model, he maintained, “is only useful for a world at war.” During the press conference, Zapatero agreed with the Venezuelan’s comments.

The Moratinos Bombshell

Just as Chavez was touring the Spanish capitol, however, a scandal erupted which turned the government inside out. Miguel Angel Moratinos, the Spanish Foreign Minister, accused the previous PP administration of supporting the failed coup d’etat against Chavez in April 2002. Speaking on the Spanish TV program “59 segundos,” Moratinos remarked that Aznar’s policy in Venezuela “was something unheard of in Spanish diplomacy, the Spanish ambassador received instructions to support the coup.” Before the cameras Moratinos declared, “that won’t happen in the future, because we respect the popular will.” Adding fuel to the fire Chavez remarked “I have no doubt that it [the Spanish involvement] happened. It was a very serious error on the part of the former government.” Chavez declared that Venezuela had no problem with the PP nor with Spain, and that for a brief moment the two countries enjoyed good relations. But later Aznar’s political as well as personal views changed. “With Aznar,” Chavez stated, “there was neither chemistry, nor physics, nor math.”

Arms Only Tip of The Iceberg

With political upset in Spain the path was now clear for greater economic and political coordination. In fact, the recent Spanish arms sales were only the tip of the iceberg. Of key importance was the Spanish oil company Repsol. As of December, Repsol produced 100,000 barrels of oil per day in Venezuela. But under a recent deal that figure will go up to 160,000 barrels per day as Repsol expands its operations. Under the deal Repsol will double its reserves, raise production 60% and become a joint partner with Pdvsa in a gas liquefaction plant and an 80-megawatt electricity generating plant. Furthermore, under another deal Chavez will buy three ships from Spain including an oil tanker.

The Boomerang Effect

Arguably the United States itself has brought about this political realignment. Analysts have suggested that voters held Aznar responsible for the M-11 attacks, a result of Spain’s close alliance with the U.S. Now Zapatero has punished Bush, first by withdrawing Spain’s forces from Iraq and allying more closely with “Old Europe,” and secondly by pursuing a more independent policy in South America. In this sense Zapatero seems to agree with Chavez’s desire to create a more “multipolar” world in which smaller nations unite and deal with the U.S. on more equal terms. Now that Chavez has consolidated power and is extending economic and political ties not only with neighboring South American countries but also with Europe, the United States looks increasingly bereft.

What a difference three years can make.

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