'La Salida' in Context: Media Simplification of Venezuelan Protests
Since 12 February, student protests in Venezuela have taken place under the banner 'La Salida' ('The Exit'). The protests have received broad media attention in large part due to the social-media focus of organisers, tweeting in English under the Twitter hashtags '#SOSVenezuela' and '#PrayForVenezuela'. Reporting on the protests has, like much of the reporting on Venezuela in recent years, been marked by a lack of historical and political context.
The protests have been led by Leopoldo Lopez, the Harvard-educated former mayor of Chacao and national coordinator of Voluntad Popular, the 'Popular Will' party. The slogan, 'La Salida', refers to the 'Exit' of Nicolas Maduro, elected to the presidency in April 2013 following the death of President Hugo Chavez. Asked by a reporter on 12 February when the protests would end, Lopez replied 'when we manage to remove those who are governing us'.
Lopez, who handed himself into police on 18 February, wanted for ‘inciting violence’, has received much media coverage. A BBC profile refers to Lopez as ‘Venezuela’s maverick opposition leader’. Despite this level of attention, Lopez's role in the 2002 coup (referred to by the Financial Times as 'demonstrations') which temporarily ousted Hugo Chavez, has been somewhat downplayed. The BBC merely acknowledges that Lopez took part in ‘street protests’:
In 2002, parts of the opposition, backed by elite businessmen and some military leaders, briefly removed then President Hugo Chavez - Mr Maduro's late predecessor - from power.
The coup came after street protests, in which Mr Lopez took an active role, prompting the government to label him a "coup leader".
However, during the coup, both Lopez and Maria Corina Machado, an opposition MP also instrumental in the demonstrations, were signatories to the 'Carmona Decree' which dissolved the national assembly and the supreme court, and dismissed the Attorney General, the head of the Central Bank, and the National Electoral Board. (If a UK opposition leader such as Ed Miliband were attempt the dissolution of the UK’s democratic institutions, one might expect the BBC to wonder at his democratic credentials.)
This lack of historical context is similar to much of the reporting of the current protests. Speaking to Democracy Now on 20 February, George Ciccariello-Maher, author of We Created Chavez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution, put the current series of protests in the context of a 'long string of attempts of the Venezuelan opposition to oust a democratically elected government, this time taking advantage of student mobilisations, ostensibly against insecurity and against economic difficulties'.
As Ciccariello-Maher notes, 'these protests have far more to do with returning economic and political elites to power than with their downfall'. The anti-government protesters are drawn largely from the Venezuelan middle class, traditionally the support base for opposition parties, and far from representative of the majority of Venezuelan citizens.
Preoccupation with the Protesting Method
The impulse of the media has been to liken the Venezuelan demonstrations to other protests of similar methods, and this has taken a front seat to proper analysis of the aims and politics of the protests. Ciccariello-Maher explains the implications of this for the reporting of the Venezuela protests:
We are understandably excited when we see people in the streets, and our pulse may even rise at the sight of masks, broken glass and flames […] Recent protests in Venezuela against the government of Chávez successor Nicolás Maduro might therefore seem to be simply the latest act in an upsurge of world-historic proportions.
The Guardian did not question the legitimacy or accuracy of the YouTube film it featured.
This phenomenon is illustrated well by the Guardian's feature of a YouTube video about the protests. Paulo Cocozza writes that 'the short film What's Going On in Venezuela in a Nutshell, posted to YouTube last Friday, has had more than 1.3m views – and brought the plight of student protesters in Venezuela to international notice'. The film, a slideshow of still images and footage taken from instagram, was created by University of Florida student, Andreina Nash, who moved from Venezuela to Florida aged nine.
Cocozza writes favourably of the student's first-time film-making talents - 'It is an impressive piece of film-making. How did she learn to do that?'. While Cocozza promotes the film, she does not address the many inaccuracies of this emotive, agitational piece of film. Nash's narration includes reference to 'millions of young students' protesting, and claims that 'the government has taken control of the few TV stations that brought to light their corruption to the Venezuelan people'. Such inaccuracies aren't commented upon by Cocozza.
It is perhaps due to the emphasis on form over content, on the methods of protest over its aims, that the politics of the opposition have largely been lost in reporting. From the media coverage, it is not easy to discern what the political objectives of the protests are; a protester told a Channel 4 report only that, 'We do not have a future; we are fighting for our future. We are trying to deliver a message that we are frustrated and we want a change'.
Fact-checking the Reporting
Under this vague interpretation of the meaning of the protests, certain commentators have taken a purely binary view of events, tying the protests to notions of democracy and freedom, struggling against what almost by default becomes an illegitimate, repressive state. Unverified claims and speculation are reported as facts. On the matter of the media, the Telegraph's Tim Stanley suggests that CNN ‘is about the fairest and most balanced news source on the planet’,while ‘the opposition lack a single national TV outlet to be heard on’. After we linked Stanley to television footage of an opposition leader on Twitter, he declined to correct his article.
@news_unspun The note is quite clear enough. I appreciate yur concern but it would be odd to start taking editorial suggestions from twitter— Tim Stanley (@timothy_stanley) February 21, 2014
For years, Venezuela has been slipping from a ‘dream world’ to a ‘nightmare’, according to many commentators. Rory Carroll at the Guardian, describes a government which is ‘in the business of keeping power’ and strongly implies that it does so through coercion rather than through the mandate handed to it through numerous presidential, regional, parliamentary and municipal elections. In spite of this Carroll writes that Chavismo is a ‘hybrid system of democracy and autocracy’ - an issue we have addressed previously. Discussing the violence, Carroll draws a link between the Venezuelan President and armed gangs on the streets: 'but Maduro, stiff and wooden in comparison, relies more on thuggery. Hence the coordinated and symbolic assaults by "motorizados" on middle class neighbourhoods'. When we asked him for real evidence of this link on Twitter, none was provided.
The examples discussed are representative of a general trend towards over-simplification in reporting, creating a portrayal of one side (the students) as necessarily good and the other (the government) as correspondingly repressive. Happenings in Venezuela must be analysed in respect of the historical and political context. Without this, the media offers little more than a caricature of ongoing events.
George Ciccariello-Maher’s article at The Nation provides a discussion of historical contexts of the protests and the role of the media, while Lee Salter’s article in Ceasefire Magazine explores the reasons for the nature of the reporting on the protests.
|Categories in which this article appears: Venezuela | The Telegraph | The Guardian | BBC News ||
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|1. William||18 August 2015 23:40|
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