Wednesday, August 18, 2010
A graphic image published on the front page of a Venezuelan newspaper has sparked an international controversy over the limits of press freedom and journalistic ethics
Imagine you’re walking on the street with your children and you pass a newstand with today’s papers displayed as usual and the front pages clearly visible to all who pass by. But to your horror, today’s national daily has an almost full-page graphic image of dead, bloodied bodies piled on top of each other in the local morgue. Every newstand you walk by has the same image, even repeated in several national and local papers. Your children are forced to see this with no warning.
Such a horrifying image could be justified if it was taken last night after some atrocious event had occurred. But no, as it turns out, it’s a photograph taken last December, more than eight months ago, and is simply being used to make a political statement against crime. Furthermore, the photograph has no visible credits and, according to the morgue authorities, was taken in secrecy, unauthorized, and in clear violation of the privacy rights of the family members of the deceased.
Is this the kind of journalism society defends? When do media cross the limits into the grotesque, the pornographic and the obscene? Whose job is it to ensure viewers and readers are protected from such offensive and violent images? Is it only a question of journalistic ethics, or is it a larger issue of values, privacy rights and fundamental well being?
These are the issues Venezuela is grappling with after the publication of a graphic image, as described above, in the daily paper, El Nacional. The image was then republished in another national daily, Tal Cual, along with several regional newspapers.
El Nacional editor and owner, Miguel Henrique Otero, admitted the image was taken “unauthorized” last December in the Caracas morgue, and said he “held off from publishing it because of its graphic content” until the “right moment”. Venezuela is one month away from critical legislative elections, and Otero forms part of an extremist opposition organization, “2D”, supporting opposition candidates to the National Assembly. Otero makes no effort to hide his “anti-Chavez” opinions in his newspaper, one of the two main national dailies.
In an interview on CNN en Español with Otero, the US news network admitted the image published by El Nacional was too graphic to present to viewers and stated, “CNN will not show this image during any of our broadcasts since we consider it could perturbe viewers and is too graphic to show”. Nonetheless, Otero, and other corporate media in Venezuela, claim the publication of the graphic image is a part of “free expression”.
But Otero did admit during the interview on CNN that he decided to publish the 8-month old photo last Friday because Venezuela is “one month away from elections” and “we are in campaign mode”, thereby admitting the publication of the photo was a political act, and not merely an expression of press freedom.
So, the question then arises, are there limits to media’s power? If so, what are they and who decides what they are?
Venezuelans reacted largely critical regarding the publication of the graphic photo in El Nacional. A group of concerned citizens protested on Tuesday before the Attorney General’s office, demanding children be protected from such violent images. Litbell Diaz, President of the National Institute for the Rights of Children and Adolescents (Idena), declared to the press, “Whoever published that photograph knew those types of images affect children, but their intention was to destabilize, and it was done with premeditation”.
Diaz and several dozen representatives from Idena, along with hundreds of children and adolescents, requested the Public Prosecutor’s office open a criminal investigation into the publication of the photograph by El Nacional.
On Tuesday afternoon, Venezuela’s Mediation Court for the Protection of Children and Youth in Caracas ordered the prohibition of “images, information and publicity of any kind, with bloody content or messages of terror, physical aggresion, or images that use war content or messages of deaths and deceased that could alter the psychological well being of children and youth”. This is the first time in Venezuela that the judiciary has taken a stance on print media content. The decision also ordered El Nacional to cease publication of such images based on an “Order of Protection” requested by the Public Prosecutor’s office. The national daily Tal Cual was also subject to the restraining order, which was issued for a one-month period while investigations continue.
The judicial decision caused national responses.
Opposition candidate to the National Assembly, Delsa Solorzano, declared during an interview on Wednesday that “pornographic magazines are sold in newstands” so therefore, “children are already vulnerable” to such images. What Solorzano failed to mention is that pornographic material is not fully viewable in newstands and is placed “out of reach” for children. On the other hand, the El Nacional front page was displayed prominently in newstands and shops nationwide.
Forensic doctors working at the Caracas morgue publicly repudiated the publication of the graphic image in El Nacional claiming it was an “aggression” against their profession and workplace. “This is not an easy job, and we do not agree that the [press] manipulate us. We demand respect and ask you allow us to do our jobs in peace”, said Carmen Julieta Centeno, National Coordinator of Forensic Scientists of the CICPC (Venezuela’s Forensic Police).
For his part, President Chavez called the publication of the 8-month old violent image a sign of “desperation” on behalf of the opposition. “The country demands respect…The publication of this image just shows desperation, because they are trying to sabotage the Bolivarian Revolution by any means”.
“The opposition have been working on a mix of plans, so that by today we would have been in a state of chaos in the country”, said Chavez, adding, “Nonetheless, it seems as though their plans haven’t worked and they are desperate now, so they are trying to generate reactions from the people”.
But journalist Alberto Nolia, who hosts en evening program on Venezuelan state television that harshly criticizes the opposition, declared the court’s decision “absurd”. While considering the publication of the image in El Nacional “yellow journalism”, Nolia also stated that “children are not stupid, they know what’s going on. Perhaps it would be better to publish images of people killed by violent crime with explanations about who they were and the fact that now their lives are over, so that kids will understand the severity of delinquency”.
“Neither children nor anyone should be protected from learning of the violence of our societies”, declared Nolia, adding that “the problem of crime in Venezuela is very serious”.
Earlier this year, US media struggled with the publication of graphic images from Haiti’s tragic earthquake. In a National Public Radio (NPR) discussion titled “What’s Too Graphic? How to Photograph Disaster”, most journalists agreed that it was essential to weigh the public value and use of the images or information versus family privacy and violent impact.
“Photographs have the power to impact people at a visceral level and change the hearts and minds of public opinion and national focus”, said Kenneth Irby, Director of the Visual Journalism Group at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “There’s an awful lot of censorship that happens both in terms of military and governmental activites in America (US) in particular”, he added, referring to Pentagon controls over the publication of images of US soldiers killed in battle.
In the US, a country that strongly lauds itself for press freedom standards, freedom of expression is not absolute under the First Amendment. Privacy rights often supersede press freedoms. According to US Tort Law, “material may be published so long as it is legally obtained, not offensive to a reasonable person and of legitimate public concern”.
But who makes such determinations?
Today, the Pentagon is hunting down the founders of the website, Wikileaks.com, because of the publication of thousands of classified US government documents. Wikileaks claims the publication is in the “public interest”, but the Pentagon says it’s harmful to “private interests”. Who is right and who is wrong?
As media grow stronger and gain more power and influence over our societies, these issues will become more prominent in our every day lives. At some stage it will be necessary to stop considering all journalists and corporate media outlets as “proveyers of the truth” and start to look critically at the interests and agendas those powerful corporations represent.
Last month, declassified documents from the US Department of State evidenced millions of dollars in funding to Venezuelan media groups and journalists, to "foster freedom of expression and press" and to ensure favorable reporting on issues of interest to the US government.
T/ Eva Golinger
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
US Interference in Venezuela Keeps Growing
By Eva Golinger
Despite President Obama’s promise to President Chavez that his administration wouldn’t interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs, the US-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is channeling millions into anti-Chavez groups.
Foreign intervention is not only executed through military force. The funding of “civil society” groups and media outlets to promote political agendas and influence the “hearts and minds” of the people is one of the more widely used mechanisms by the US government to achieve its strategic objetives.
In Venezuela, the US has been supporting anti-Chavez groups for over 8 years, including those that executed the coup d’etat against President Chavez in April 2002. Since then, the funding has increased substantially. A May 2010 report evaluating foreign assistance to political groups in Venezuela, commissioned by the National Endowment for Democracy, revealed that more than $40 million USD annually is channeled to anti-Chavez groups, the majority from US agencies.
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was created by congressional legislation on November 6, 1982. It’s mandate was anti-communist and anti-socialist and its first mission, ordered by President Ronald Reagan, was to support anti-Sandinista groups in Nicaragua in order to remove that government from power. NED reached its goal after 7 years and more than $1 billion in funding to build an anti-Sandinista political coalition that achieved power.
Today, NED’s annual budget, allocated under the Department of State, exceeds $132 million. NED operates in over 70 countries worldwide. Allen Weinstein, one of NED’s original founders, revealed once to the Washington Post, “What we do today was done clandestinely 25 years ago by the CIA…”
Venezuela stands out as the Latin American nation where NED has most invested funding in opposition groups during 2009, with $1,818,473 USD, more than double from the year before.
In a sinister attempt to censure the destination of funds in Venezuela, NED excluded a majority of names of Venezuelan groups receiving funding from its annual report. Nonetheless, other official documents, such as NED’s tax declarations and internal memos obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, have disclosed the names of those receiving its million dollar funding in Venezuela.
Of the more than $2.6 million USD given by NED to Venezuelan groups during 2008-2009, a majority of funds have gone to organizations relatively unknown in Venezuela. With the exception of some more known groups, such as CEDICE, Sumate, Consorcio Justicia and CESAP, the organizations receiving more than $2 million in funding appear to be mere façades and channels to distribute these millions to anti-Chavez groups.
Unknown entities such as the Center for Leadership Formation for Peace and Social Development received $39.954 (2008) and $39.955 (2009) to “strengthen the capacity of community leaders to participate in local democratic processes”.
For several years, the Civil Association Kapé Kapé, which no one knows in Venezuela, has received grants ranging from $45,000 (2008) to $56,875 (2009) to “empower indigenous communities and strengthen their knowledge of human rights, democracy and the international organizations and mechanisms available to protect them”. In a clear example of foreign interference, NED funds were used to “create a document detailing the human rights violations perpetrated against them and denounce them before international organizations”. In other words, the US funded efforts inside Venezuela to aid Venezuelans in denouncing their government before international entities.
FUNDING STUDENT MOVEMENTS
A large part of NED funds in Venezuela have been invested in “forming student movements” and “building democratic leadership amongst youth”, from a US perspective and with US values. This includes programs that “strengthen the leadership capabilities of students and youth and enhance their ability to interact effectively in their communities and promote democratic values”. Two jesuit organizations have been the channels for this funding, Huellas ($49,950 2008 and $50,000 2009) and the Gumilla Center Foundation ($63,000).
Others, such as the ‘Miguel Otero Silva’ Cultural Foundation ($51,500 2008 and $60.900 2009) and the unknown Judicial Proposal Association ($30,300 2008), have used NED funds to “conduct communications campaigns via local newspapers, radio stations, text messaging, and Internet, and distribute posters and flyers”.
In the last three years, an opposition student/youth movement has been created with funding from various US and European agencies. More than 32% of USAID funding, for example, has gone to “training youth and students in the use of innovative media technologies to spread political messages and campaigns”, such as on Twitter and Facebook.
FUNDING MEDIA AND JOURNALISTS
NED has also funded several media organizations in Venezuela, to aid in training journalists and designing political messages against the Venezuelan government. Two of those are the Institute for Press and Society (IPyS) and Espacio Publico (Public Space), which have gotten multimillion dollar funding from NED, USAID, and the Department of State during the past three years to “foster media freedom” in Venezuela.
What these organizations really do is promote anti-Chavez messages on television and in international press, as well as distort and manipulate facts and events in the country in order to negatively portray the Chavez administration.
The Washington Post recently published an article on USAID funding of media and journalists in Afghanistan (Post, Tuesday, August 3, 2010), an echo of what US agencies are doing in Venezuela. Yet such funding is clearly illegal and a violation of journalist ethics. Foreign government funding of “independent” journalists or media outlets is an act of mass deception, propaganda and a violation of sovereignty.
US funding of opposition groups and media inside Venezuela not only violates Venezuelan law, but also is an effort to feed an internal conflict and prop up political parties that long ago lost credibility. This type of subversion has become a business and source of primary income for political actors promoting US agenda abroad.
On Tuesday, statements made by designated US Ambassador to Venezuela, Larry Palmer, on Venezuelan affairs were leaked to the press. Palmer, not yet confirmed by the Senate, showed low signs of diplomacy by claiming democracy in Venezuela was “under threat” and that Venezuela’s armed forces had “low morale”, implying a lack of loyalty to the Chavez administration.
Palmer additionally stated he had “deep concerns” about “freedom of the press” and “freedom of expression” in Venezuela and mentioned the legal cases of several corrupt businessmen and a judge, which Palmer claimed were signs of “political persecution”.
Palmer questioned the credibility of Venezuela’s electoral system, leading up to September’s legislative elections, and said he would “closely monitor threats to human rights and fundamental freedoms”. He also stated the unfounded and unsubstantiated claims made by Colombia of “terrorist training camps” in Venezuela was a “serious” and real fact obligating Venezuela to respond.
Palmer affirmed he would “work closely to support civil society” groups in Venezuela, indicating an intention to continue US funding of the opposition, which the US consistently has referred to as “civil society”.
These statements are a clear example of interference in internal affairs in Venezuela and an obvious showing that Obama has no intention of following through on his promises.
View Palmer's statements here.