The state of freedom of the press in Venezuela

This lengthy article looks at every detail of how the media behaved before, during and after the failed 2002 coup in Venezuela. It leaves absolutely no doubt about the undemocratic nature of the private media in Venezuela and also points the accusing finger at the media internationally. The state of freedom of the press in Venezuela is a recurrent topic for certain individuals, media and organisations. The decision of the Bolivarian government not to renew RCTV's broadcasting licence when it expired in May has, once again, put this issue into the spotlight, creating a great deal of controversy.

The Venezuelan government has basically made an administrative decision about the use of a public asset - the radio spectrum of the country.

Jorge Rodriguez, Vice-president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, rightly pointed out that, according to the common usage as defined in the dictionary, a concession is "the juridical means by which the administration cedes to a person the private use of something in the public domain, or the management of a public service, for a determinate period of time and under certain conditions."

Article 58 of the Bolivarian Constitution states:

"Communications are free and plural, and involve the duties and responsibilities indicated by law. Everyone has the right to timely, truthful and impartial information, without censorship, in accordance with the principles of this Constitution, as well as the right to reply and corrections, when they are directly affected by inaccurate or offensive information. Children and adolescents have the right to receive adequate information for purposes of their overall development."

The Law of Social Responsibility for Television and Radio Stations expresses, through the democratic institutions of the republic - in this case through its legislative body, the National Assembly - how the Venezuelan people want those rights and responsibilities to be realised, further developed and protected.

The renewal of a concession, therefore, will depend on how the concessionaire has complied with the laws and regulations that form the legal framework within which it operates. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the government of Venezuela, as the executive power of the republic, to decide the matter.

Correspondingly, it would be incumbent upon the British government to make the decision, for example, about whether to renew or not to renew the operating concession on the National Rail Network that some private companies currently hold.

A concession is not automatically renewed, independently of any consideration. In fact, not only legal and administrative considerations should be taken into account when deciding on this matter, but also political ones, that is, considerations about what use public property should be put to. Lack of understanding on this point can only be explained by the more than 20 years of political and ideological offensive carried out by the ruling class in all countries.

There is plenty of documentary evidence on the violations by RCTV of the terms and conditions under which the broadcasting concession was granted. These go from mere administrative faults to grave breaches of the law - like broadcasting violent images at times when these are not allowed - or very grave crimes, like participating in the planning and execution of a coup to depose the elected President and dissolve the democratic and representative institution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

I am sure that if Virgin Trains were to change its timetable without due notice to the government and its passengers, suppressing services at will or changing its fares arbitrarily with complete disregard for any regulations under which its operating concession had been granted, the British Government would intervene to defend the public interest from the machinations of a private enterprise making use of a public asset in its own interest. Otherwise, it would be seen, and rightly so, as an act of irresponsibility on the part of the government.

If Virgin Trains were to suspend its operations in the event of a coup in Britain, refuse to collaborate with the British government on the deployment of loyal military forces to prevent the coup and, instead, were to use its monopolistic access to a public asset to transport and deploy rebel forces, one wonders if the British government would wait until the concession expired to prevent such individuals from running our railway network.

The reason why a legitimate administrative decision taken by the democratic government of a sovereign State could be seen as an attack on the freedom of the press and an attempt to suppress criticism can only be due to the distorted image of Venezuela carefully built up over the years by some media organisations and reporters; one in which Venezuela is ruled by an authoritarian individual with absolute disregard for human rights, democracy and the rule of law

The process works the other way too. Thus, the mere claim that the Bolivarian government is authoritarian suffices to prove that this is cracking down on critical media and journalists.

Curiously enough, all that those who claim that the non renewal of RCTV's broadcasting concession is an attack on the freedom of the press in Venezuela can produce as evidence of this accusation is the fact that RCTV's editorial line was highly critical of the government, forgetting that the overwhelming majority of press, Radio and TV Stations in Venezuela maintain a very critical attitude to the government on every imaginable issue.

In fact, this way of reasoning is completely absurd. It means the absolute collapse of any form of logic and confers complete immunity to all those opposing the government, whatever means they may use.

Any action initiated against them by the State, whatever its nature and foundations, would be seen as politically motivated. That way, here in Britain, Mr Branson would only have to declare his most radical opposition to British government and his absolute contempt for those who voted it in, to keep his concession and continue operating as he pleased.

In Britain, reporter Phil Gunson is the most vocal of those who insist in presenting Hugo Chávez, as a "dictator" or, more recently, as an "elected autocrat". Recently, he has tried to publicly discredit NUJ General Secretary, Jeremy Dear, and the majority of the NUJ Conference for upholding the case of solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution and the enormous gains that it has brought to workers in Venezuela.[1]

He accuses Jeremy Dear and the Hands off Venezuela Campaign, which the NUJ agreed to support by a majority decision at its National Conference, of disseminating Bolivarian myths, "uncritically accepting the facts provided by the government without analysing the evidence with intellectual honesty".[2] Mr Gunson's point is clear and simple: there is nothing worthy of solidarity within the revolutionary Bolivarian movement.

Mr Gunson, a freelance reporter with 25 years experience in Latin America - as his professional profile states - reminds us of the fact that "in today's Venezuela, it is hard, if not impossible to find an impartial observer"[3]. This, needless to say, excludes himself, who seems to be crowned with all the fine qualities that an independent professional reporter should have.

Having made it clear that he and only he can report on Venezuela with objectivity and impartiality, neither siding with those who say that "Chávez is giving aid to Colombian guerrillas" or that "Venezuela is supplying uranium for Iran's nuclear programme", nor with those "who have openly sided with the government of Hugo Chávez, whilst regularly blasting his critics for their alleged bias, or worse"[4], Mr Gunson proceeds with his lecture on the objective realities of the country, which in a summary of his views are as follows:

  1. The Venezuelan government does not respect human rights and imprisons political opponents.
  2. Venezuela does not adhere to accepted standards of democracy.
  3. Chávez has concentrated power across all institutions and attacks freedom of expression.
  4. Being democratically elected is not enough to be considered a democratic government.
  5. The Bush Administration was never involved in the planning and execution of the April 2002 coup.
  6. The social programmes implemented by the government are a failure.[5]

Despite Mr Gunson's claims of exclusivity to these objective truths on Venezuela, they are common currency in the media, both in Venezuela and internationally. In May 2004, the Bolivarian government published a pamphlet, "The Media Campaign against Venezuela", in which the first four objective truths in Gunson's list appeared under the epigraph:

Story line C - The Chávez Administration is rapidly moving towards autocracy. The other story lines identified by the Bolivarian government as misrepresenting the current situation in Venezuela are: Story line A - President Chávez supports international terrorism. Story line B - President Chávez poses an imminent threat to democracy in the Western Hemisphere.[6]

Mr Gunson himself having brushed aside these two other story lines as mere myths of the right wing media, we now feel free to focus on his claims, both on his commonly shared objective truths and those only exclusive to his wisdom, but equally objective.

Mr Gunson claims that the Hands off Venezuela Campaign lies about the success of the literacy programme Misión Robinson. According to him, "UNESCO whilst it has praised the Venezuelan government for its efforts at eradicating illiteracy, it has never endorsed the government's claim to have done so."

"Indeed" - he continues - "it has traditionally been very cautious in interpreting government illiteracy statistics, from whatever country". He also refers to a paper by Franciso Rodríguez - "a one time Chávez supporter", as he kindly informs us - that "suggests that there may be almost as many illiterates now as there were before the campaign began, and that any gains from Misión Robinson are statistically virtually indistinguishable from the existing downward trend in illiteracy"[7]

In fact, not only has UNESCO praised the Bolivarian government for its efforts at eradicating illiteracy, but on October 28, 2005, UNESCO's General Director, Koichiro Matsuura, sent the following message of congratulations and praise to the ceremony where Venezuela was declared free of illiteracy.

"Today, October 28 2005, means the establishment of a successful landmark for Venezuela in its effort to create a literate society. Being declared "Territory freed from illiteracy", Venezuela is making a most relevant contribution in our common march towards Education for All. The achievements reached by Misión Robinson would not have been possible were it not for the political will and support at the highest levels and for that, President Hugo Chávez Frías merits warm congratulations."

"This is an example of a national compromise that I hope will serve as inspiration to others to accelerate their actions and free their countries, and the world in general, of the burden of illiteracy."

"A key aspect of Mision Robinson has been its capacity to reach all kinds of people without any discrimination based on gender, age, faith, disabilities, language or place of residence."

"Today, Venezuela deserves to be recognised for its reinvigorated efforts on education, which show what can be achieved when a society is mobilised towards achieving educative goals."[8]

By any means, this is a remarkable success. Especially, if one takes into account that at the end of 2002 UNESCO had included Venezuela in the list of countries at risk of not halving its adult illiteracy rate by 2015.[9]

In fact, to confirm that UNESCO accepts that illiteracy has been eradicated in Venezuela, Mr Gunson had only to read the same Prof. Rodríguez's paper that he has already quoted. On its second page it states: "UNESCO's latest Education for All Global Monitoring Report reports that 1 million people learned to read and write in Venezuela between July and December 2003."

Professor Rodríguez does not challenge the fact that UNESCO recognises that Venezuela has been freed from illiteracy. That, Professor Rodríguez knows very well, cannot be challenged; it is a fact very easily verified. What Prof. Rodríguez does is to accuse UNESCO of having been fooled by Chávez's propaganda machine.

If, after reading the paper's title, Mr Gunson had continued reading, he might have noticed that Prof. Rodríguez's methodology has been crafted in such a way - with such arbitrary hypotheses - that his conclusions are rendered utterly untenable.

In plain English, what Mr Rodriguez says is that Misión Rivas has not taught anyone to read and write. Well, in fact, it has left a few thousands claiming that yes, they can - 51,136 people[10], to be exact - but, in reality, these are only a bunch of "semi-literate" individuals who wouldn't understand a word of his 38-page work. What a shame, because otherwise they could have learnt about his newly acquired status and responded adequately to the census officer's questions!

Every end requires its means says the old adagio; and to turn such a nonsense into a respectable opinion a great deal of statistical jargon is required.

It seems, however, that Mr Gunson only saw the maths. That is probably the reason why he did not go beyond the front page in his reading of the paper.

Mr Gunson claims too that the wider solidarity movement has also inflated the estimates of the levels of poverty in Venezuela prior to the first election of Chávez as president. He writes "the claim that his is the first government to address the needs of the poor is quite simply a falsification of history. As indeed is the oft-repeated claim that when Chávez came to power, "in Venezuela over 80% lived below the poverty level".

"This statistic" - he continues - "taken from a controversial, 1997 survey by the human-rights group Provea, is sharply at odds with official statistics, and makes any subsequent comparison invalid. The official poverty level when Chávez took office was 43%".[11]

Taking note of his claim, from now on we will use only official figures as evidence for our debate. These, however, show that if poverty measured on income has not dropped significantly in the last few years, the index of human development, which includes a wider rage of variables, increased from 0.6917, in 1998, to 0.7796, in 2001; from where it slightly dropped during the years of political turmoil and economic sabotage, to 0.7648, in 2003; picking up again to 0.8144, in 2005. This clearly reflects the gains in protection of fundamental human rights and access to economic and social rights brought about during the years of Bolivarian government; for instance, the infant mortality rate dropped from 21.4, in 1998, to 17.7, in 2000, increasing slightly to 18.5, in 2003, and fell to 15.5, in 2005. [12]

No American involvement in the coup

"For many" - writes Mr Gunson - "it is an article of faith that the United States planned and financed the coup, and that it manipulated media coverage of it in order to ensure international support for its plan. At the very least, it is said, Washington knew about the coup plan beforehand, gave the go-ahead for it, and concealed what it knew from the Venezuelan government."

Having made clear his position, Mr Gunson proceeds to enumerate the series of verifiable facts that forms that philosophical category known as "Mr Gunson's objective truths on Venezuela", which are only a particular expression of the most general category "Mr Gunson's objective truths."

"On 11 April 2002 - he writes in "Bolivarian myths and legends" - hundreds of thousands of people marched on the presidential palace to demand Chávez's resignation."

"To protect himself against the protesters on 11 April, Chávez surrounded the palace with civilian supporters, many of them armed. By the end of the day, nineteen people - from both sides - were dead, and over 200 more had gunshot wounds."

"Chávez had tried to mobilise the armed forces, but several hitherto loyal generals refused to obey orders. By the end of the day, they had joined with others who had been plotting to oust him, and in the pre-dawn hours of 12 April, he gave himself up and was taken into custody."

"Not only did Chávez know all about the coup plans - making Washington's warning superfluous - but he had done everything in his power to encourage them."

"In January 2004, in his annual address to parliament, Chávez had this to say about the events of 2002:

" ‘Crises are often necessary; they even have to be generated sometimes. The PdVSA thing was necessary, even though we, well, it's not that we didn't generate it, we did generate it, because when I took that whistl ... and began to fire people, I was provoking the crisis'."

"What Chávez wanted was for the PdVSA management - which was almost unanimously hostile to his plans for the oil industry - to give him the excuse to get rid of them. (Eventually he fired almost 20,000 PdVSA employees.)"

This way, according to Mr Gunson, Chávez himself provoked the coup that deposed him. He knew he would later be returned to power by his friends in the army and the "armed bands of chavistas thugs who for years have made the center of Caracas a no-go area, beating up or shooting opposition marchers or TV crews"[13].

The reason why he did this is clear, at least to the balanced Mr Gunson and his hysterically unbalanced friends in the opposition. There is no doubt about it. Chávez did it because one year, a bosses' lock-out, a sabotage of the oil industry and a 15% GDP contraction later, in March 2004, he could sack 20,000 PdVSA employees hostile to him!

In fact, only employees that had taken part in acts of sabotage, like changing access codes to computerised systems - putting at severe risk equipment, lives and installations - were dismissed, mainly managers and engineers.

The fact that many workers, as occurred at Puerto La Cruz, organised themselves, took over the installations and ran them under their control for up to three months is something that Mr Gunson prefers to omit.

It is amusing to see how the laws of dialectics also find expression in Mr Gunson's intellectual rigour. Chávez, according to him, does not only concentrate in his person all the branches of power in Venezuela; but he also sees into the future and can plan with extreme precision his diabolic blows, as an all-powerful God playing chess with the fate of mortals. Mr Gunson's solid intellectual rigour evaporates into air and his objective truths suddenly turn into impoverished classical mythology.

Mr Gunson is determined not to spare us from his wisdom on this matter and here he drops a couple of more pearls:

"the reason why the State Department - along with most other mortals - thought Chávez had resigned was because his most senior general - the loyalist Lucas Rincón, who would later hold two posts in the Chávez cabinet - told the whole world he had, in a live TV and radio broadcast."

"I personally spent six weeks in mid-2002, attempting - unsuccessfully - to find the evidence for US involvement which I firmly believed must exist. At around the same time, the State Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) was carrying out a much more rigorous investigation of the issue, at the request of Senator Christopher Dodd."

"The OIG found no evidence that the US government had supported the coup. What they did find was that opposition to a coup may not have been expressed with sufficient vigour, and may not have been believed by opposition leaders."[14]

If I understand correctly - according to Mr Gunson - the only source of information that the US government had during the day of the coup until Chávez returned to power was - surprise, surprise - the Venezuelan media. You see, the media not only deceived the people of Venezuela they also scored an own goal for their friends from the North.

I do believe that this State Department Report on the implication of the State Department in the coup of April 2002 was rigorously conducted and that no political bias affected its conclusions. However, the recent history of blunders arrived at by similar reports - weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example - compels us to be cautious and, just for once, to take Mr Gunson's sound advice and follow his very critical method of enquiry.

Let us see:

On April 6, five days before the coup, a CIA Senior Executive Intelligence Brief reported that "dissident military factions, including some disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers, are stepping up efforts to organise a coup against President Chávez, possibly as early as this month".

"Prospects for a successful coup are limited" since "the plotters still lack the political cover to stage it"

"To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month or on-going strikes at the state-owned oil company PDVSA".

On April 9, the Venezuelan Workers' Confederation (CTV in Spanish) and the Business Confederation (Fedecamaras) jointly called for a general strike to protest against the dismissal by the President of the Republic of the PDVSA's board of directors.

Another cable from the US Embassy in Caracas describes how, prior to this, on March 5, the leaders of Fedecamaras and CTV, Pedro Carmona and Carlos Ortega, made public - with "much fanfare" and "extensive media coverage"- their "bases for a democratic accord: ten principles on which to guide a transitional government" that would help to "establish a government of democratic unity".

For the US State Department, this development was "an important step for the opposition, which has been always quick to condemn Chávez but had so far offered no comprehensive vision of its own".

Pedro Carmona was considered by the US State Department, according to US Embassy Caracas cables, "a highly regarded and influential business leader who has consistently played a critical role in advancing US commercial interests in Venezuela" and later, once the Fedecamaras-CTV alliance had been forged in December 2001, as "the right man for the right time in Venezuela" able to deliver "statesmanlike speeches in his public appearances".

In contrast, Hugo Chávez was normally referred to as somebody who "did not have the interests of the United States at heart" and "a danger for the stability of the country and Latin America."

In addition to this, during the six months leading to the coup the CTV had received moneys from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) through ACILS (American Centre for International Labour Solidarity), totalling a sum of $776,400. [15]

The aim of the programmes funded with these monies were to find "a new mission and role for the trade union movement in the development of the nation", and to find and implement that new mission Carlos Ortega met in Washington DC at the end of February 2002 with Otto Reich, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and former US Ambassador to Venezuela.

Otto Reich "during the Reagan years had become notorious for heading the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America. This office was declared illegal in 1987 after being "charged with disseminating white propaganda by trying to influence US reporters and mainstream media to portray the Sandinistas in a negative light and to run deceptive op-ed articles drafted by Reich and his office, but signed by University professors and anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans," as Eva Golinger explains in her book The Chávez code. [Note: "op-ed" is defined as "Of or being a newspaper page, usually opposite the editorial page, that features signed articles expressing personal viewpoints."]

The strike called by Fedecamaras and CTV and the opposition's rally and protests of April 9 were amply covered by the private TV channels. President Chávez made use of his presidential right to broadcast en cadena (throughout all TV stations at the same time) several times during the day to address the nation. The Private TV stations responded by "using a split screen with the official cadena on one side and coverage of the opposition events on the other", "something unprecedented in Venezuelan history", as US Embassy cables reported.

On the morning of April 10, Carmona and Ortega declared that the strike would be indefinite and a "coordinating committee for democracy and liberty" to "rescue Venezuela's freedom and liberty and co-ordinate all opposition activities" was established.

This "Coordinating Committee for Democracy and liberty" was formed by opposition political parties, like Primero Justicia (First Justice), and civil society organisations, like Asociación Civil Comprension de Venezuela (Civil Association for the Understanding of Venezuela), Asociación Civil Consorcio Justicia (Civil Association for Justice), Fundación Momento de la Gente (People's Moment Foundation), Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (Institute of Press and Society), Asociación Civil Asamblea de Educación (Assembly for Education Civil Association).

As the OGI Report recognises that "during the six month period, NED, the State Department, and DOD (Department of Defence) provided training, institution building, and other support under programs totalling about $3.3 million."

In fact, the monies from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) allocated to Venezuela in the six months prior to the coup, either directly or through its core grantees, IRI (International Republican Institute) and NDI (National Democratic Institute for International Affairs), meant a 10-fold increase compared to the money given for the whole previous year.

Obviously, these funds "did not intend to contribute to the coup", as the OGI report reminds us, but were given for projects with such noble and pompous titles like "help to build civil society organisations to become active in the struggle against authoritarianism" or "support the creation of a civil society network that will work to elevate civil society's presence."[16]

However, this did not prevent the leaders of these organisations from welcoming Carmona's dictatorship - some even becoming ministers in his cabinet - and signing his decree by which all democratic institutions in the country were dissolved, including the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the Public Defender's Office, the Attorney General and the Constitution.

Wisely, none of these actions by leaders of Venezuelan civil society - "the Venezuelan great and good", as a cable from the US Embassy Caracas described them - prevented the US government from increasing the grants to these individuals, political parties and organisations up to $32,000,000 in the following months and years for funding new programmes on "strengthening civil society networks" and "defending human rights and freedom of expression".

Incidentally, also on April 10, General Nestor González González publicly called on the President of the Bolivarian republic to resign and threatened him with military. Rebellion. He said during a press conference broadcast on TV: "the Military High Command must say to the President: Mr President you are the cause of all ills. Step down and the Military High Command will take over, because otherwise somebody else will take over."

The reason for General Nestor González González's sudden public appearance was explained on April 12 by a euphoric Victor Manuel García, executive director of CECA (an opinion polls consultancy firm), who, on a live TV broadcast, explained the details of the coup that the day before had ousted Chávez.

He said: "when we decided that General Néstor Gonález González should make the public announcement it was because Chávez had planned a visit to Costa Rica and we needed Chávez in Venezuela. Then that pronouncement of General González González made Chávez stay in Venezuela and that is when we set in motion the definitive plan."

This plan, in the words of Rear Admiral Vicente Molina Tamayo, who would become Foreign Minister in Carmona's cabinet, consisted of this: "once we had mass support from civil society, once this support from the democratic society had reached its peak, then we would pass on to use the armed forces."

The plan went ahead and an opposition rally was scheduled for the next day, April 11. In principle, the rally was to be staged at PDVSA headquarters, 11 kilometres from the Miraflores Palace, where another rally in support of Chávez had been taking place since the beginning of the strike two days earlier.

However, on the morning of April 11, the recently constituted "Coordinating Committee for Democracy and Liberty" met and decided to "go for the break; to seek the immediate departure of President Chávez".

"It was clear (in this meeting) - says a US Embassy to Caracas cable - that there was growing support to continue the march from PDVSA on to Miraflores (...) By a unanimous ‘voice vote' [acclamation] it was decided to let Pedro Carmona and Carlos Ortega make the decision regarding the march at the PDVSA rally".

Later at the rally, according to the same US Embassy cable, "by the time that Pedro Carmona had spoken, it had become a foregone conclusion: on to Miraflores."

A group of senior military officers, led by Admiral Héctor Ramírez Pérez, met in a secret location in the east of Caracas with a TV crew headed by CNN reporter Otto Neutsland.

"The officers changed their campaign uniforms into dress uniforms", - Neutsland explained later - "they rehearsed and I taped it. My team taped it. They were already speaking about deaths and there were no dead people on the streets yet".

As the opposition demonstration marched towards downtown Caracas it was described by private TV channels as a peaceful march of civil society where no violent incidents had taken place. However, shortly after the march towards Miraflores started Eleaza Narvaez and Carmén León, both opposition marchers, were hit in the thigh by gunshots fired from within the opposition.

Every reference to violence aired by the Private TV channels was reserved for the Bolivarians. Thus, Capriles Randosky, an opposition mayor, was interviewed live on TV at around 2.30pm. "We have been told," he said, "that they are waiting for us with armed thugs. Is that the Venezuela we want? A Venezuela that is flooded with blood and confrontation?"

Several Bolivarian public officials appeared on the State-owned Channel 8 calling on the opposition leaders to stop the march. They feared that violence might break out if the two rallies met.

The opposition march reached the surrounding areas of the Miraflores Palace. Supposedly, the Metropolitan Police, under the control of oppositionist mayor of Caracas Alfredo Peña, was to set up, with the National Guard, several control lines to avoid clashes between the two rallies. However, these quickly dissolved themselves and let the marchers go through.

Meanwhile, the group of 10 senior military officers were waiting for a microwave transmitting unit lent by a private TV channel to broadcast their pronouncement; "it was a kind of signal" - explained Otto Neutsland - "a code for others to take action and support the military insurrection that was being prepared."

At around 3pm they received the news that President Chávez was about to start a cadena and, in the words of Vice Admiral Héctor Pérez Pérez, "they decided to step up the preparations."

At around the same time the opposition leaders abandoned the march and the Metropolitan Police's cordon on the south of Avenida Baralt was dissolved. Shortly afterwards, shots were fired.

The first victims were taken to a medical centre within the Miraflores Palace where they received medical attention. These images were captured by Venevision TV cameras and simultaneously broadcast live on TV. However, those commenting on the images on the private TV Channels referred only to Bolivarian supporters fainting because of the heat!

At around 3:45 Chávez started addressing the nation in en cadena. Broadcast.

At one point, the Private TV channels split their screens into two, as they had done two days earlier, thus showing on one side Chávez's speech and on the other images of the opposition march.

Shortly afterwards, the government took the signal of these TV stations off the air because "we were about to broadcast the message of the ten senior military officers calling on a military rebellion against the president", as Otto Neutsland explained later.

Soon after the cadena finished, the private TV Channels started to regain their signals. Venevision opened its broadcast with Rear Admiral Molina Tamayo and General Guaicaipuro Lameda calling on the army to rebel, from the TV studios. Molina Tamayo said: "This government is no longer legitimate. You must act. No one must step back"

The shooting in the areas surrounding Miraflores had continued throughout the afternoon and part of the evening. 19 people were killed and 69 wounded, according to the latest report from the Ombudsman's Office.

Out of the 19 people killed, 7 were Chávez supporters, 6 opposition marchers and 6 more were people who, without participating in any of the two marches, were caught up in the violence. Out of the 69 people wounded, 38 were Chávez supporters, 17 opposition demonstrators, the remaining 16 non participatants.

As the autopsies and the medical records show, many of the killed and wounded on both sides of the political spectrum were hit by shots with a descendant trajectory. This indicates the presence of snipers hiding in buildings surrounding the Miraflores Palace.

In fact, at around 7.30pm seven people were arrested in Hotel Ausonia (Av. Baralt); five in room 809 and two in room 412. These people had been pinpointed as snipers by people on the street. They were quickly released on April 12, during Carmona's dictatorship alleging defects in the recording of their arrests; later investigations, however, revealed that at least 3 of them had fired arms just before their arrests, as the Ombudsman's Office reported.

The private TV channels amply reported that Chávez had called on his followers to shoot on unarmed and peaceful demonstrators and that the Bolivarian circles had massacred the opposition marchers. As graphic evidence of this, images of Chávez supporters shooting from Puente LLaguno were broadcast in Venezuela and around the world.

These images did not show at whom or at what these people were aiming and, as Luis Alfonso Fernández, the journalist who signed the statement, acknowledged later, neither he nor his team "could see at what these people were firing since that was outside our (their) visual range".

However, for the Venezuelan opposition, the United States government, its allies and some other peripheral organisations they became the evidence that would prove that the accusations made in the preceding months by the leaders of Venezuelan civil society about Chávez's dictatorial power were true.

In spite of this, when these images were broadcast they were accompanied by comments like: "MVR members are firing automatic arms on defenceless marchers, firing and reloading repeatedly. There you can see them with their MVR t-shirts."

Several testimonies, like the one by French reporter Maurice Lemoine, indicated that they were defending themselves from shots fired by snipers and the Metropolitan Police stationed on the south of Avenida Baralt.

This fact was later confirmed by abundant graphic material - video recordings and photographs - that clearly showed that the supporters of Chávez on Llaguno Bridge were repelling the attacks of the Metropolitan Police which, under the orders of Alfredo Peña, were used as the coup's Special Forces.

As a matter of fact, the opposition demonstration never marched along Av. Baralt towards Llaguno Bridge and, between the moment that the last victim from the opposition fell and the moment these people on Llaguno Bridge started firing their arms, there was a gap of almost 45 minutes.

Also, when images of the wounded being taken to medical facilities set up at Miraflores Palace were also broadcast, the newsreaders identified these people hit by bullets as victims of the armed members of the MVR and Bolivarian Circles and added comments like: "it is clear they have prepared it all. They had even set up a medical post".

In fact, as could be seen on those images, the people taking the wounded away to the medical services were wearing MVR t-shirts and berets, just like some of the victims who, in reality, were Chávez supporters hit at Puente LLaguno by fire from snipers and the Metropolitan Police.

Also, images of Chávez supporters lying face down on the pavement of Puente Llaguno were broadcast. They were trying to find cover from the shots fired at them, as the unedited images captured by Luis Alonso Fernández TV crew show perfectly.

However, the edited images which were broadcast on TV were accompanied by comments like: "Look at them. They are ready in positions of attack. These are the Bolivarian Circles, setting off firecrackers to try in some way to camouflage the actions they are about to commit."

Thus, so far, everything seemed to go according to plan for the coup plotters. "To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month or on-going strikes at the state-own oil company PDVSA", stated the CIA SEIB of April 6 about the coup plans.

It also seemed that, since the CIA SEIB of April 6 was produced, the private TV stations had overcome their fears about being involved in an unsuccessful coup and had managed to provide "the political cover to stage it". The lack of this preparation, we must remember, was identified by the CIA as the weakest point of the plotters' plan.

As one of the "Venezuelan great and good" put it, these images demonstrated that "he, who up to now was President of the country (Hugo Chávez), has proved today with his attitude that the accusations made about his dictatorial intentions were true".

However, it was not enough to fabricate a "political cover". The coup plotters, and especially their North American allies, needed a "legal cover" so that this classic military coup d'État could be internationally recognised without any diplomatic complications.

Thus, throughout the evening the private TV Stations constantly announced news of new military units and barracks joining the "civic-military" rebellion against the "tyrant" Chávez. At around 8.30pm special forces of the Miranda State police occupied the facilities of Channel 8, the only TV available to the government, and took it off the air. Late in the evening a delegation of military rebels entered the palace to demand Chávez surrender.

At around 3.30am on April 12, on the night of the coup, Bartley and O'Briain (The revolution will not be televised), were able to record within Miraflores Palace how the Bolivarian minister for the environment came out of the room where the military rebels and Chávez were negotiating his surrender and announced: "Politically this must be clear. This is a coup. The president has not resigned and will be taken under arrest. It is a coup. Let the world know. It is a coup; a coup against the people, who love him".

Maybe, Mr Gunson, who refers to the documentary as "a remarkable Irish propaganda film"[17], would like us to believe that, in his all powerful and devilish wisdom, Chávez set this up to wrap his return to power in a heroic halo.

Mr Gunson seems to suggest that the presence of the Irish filmmakers at Miraflores that day was not accidental. In fact, for him, it seems that their arrival in September 2001 forms part of that famous plan to sack 20,000 PdVSA employees, whose last phase was carried out one and a half years after they first set foot in Venezuela, in March 2003.

Of course, he can always find the confirmation of this clever manoeuvring in Chávez's own cryptic words. While being taken away under arrest he replied "we're not gone yet" to one supporter who told him "Never give up, President! We'll be back, President!"

The world, however, still had to wait for some time to know that Chávez had not resigned. Those who knew it and had the capacity to make it public kept it secret. No media in Venezuela or internationally reported on this, neither did the US Government. They knew it all too well. As the very OGI State Department report recognises, Chávez opponents would inform their U.S. interlocutors of their (...) aims, intentions, and/or plans".

Instead, they managed to get General Lucas Rincón to appear on TV announcing Chávez resignation. The dubious role played by General Lucas Rincón in the coup was explained by Mr Gunson himself in an article published in the St Petersburg Times on April 22 2002.

"The shooting hadn't started yet and there was still a feeling of fiesta in the air.

"A sea of people flowed through the capital (...) amid the throng, union leader and Chávez opponent Carlos Ortega was marvelling at the massive turnout when his cell phone rang.

"On the line was Gen. Lucas Rincón, chief of Venezuela Armed Forces.

"They spoke briefly, a witness says. Then Ortega turned to those around him and said, using a profane epithet to refer to Rincón, ‘He says we've won. It's all over'.

"But it was only the beginning"[18]

Mr Gunson's objective truth about the US government being deceived and fooled by the coup plotters - amongst them the most important groups of the Venezuelan private media - just like a master tricked by his servant, may well set the tone for an entertaining thriller or a Hollywood science fiction blockbuster and, as Americans know, a blockbuster is not complete without a certain amount of sarcasm.

Thus, when the OGI report states that "when, contrary to U.S. advice, the interim government dissolved the assembly and the court and took other undemocratic actions, the Department worked through the Organization of American States (OAS) to condemn those steps and to restore democracy and constitutionality in Venezuela", one only needs to go through the remarks made by Roger F. Noriega (the US Permanent Representative at the OAS) at the Informal Private Session of OAS Permanent Council on April 13 - attached to the report as an appendix - to have a good laugh, if black humour is your cup of tea.

"We need to be sure" - said Mr Noriega - "that the essential elements of democracy are respected: ‘human rights and fundamental freedoms, access to and the free exercise of power in accordance with the rule of law'; a ‘pluralistic system of political parties and organizations'; ‘separation of powers and independence of the branches of government'; ‘freedom of expression and of the press'; ‘constitutional subordination of all state institutions to the legally constituted civilian authority'."

"The U.S. - he added - is prepared to accept some reference to "alteration of the constitutional regime" but we are not sure whether it was constitutional or not, based on what some have said about Article 350 of the Venezuelan Constitution. But to say that it "seriously impairs the democratic order," or to call it an "interruption of the democratic order," has a broader implication, and we are not sure that has happened yet."

At that point Carmona had already disbanded all democratic institutions in Venezuela and unleashed a wave of political repression that left more than 50 people dead on the streets and hundreds arrested.

In fact, the US administration was not alone in its attempts to legitimise the coup-installed government. In this Mr Bush found the helping hand of his dearest allies and friends, like Mr Uribe, President of Colombia, and Premiers, José María Aznar, from Spain, and Tony Blair, from the United Kingdom.

On April 12, Foreign Office Minister, Denis McShane released a communiqué in which he stated the position of the British government on the events taking place in Venezuela. He said:

"Following the departure of President Chavez, the UK wants to see the swift return to a legitimate, democratic government in Venezuela, (...) which fully respects human rights and international law... Any delay to this process will be contrary to Venezuela's long history of democracy and unacceptable to the international community."[19]

However, the only legitimate democratic government to be re-established was the one violently and unconstitutionally ousted by those to whom the British government was giving support and legitimacy with this statement.

The Spanish Government, at that time holding the European Union Presidency, on April 12 issued a statement which read, "The European Union trusts the transitional government's respect for democratic values and institutions to overcome the current crisis with full respect for fundamental rights and liberties"[20]. That is, the Spanish government took the opportunity to recognise and legitimise the dictatorial government of Carmona in Venezuela in the name of the European Union.

On April 12 the Spanish government also issued a joint statement with the US government in which they "express their desire that the exceptional situation that Venezuela is experiencing would lead in the shortest possible time to full democratic normalization"[21], thus supporting and legitimising Carmona's government.

At the end of 2004, in a parliamentary session at the Spanish Cortes it was established, with the help of declassified material and other documents, that the Spanish ambassador to Caracas, Mr Viturro, received instructions from the Spanish government to legitimise and support the coup-installed government.

However, just as the American administration claim that their ambassador to Caracas did during the coup, the Spanish conservative government have always maintained that its ambassador "worked to restore democracy and constitutionality in Venezuela, interceding for the physical integrity of Chávez".

No wonder, "opponents of the Chávez government heard but did not really believe the few and far between warnings of non-recognition of a coup-installed government, economic sanctions, and other concrete punitive actions" that, according to the OGI report, "were orally conveyed by US State Department officials".

"It appears, then - concludes the OGI State Department report to which Mr Gunson gives so much credibility - that the Spanish proverb, "a veces una cosa ves, y otra es," (sometimes things look one way, but they are really another) applies to the United States' perception of Chávez opponents and their perceptions of the United States in the six months before the weekend in question. Where Americans saw in our stock policy statement a ‘red light' against undemocratic, unconstitutional moves, at least some Venezuelans may have seen only a yellow one."

The level of cynicism that this report expresses is difficult to match. And yet, experience - and Mr Gunson - teach us that this is indeed possible. Another and quite different Spanish proverb suits this situation best. It goes: más hablan los hechos que las palabras. That is, actions speak louder than words.

Human rights in Venezuela

In early 2004, Mr Gunson informs us in his article "Bolivarian myths and legends", the opposition took to the streets in large numbers to protest the electoral authority's refusal to convene a recall referendum against President Chávez, despite the fact that it had handed in more than the requisite number of signatures.

"The demonstrations - he continues - were put down with what Mundaraín called a ‘disproportionate use of force'. He cited not only an excessive use of rubber bullets, but seven cases of torture and seventeen of ‘cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment'."

As always, Mr Gunson's prose stands out for its "balance". For him there is no need to comment on the reasons why the CNE (Venezuelan Electoral Authority) questioned one million of the submitted signatures as fraudulent.

The fact that close to 800,000 lines of signatures had been filled out with duplicate handwriting in violation of CNE regulations could not have any weight on the CNE's decision. For him, if the dead came back to life to demand their right to recall the President of the Republic - as was granted in the Bolivarian constitution - and stamped their signature on the opposition petition that could only possibly be a definite signal of Chávez's unpopularity.

As Mr Gunson says, the ombudsman, "Germán Mundaraín, who in almost every other respect is a slavish adherent to the government line," recognised that "the security forces indulged in excessive force, possible arbitrary arrests, abusive treatment, and even torture", and urged the attorney's office to fully investigate this cases.

The Ombudsman's office report - as proof of its slavish conduct, Mr Gunson would say - also points out that "the demonstrators carried out acts of vandalism, attacking private and public property, other citizens and the security forces; being enough proof to affirm that some of the demonstrators used fire arms."[22]

These "spontaneous" acts of protest against such an arbitrary decision on the part of the CNE became known in Venezuela as guarimba.

"Guarimba" - as Eva Golinger explains - "called for right-wing groups to engage in widespread civil disobedience and violence in the streets of Caracas and other metropolitan areas, provoking repressive reactions from state forces that would then justify cries of human rights violations and lack of constitutional order. (...) Provocateurs burned garbage in the streets, blocked roadways, and threw Molotov cocktails and other homemade bombs at security forces."

According to Robert Alonso - one of the most prominent leaders of the opposition at that time - "the only objective of La Guarimba - apart from completely paralysing the country - is to create a nationwide anarchic chaos with the help of the citizenry in the main cities of Venezuela to oblige the CASTRO-COMMUNIST regime in Venezuela to order Plan Ávila. (...) We believe that, as happened on April 11 2002, our officers will not accept the orders to massacre the people, consequently calling for constitutional insubordination."[23]

Given the use of political repression against the opposition by Chávez, there must be political prisoners in Venezuela too. Mr Gunson finds them in the figure of General Franciso Usón, "who was convicted of ‘bringing the armed forces into disrepute' after giving his professional opinion, as a combat engineer, on whether a flame-thrower could have been used to inflict serious burns on five soldiers in a punishment cell, two of whom later died."

Being gifted with so many fine qualities like Mr Gunson, one wonders what heights could have been reserved to him if only he had been fortunate enough to receive some basic notions on philosophy, law and mathematics.

Surely the nature of an offence derives from the juridical object or subject which has been violated, rather than from the particular conditions of the individual who violates the law. What is judged are the deeds, substantiated by facts, not the individual's particular characteristics. In fact, these only enter into consideration, as extenuating or aggravating circumstances, when the law so establishes. Without this basic principle there is no rule of law and, as Mr Gunson surely knows, without rule of law there is no protection of human rights.

If General Franciso Usón was a political opponent of Chavez's or a friend of his, this was not taken into consideration when charging and judging him. He was charged because of an infraction of the military code and judged under military rule. Whether we consider these military laws reactionary and unjust is a different matter, but that does not qualify General Franciso Usón to be considered a political prisoner.

As expressed earlier, this way of reasoning would grant the greatest grade of immunity to anyone who took a critical stance towards the Bolivarian government or expressed his or her dislike for it, whatever the nature of the crimes they had been charged for.

The Bolivarian government does not sanction nor encourage human rights violations. On the contrary, its actions have been directed at strengthening those institutions that, according to the Bolivarian Constitution, must uphold the defence and reparation of victims of human rights abuses, like the Ombudsman's Office.

Hands off Venezuela argues that the Bolivarian Constitution, its institutional and legal framework, and some political and legislative initiatives born out of them contain important areas of progress concerning human rights, such as - amongst many others - the Violence against Women and the Family Law, the Land and Development Law, Presidential Decree No. 1795 of 27 May 2002 concerning protection of the languages of indigenous peoples, the National Plan for Prevention of Violence against Women and Care of its Victims, the National Plan for Women's Equality and the Women's Development Bank.

This is something on which the UN Committee against Torture, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women agree.

The Hands off Venezuela Campaign does not pretend that there are no human rights violations in Venezuela. That would be a most ridiculous claim. There is no country in the world where there are no human rights violations. For instance, concerning the UK, the 2006Amnesty International Report highlights that:

"The (British) government continued to erode fundamental human rights, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, including by persisting with attempts to undermine the ban on torture at home and abroad, and by enacting and seeking to enact legislation inconsistent with domestic and international human rights law. (...) Measures purporting to counter terrorism led to serious human rights violations"[24]

Contrary to Mr Gunson's claims of politically motivated and systematic human rights violations against anti-revolutionary oppositionists - something, according to him, inspired, sanctioned and encouraged by the Bolivarian government - the data reveals that those most likely to be victims of human rights violations at the hands of the security forces are not political opponents of Chávez, but rather poor male urban dwellers, criminal suspects with no clear political leaning or, judging by Mr Gunson's characterisation of Chavistas as ‘mobs of criminal and thugs', most possibly Chávez supporters.

In fact, in those cases where the political leanings of the victims of human rights violations have been identified, these, more often than not, were political, community and human rights activists in the orbit of the revolutionary Bolivarian movement. These have suffered human rights violations at the hands of paramilitary groups of security forces under the control of municipal and regional authorities governed by anti-Bolivarian opposition parties.

The most well-known cases are the murders of peasant leaders in Zulia State, governed by opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, and the killings by the Caracas Metropolitan Police under the control of opposition leader and mayor of Caracas Alfredo Peña.

Having established these facts it is not difficult to understand, just as the Ezequiel Zamora Peasant Front accuses, that a great deal of the paralysis in which the judicial system in Venezuela is immersed when dealing with prosecuting human rights violations is due to the lack of interest in the matter amongst many anti-Bolivarian professionals in high positions within the judicial institutions.

Hugo Chávez put it this way during an interview in September 2006, "a permanent bureaucratic counterrevolution (...) the old and new bureaucracy which resist changes, so much that you have to wait and wait after giving instructions, and follow up to make sure that they aren't delayed or derailed or minimized by this bureaucratic counterrevolution that we have in the State. This is one of the elements of the new phase of transforming the State, which is coming. (...) The sister of the bureaucratic counterrevolution is the counterrevolution of corruption. This is another terrible danger, because it appears where you least expect it."

This, although quite different from that image of an authoritarian Chávez with all-intrusive and absolute powers that Mr Gunson likes to present us with, seemed to be shared by an overwhelming majority of the Venezuelan population, who on December 3, 2006 re-elected him as President of the Bolivarian Republic with 63% of the vote; 3,016,614 votes more than Manuel Rosales, the opposition candidate.

The Hands off Venezuela Campaign upholds the cause of solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution and the Bolivarian movement. As a solidarity campaign, we understand that the gains made by the masses during the years of the Bolivarian government, in areas such as health, education or human rights, can only be secured and fostered by the strengthening, deepening and eventual completion of the revolutionary process.

Once again on the question of freedom of the press

As has already been mentioned at the beginning of this long article, on November 27, 2006 a letter by Phil Gunson was published in The Guardian. Mr Gunson denounced NUJ General Secretary, Jeremy Dear, for "persuading" the NUJ Conference to upholding the cause of solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution.

To illustrate his point, Mr Gunson wrote about how, "The regime takes exception to your critical reporting, and the information minister Andres Izarra calls a press conference - broadcast live on TV - to denounce you as a paid agent of the US State Department, leading a media campaign to destabilise the government".

These claims were supported by Aidan White[25], General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, who, in a letter published in The Guardian on December 4 2006, wrote:

"The International Federation of Journalists has recorded 700 incidents of harassment, intimidation and violence against media and journalists in the past four years alone."

"Over the past seven years there have been numerous actions against media and journalists - legal and illegal - that have severely compromised conditions for professional journalism."

"President Hugo Chávez has deployed violent rhetoric against media owners (and) has created an atmosphere in which other genuinely independent journalists who try to steer a course between government and opposition are constantly under pressure."

Aidan White does not offer any information about the types of incidents recorded in Venezuela by their Regional Office, neither does he gives any data of similar incidents in neighbouring countries. All the information on incidents available at the IFJ website is that published on its "Report on journalists and media staff killed" for the years 2005 and 2006.

These reports reveal that between 2005 and 2006, the following journalists and media staff were killed: 1 in Argentina, 2 in the United States, 2 in Guatemala, 2 in Haiti, 3 in the Dominican Republic, 3 in Ecuador, 5 in Guayana, 5 in Venezuela, 6 in Colombia, 6 in Brazil and 10 in Mexico.

It appears then that the level of violence against journalists and media staff in Venezuela is similar to that of its neighbouring countries - like Colombia, Guayana and Brazil - slightly superior to Ecuador and the Dominican Republic and far below Mexico.

A closer look at these reports shows that out of the 5 journalists and media staff killed in Venezuela in 2005 and 2006, three - Enis Garmendia de Ortiz, Jorge Aguirre and Jesús Flores Rojas (a journalist, a photographer and an editor) - worked for newspapers with a clear critical line against the Bolivarian government; and the other two, Pedro Bastardo and José Joaquín Tovar - a journalist and an editor - worked for the official media.

It is clear that Mr White's and Mr Gunson's claims about "institutionalised repression against the media" and Chávez fuelling violence with his "intemperate rhetoric" are far from the truth.

However, they resemble very much some of the opposition adverts broadcast on TV during the bosses' lock-out of December 2002-January 2003.

"There is only one person responsible for so much abuse, impunity, anarchy, and lack of governance; only one responsible for the violation of the constitution; of financing the circles of terror created in the shadow of his government; to give away our petroleum; for politicising our armed forces; for disrespecting our institutions; for the division of Venezuela: for the hate amongst brothers".

In fact, the claim is not new. On February 28, 2002 the IFJ Regional Office in Caracas released a "Venezuelan Report 2002"[26] signed by Gregorio Salazar, the Regional Co-ordinator. The report stated:

"The worsening of the economic crisis, expressed through a devaluation of the currency by over 20% (12-02-02) comes at a time when (...) the approval of 49 law-decrees, through an enabling law ("Ley Habilitante"), without any consultation of the sectors involved, led to the calling of a strike by the industry management that (...) reached 90% paralysis of the country. The executive strongly refused to revise or declare some laws in adjournment and it is maintaining such refusal."

"On January 23, this year, on the commemoration of the 44th year of the deposition of the last dictatorship, civil society took to the streets in a demonstration that gathered more than two hundred thousand people from all social classes, who have started to demand, each time more vehemently, the resignation of the President. Additionally, there are clear signs that the majority of the National Armed Forces reject the President's project".

"In his speeches the president points out, in general, that the Venezuelan journalists have no respect for ethics, that they are paid for lying and manipulating and that they are utilized indiscriminately to serve the scandalous, sensationalistic and mercantilist interest of the communication media owners. Of course, we firmly reject this"

"Repeated and forceful attack(s) by President Chavez against Venezuelan journalists have caused angry, verbal and physical acts of aggression on the part of highly opinionated groups of supporters of the government, against journalists of various media, thus placing their physical integrity at great risk."

"These constant acts of aggression have stigmatised the image of the journalist and the mere carrying of his work instruments (recorders, cameras or TV cameras, etc.), generates aggression on the part of the mob led by the government party."

"President Chavez insists that the loss of his popularity, that at the beginning of his term had reached almost 80% and now is near 20%, is due to manipulation of the media. The president refuses to acknowledge the actual unfavourable results of the same surveys that in the past revealed his great popularity."

Summing up

Thus we are to believe that the Bolivarian government's economic policies, introduced in an authoritarian fashion with complete disregard for the people affected, are driving the country towards utter disaster. Civil society, while celebrating the "deposition of the last dictatorship", is challenging a new one imposed by Chávez and is thus urging him to resign. Chávez allegedly blames the media for his "loss of popularity" and uses violent mobs of fanatical supporters - a very small minority of the population - to suppress them.

Such an "impartial" and "objective" report by the IFJ Regional Office in Caracas was released five days before the Venezuelan opposition agreed on "their bases for a democratic accord, ten principles on which to guide a transitional government of democratic unity; a ‘shared vision' and a ‘signal of hope' for Venezuelans worried about what was deemed a ‘true national emergency'."

A State Department Cable, dated 24/01/2002 comments on the newspapers' subtlety: "in the days leading up to 23 January leading newspapers such as El Nacional and El Universal have been running retrospectives on the 1958 uprising and drawing explicit parallels during the marches".

On March 15, Aidan White in a press release condemned Chávez for "his vicious campaign against the independent media". "The president - he said - has created an atmosphere of hate and intolerance against journalism that is threatening the physical safety of journalists."

At that point, according to CIA reports "there were increased signs that Venezuelan business leaders (amongst whom independent media owners had a prominent position) and military officers were becoming dissatisfied with the President, whom the military may try to overthrow if an opportunity were to arise, since the existing legal means to remove him, such as impeachment, were cumbersome."

On April 1, another CIA report states that "Chávez was facing continuous opposition from the private sector, the media, the Catholic Church and opposition political parties angered by a host of laws he decreed in December" and that "disgruntled officers within the military are still planning a coup" for early in April.

The coup was finally staged on April 11, and on April 12 the IFJ issued a press release under the title of "Journalists condemn Chávez's ‘contempt for democracy' following TV takeover and killing of journalist"[27].

The press release states:

"The fall of the Government and military involvement in an interim administration is no cause for cheering among democrats," said Aidan White, General Secretary of the IFJ, "but the contempt for democracy shown by the Chavez regime has generated such a wave of popular opposition that the fall of this administration was all but inevitable."

"The killing of Jorge Tortosa (a graphic reporter) is a tragic and senseless act," said Aidan White, "The responsibility lies with the regime that had lost all sense of democratic responsibility".

"The Government tried to block the news of demonstrations and then finally shut down broadcasting stations altogether," said the IFJ. "It was a crude and desperate attempt to impose censorship."

"The Chávez government has been a severe critic of the independent Venezuelan press and during recent days has intervened directly to stop broadcasts of media coverage of the national strike."

"The IFJ regional office will continue its work for all colleagues in the region," said Aidan White, "We insist that the fall of Chavez does not mean the loss of democratic rights, but that there will be a swift return to democratic conditions and the preservation of media independence."

The US State Department Press Statement issued on that same day, April 12, asserted:

"Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans gathered peacefully to seek redress of their grievances. The Chavez Government attempted to suppress peaceful demonstrations. Chavez supporters, on orders, fired on unarmed, peaceful protestors, resulting in more than 100 wounded or killed."

"Venezuelan military and police refused orders to fire on peaceful demonstrators and refused to support the government's role in such human rights violations."

"The government prevented five independent television stations from reporting on events."

"Chavez resigned the presidency. Before resigning, he dismissed the Vice President and the Cabinet. A transitional civilian government has promised early elections."

"We have every expectation that this situation will be resolved peacefully and democratically by the Venezuelan people and the essential elements of democracy, which have been weakened in recent months, must be restored fully."

IFJ and US State Department Press Releases as well as the Venezuelan private media tried to present these events as the confirmation of their denunciations about the totalitarian drive of President Chávez and his disregard for democracy and human rights.

As we have seen, however, Chávez supporters did not shoot on any opposition demonstrators and neither did Chávez order the military to fire on unarmed and peaceful protestors.

Chávez did not take private TV stations off the air to prevent them from reporting on anything, but "because we were about to broadcast at that moment the message from the 10 military officers that rebelled against President Chávez", as was explained by Otto Neutsland, a CNN reporter who recorded the declaration of the rebel military officers.

Otto Neutsland has also explained that during the rehearsals for that message, when no violence had taken place yet, two hour earlier, these officers were already speaking about dead and wounded.

The intentions of the private TV stations were made absolutely clear when, after recovering their signal via satellite at around 5.30pm, the first thing that Venevision broadcast was Rear Admiral Molina Tamayo and General Guacaipuro Lameda calling from the TV studios on the army to rebel and depose the President of the Republic.

In fact, the only TV Station to be taken off the air on April 11 was Channel 8, the State owned TV Station, which was occupied and silenced by special police forces from Miranda State, as its governor, a leading opposition figure, happily boasted on the private TV channels.

Having seen Chávez returned to power thanks to a revolutionary mass mobilisation, Aidan White headed a fact-finding delegation to Caracas in June 2002, even though the "the IFJ has had a close-up view of the crisis; our (their) Regional Office, serving Latin American journalists associations and unions, is based in Caracas," as they boasted in the report produced after this visit, "Missing links in Venezuela's political crisis: how the media and the government failed a test of journalism and democracy"[28].

In this report Aidan White, once again, blames President Chávez, for the "hostile and confrontational political atmosphere that had made the capacity for impartial reporting of the Chávez administration difficult, if not almost impossible", making it clear that the IFJ "strongly believed that the conflict between Chávez and media has been exacerbated by the president's intemperate language, his failure to encourage dialogue and his abuse of power"

These are the facts that Aidan White found:

"It need hardly be said that by the beginning of April 2002, the hostile and confrontational political atmosphere had made the capacity for impartial reporting of the Chavez administration difficult, if not almost impossible."

"Chávez made a reported 17 interventions during programmes on April 9 to air his own opinions about the political crisis."

"Media responded in kind on April 11 by splitting the screen to show opposition marchers on the street while the President was speaking during the last of his television interventions on that day. As the moment of crisis approached, Chavez took all the private television stations off the air. Only the public broadcaster was allowed to continue transmission."

I do not know if Mr White uses the same research methods as Mr Gunson, but it seems that for both of them it gives the same results.

Private TV stations did not split their screens for the first time on April 11, but in the afternoon of April 9, something unprecedented in Venezuelan history and that served as a rehearsal for what happened on April 11.

Victor Manuel García, executive director of CECA (an opinion polls company) explained on TV on April 12 that the order to split the screens came from General González González and that he passed it down to the media.

Curiously enough, CECA was the company responsible for the opinion polls that suggested a collapse in support for Chávez among Venezuelans in the months leading up to the coup.

After the defeat of the coup CECA has kept releasing opinion polls, always negative towards Chávez and the Bolivarian government. For instance, in the days leading to the 2006 presidential elections - won by Chávez with over 61% of the vote - CECA released the results of another of their studies that revealed that Manuel Rosales, the opposition candidate, would win with 42.1% of the vote against 39.5% for Chávez.

"Moving quickly to take advantage of events" - Aidan White continues with his narration of events - "the military high command forced Chavez from power and replaced him with Pedro Carmona Estanga, the president of Fedecamaras, Venezuela's leading business association. Within hours, the private media were back, the public broadcaster was closed and Carmona issued a decree giving himself dictatorial powers - firing Chavez's cabinet, dissolving the National Assembly, dismissing the Supreme Court, abolishing the Constitution and giving Carmona the right to fire any elected municipal or state officials."

"Alarm bells began to ring immediately, even within the opposition camp. Teodoro Petkoff, Editor of the daily Tal Cual, who holds a firm line of criticism to government, was withering in his criticism. He denounced the coup."

In fact, despite what Mr White writes, Teodoro Petkoff did not criticise the coup, he rather acknowledged and supported it. It might be that Aidan White got a different impression of what Teodoro Petkoff said and wrote before, during and after the coup. His position was made clear in an interview with César Miguel Rincón broadcast live on TV in the evening of April 12:

- César Miguel Rincón: Welcome, Teodoro. Well, we have a new government, which as sworn in in a rather sui generis manner and what's he got left to actually rule. What's your view on this first day without Chávez?

- Teodoro Petkoff: Well, the first day is dominated by the formation of the new government. Without this implying an a priori judgement, it is obvious that we are before a coup d'Etat; a sui generis coup as you just mentioned, a light coup, because Pedro Carmona has received, granted by the military echelons, dictatorial powers. In his first day of government, Pedro Carmona dissolved the Assembly, which had been democratically elected. He has powers to remove governors, mayors and any public official or civil servant; democratically elected, in the case of governors and mayors. He sacked in one stroke the Assembly, the Supreme Court, The Attorney General, the Comptroller, the Ombudsman. He was sworn in before himself. How Pedro Carmona is going to wield these dictatorial powers is a different matter. Pedro Carmona is a steady, serious, balanced man.

- César Miguel Rincón: He [Carmona] has earned the respect of the whole community lately.

- Teodoro Petkoff: Yes, one can expect that those dictatorial powers that he will enjoy for one year will be exercised in a balanced manner.

"The IFJ strongly believes - concludes the report - that Chavez's abuse of authority has contributed to a hostile atmosphere in which media staff and journalists have been targeted and subjected to intolerable pressure, including threats of physical violence."

The IFJ report also tries to play down the role of the private media in the coup and completely forgets how they fabricated the justification for the coup.

The role played by private media - particularly by RCTV and Venevisoin - was acknowledged by media representatives and coup plotters on the morning of April 12 during Venevision's 24 Hours. There, Napoleón Bravo congratulated himself and the media, especially RCTV and Venevision, for the their role in the successful coup that had ousted Chávez before Molina Tamayo and Victor Manuel García went on to explain to the audience how the coup had been planned and staged.

General Héctor Ramírez Pérez had already paid them tribute and thanked them. "Fortunately - he said - we have a great weapon, which is the media. Yes, you. The Venezuelan people have witnessed today that neither the army nor the security forces fired a single shot... our weapons were the media. I would like to congratulate you because you have played the greatest role in this".

Let us see now how the IFJ worded these developments in its report:

"Despite the government's inappropriate pressure on anti-government media, it is undeniable that some sections of media failed to serve the interests of democracy and the people's right to know by full and impartial reporting of events on April 11, 12 and 13. These omissions constitute an intolerable violation of press freedom. They also put at risk the journalists and media staff in their employment."

"Censorship of information by media owners constitutes a breach of the trust that must exist between the public and media if democracy, pluralism and press freedom are to survive."

On the night of April 12 and throughout April 13 thousands of people took to the streets and risked their lives to demand the return of the democratically elected President of the republic, Hugo Chávez. No news was aired in any private media - press, TV or radio Stations - about these developments.

TV channels broadcast old films, cartoons, series and contests and once the Presidential Palace had been retaken by the loyal Presidential guard and hundreds of thousands of people were surrounding it, with the State TV channel still silenced, they gave space to Carmona to claim that everything was under his control and that he was still in the Palace.

Newspapers came out on December 13 with editorials and headlines celebrating the ousting of Chávez and welcoming Carmona's dictatorship in the name of democracy, just like Aidan White and the IFJ had done.

Along with headlines like "Democracy and National Unity" one could read communiqués such as "civil society salutes the rebirth of the Republic of Venezuela" or adverts like the one by TELCEL, the mobile phones operator: "TELCEL celebrates freedom with all Venezuela. You are free to ring wherever you want, land line and long distance, for free."[29].

In contrast, when Chávez returned to power, most newspapers decided not to publish anything and tried to maintain the most deafening silence about the popular mobilisations that had defeated the coup.

Despite all this, Mr White was pleased to know that no actions were to be taken by the government or the Assembly against the owners of these media for participating in the coup or lying and deceiving to the Venezuelan people, as Chávez had been denouncing prior to the coup.

Just to remind ourselves of the independent character of the IFJ, in case we had forgotten, the report includes a clause that reads: "The mission rejects the allegation that IFJ is an anti-Chavez organisation. It is an organisation neither for nor against government of any political colour."

If we remember all this, it is then not surprising that the Bolivarian government decision not to renew RCTV's broadcasting concession after it expired in May was greeted by Aidan White and the IFJ as a "catastrophe for pluralism and social rights"[30] in a country where, as he recognises, "there are more than 70 newspapers, seven national television networks, and dozens of radio outlets. There is no censorship and there is free expression."[31]

So much for a man that Peter Preston describes, from The Observer pages, as "absolutely no right-wing lackey. When he worked in the UK as a sub-editor and union activist - Preston says - proprietors used to quake when they saw him coming. If he'd stayed in Britain, he - not Dear - might have led the NUJ".[32]

Finally, it was probably not appropriate for Andrés Izarra, Venezuelan Communications Minister, to publicly accuse Mr Gunson of being an agent of imperialism without being able to produce some solid evidence, like a US State Department pay-slip in Mr Gunson's name. However, I believe that it would be unfair to judge Mr Izarra's actions harshly, since very few people would believe that such a fine job of disinformation as the one carried out by Mr Gunson could have been done for free. Especially in a country that, until very recently, best expressed its attitude in the phrase "Cúanto hay pa eso?, that is "how much do you get for doing that?"

[1] "Conflict of interests in Caracas" by Phil Gunson. The Guardian, November 27 2006.

[2] "Bolivarian myths and legends" by Phil Gunson. Open Democracy (www.opendemocracy.com), December 12 2006.

[3] "Did an acclaimed documentary about the 2002 coup in Venezuela tell the whole story? by Phil Gunson. Columbia Journalism Review (www.cjr.org) May-June 2004.

[4] "Bolivarian myths and legends" by Phil Gunson. Open Democracy (www.opendemocracy.com), December 12 2006.

[5] Ibid

[6] "The media campaign against Venzuela" by the Ministry of Communication and Information of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (www.minci.gov.ve ) May 2004.

[7] "Bolivarian myths and legends" by Phil Gunson. Open Democracy (www.opendemocracy.com), December 12 2006.

[8] Message from Koichiro Matsura, UNESCO's General Director. "An achievement internationally recognised". Press release from the Ministry of Communication and Information of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (www.minci.gov.ve)

[9] "Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2002" by UNESCO (www.unesco.org)

[10] "Freed from illiteracy? A closer look at Venezuela's literacy campaign" by Franciso Rodríguez, Edward Miguel and Daniel Ortega. October 2006 (http://frrodriguez.web.wesleyan.edu/ )

[11] "Bolivarian myths and legends" by Phil Gunson. Open Democracy (www.opendemocracy.com), December 12 2006.

[12] Data retrieved from the Venezuelan National Institute of Statistics, Social Statistics on 14 April 2007. www.ine.go.ve

[13] "Did an acclaimed documentary about the 2002 coup in Venezuela tell the whole story?" by Phil Gunson. Columbia Journalism Review (www.cjr.org) May-June 2004.

[14] "Bolivarian myths and legends" by Phil Gunson. Open Democracy (www.opendemocracy.com), December 12 2006.

[15] www.venezuelafoia.info, Also in "The Chávez Code" (Pluto Press 2007) by Eva Goliger, pagaes 47-107. See also "A review of US policy toward Venezuela: November 2001- December 2002", report number 02-OIG-003. Accessible at www.oig.state.gov

[16] "A review of US policy toward Venezuela: November 2001- December 2002", report number 02-OIG-003. Accessible at www.oig.state.gov

[17] "Did an acclaimed documentary about the 2002 coup in Venezuela tell the whole story? by Phil Gunson. Columbia Journalism Review (www.cjr.org) May-June 2004.

[18] "The unmaking of a coup" by Phil Gunson and David Adams. St Petersburg Times, April 22, 2002.

[19] Accessible at www.foc.gov.uk

[20] "Los documentos del Golpe" by Fundación Defensoría del Pueblo, 2006 digital version, accessible at www.gobiernoenlinea.ve

[21] "A review of US policy toward Venezuela: November 2001- December 2002", report number 02-OIG-003; attachment 9 to the Appendix. Accessible at www.oig.state.gov,

[22] " Sucesos del 27/02 al 05/03 de 2004. Informe preliminar: derechos humanos" by Defesoría del Pueblo, accessible at defensoria.gov.ve

[23] "Sobre la guarimba" by Robert Alonso; accessible at www.venezuelanet.org

[24] "AI Report 2006" accessible at http://web.amnesty.org/report2006/index-eng

[25] "Poor protection of the press in Venezuela" by Aidan White. Accessible on www.guardian.co.uk

[26] "2002 Venezuelan Report" by the IFJ Latin America Office. Accessible at www.ifj.org

[27] Accessible at www.ifj.org

[28] Accessible at www.ifj.org

[29] "Los documentos del Golpe" by Fundación Defensoría del Pueblo, 2006 digital version, accessible at www.gobiernoenlinea.ve

[30] "IFJ condemns "catastrophe for pluralism" as Chávez threatens 2,000 media jobs", press released by the IFJ on January 23, 2007. Accessible at www.ifj.org

[31] "Poor protection of the press in Venezuela" by IFJ. Accessible on www.guardian.co.uk

[32] "Mr Chávez and the death of freedom" by Peter Preston, published in The Observer on January 7, 2007. Accessible at www.guardian.co.uk

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