Washington Promotes ‘Independent’ Media in Venezuela

For some time it has been apparent that President Hugo Chavez – the democratically elected President of Venezuela – and his government have been on the US’s ‘regime change shopping list’.

Such coup-inspiring attitudes were especially transparent in 2006, when the US’s National Security Strategy noted that: “In Venezuela, a demagogue awash in oil money [i.e. Chavez] is undermining democracy and seeking to destabilize the region.”[1] So given the US government’s evident hostility towards Chavez’s emancipatory politics, it is not too surprising that their incessant propaganda is duly amplified by their corporate mouthpieces, the US media.[2] Similarly, British-based media watchdog, Medialens, have amply documented how supposedly progressive media outlets (e.g. the BBC) have contributed their part to the global disinformation campaign being waged against Chavez.[3] It is all too obvious that in the eyes of the world’s ruling elites Chavez is promoting the ‘wrong kind’ of democracy, that is, popular democracy instead of low-intensity democracy (or polyarchy).

To remedy the democratic problem that Venezuela poses to the interests of transnational capitalism, the US’s main democracy manipulating body, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), has been busily financing opposition groups within Venezuelan civil society. Most famously such ‘democratic’ interventions have seen the NED and its cohorts facilitate the unsuccessful coup that temporarily removed Chavez from power in 2002. [4] More recently though, a central prong of the US governments War on Democracy [5] has been to criticise Chavez’s domestic media policies, which have been widely reported in the international corporate media as being hostile to “freedom of expression”. [6]

Considering the miserable state of affairs of the US’s ‘mainstream’ media, [7] it is strange that earlier this year this same media vilified the Venezuelan government for failing to renew the licence of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV). The irony of this situation is especially delightful because the CIA-linked [8] RCTV is “one of the oldest and largest opposition-controlled TV stations”, was an active participant in the US/NED-backed coup of 2002, and has been busy leading mediated attempts to oust Chavez from office ever since.

While it has been well reported in the progressive media that the NED-linked media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has been at the forefront of recent efforts to de-legitimize Venezuela’s media policies, this same progressive media has for the most part overlooked the role of similarly ‘democratic’ human rights groups in facilitating such attacks. Noteworthy exceptions to this trend include two recent articles written by Greg Grandin and Gregory Wilpert respectively: the latter of whom notes that is “very disappointing to see international human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Carter Center, and the Committee to Protect Journalists condemn the [Venezuelan] government’s decision” to revoke RCTV’s license. (For further details on the close links that exist between the NED and these human rights groups see Hijacking Human Rights).

The focus of this article, however, will not be on such ‘human rights’ groups or on dubious activities of Reporters Without Borders, but in contrast to previous articles this article will draw attention to the ‘democratic’ activities of a little mentioned South American media watchdog which goes by the name of the Instituto De Prensa Y Sociedad.

The Instituto De Prensa Y Sociedad (IPYS) – otherwise known as the Press and Society Institute – was founded in 1993 by Laura Puertas Meyer, and the Institute obtained their first NED grant in 1998 to help them “develop a national network to protect journalists” in Peru. Meyer’s involvement in founding IPYS is particularly noteworthy because he is presently the executive director of the Peruvian chapter of Transparency International, which perhaps not coincidentally is a key global ‘democracy promoting’ organization. IPYS’s linked to Transparency International do not end there, as in 2002 Transparency International’s Americas programme coordinator, Marta Erquicia, joined forces with IPYS to launch an annual award for investigative journalism. Furthermore, it is significant to observe that George Soros’s Open Society Institute sponsors the award, and two of the five members of the prizes jury have ‘democratic’ ties: these two judges are Gustavo Gorriti (who is a member of IYPS, has received the ‘democratically’ connected Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Award in 1998, is listed as an individual endorser of the UN Democracy Caucus, and is a member of the Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium for Investigative Journalism), and Tina Rosenberg (who serves on The New York Times editorial board, and on the advisory board of the National Security Archive). Considering all these ‘democratic’ ties it is ironic that the two winners of this Soros-sponsored award in 2006, Tamoa Calzadilla and Laura Weffer, won because of their reporting on the “irregularities in the investigation of the [Danilo] Anderson murder case” – Anderson being the Venezuelan state prosecutor “in charge of identifying those responsible of [the] failed [2002] coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.”

The current executive director of IPYS Peru is Ricardo Uceda, a reporter who formerly “directed the newsweekly Si, and ran the El Comercio’s investigative unit”. It is significant to note that in 1993 – while working for Si – Uceda was awarded the Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Award. Again perhaps not coincidentally, two of the four other winners of the International Press Freedom Award in 1993 have ‘democratic’ ties, these being, Doan Viet Hoat (who was the recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial’s 1995 Human Rights Award, and is a director of the World Press Freedom Committee – a group that describes its original purpose as “oppos[ing] proposals for a restrictive new world information and communication order”) and Veran Matic (who in 1993 was working for Radio B92 in Yugoslavia – a station that received a grant from the NED in 1991, and continued to receive support throughout the 1990s from ‘democracy promoting’ organizations intent on ousting Slobodan Milosevic).

IPYS Peru can boast other ‘democratic’ links as they have worked alongside the NED-funded Association for Civil Rights, an Argentinean NGO that “was founded in 1995 in Argentina with the purpose of contributing to the establishment of a legal and institutional culture that would guarantee fundamental rights to the inhabitants of our country, based on respect for the Constitution.”  The Association for Civil Rights also receives funding from other key ‘democratic’ groups like the British Council, the Ford Foundation, and the Open Society Institute: likewise it is interesting to observe that IPYS Peru is a partner organization of the Open Society Institute’s Open Society Justice Initiative.

IPYS Peru obtained renewed NED support to continue their work protected press freedom in Peru in both 2000 and 2001. Of more relevance to this article though, was the creation, in 2002, of a Venezuelan branch of IPYS. Like their Peruvian chapter, IPYS Venezuela has obtained ongoing support from the NED, and in their founding year they received their first grant to organize a forum “for media owners, editors, journalists, and leaders of international media-advocacy groups to reflect on the state of freedom of expression and journalism in Venezuela.” The following year they obtained another NED grant, which was used to (1)“construct a network of alerts in Venezuela to report attacks and threats against journalists”, (2) “support correspondents in the provinces by monitoring press conditions and investigating cases of attacks or threats, and… offer a series of professional training sessions for journalists”, and (3) to “participate in regional press-advocacy meetings and work with international and regional organizations dedicated to freedom of expression.” The NED has continued to provide annual grants to IPYS Venezuela, and in 2006 they gave them their largest grant to date.

However, perhaps most significantly, today – that is, on September 18, 2007 – IPYS Venezuela received the NED’s coveted Democracy Award. As their website notes, the NED’s Democracy Award is given annually “to recognize the courageous and creative work of individuals and organizations that has advanced the cause of human rights and democracy around the world.” This year however, instead of judging the work of an assortment of democracy activists, the Democracy Award aimed to spotlight the work of press freedom activists from around the world. Four awards were given this year, so in addition to IPYS obtaining the award, three other individuals were awarded the NED’s Democracy Award: these three journalists were Anna Politkovskaya (the Russian journalist who was murdered in October 2006, and was formerly the 2005 recipient of the ‘democratic’ Civil Courage Prize), Hisham Kassem (who is “[o]ne of Egypt’s most prominent publishers and democracy activists”, and has served as chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights – a group that received six NED grants between 1994 and 2003), and Kavi Chongkittavorn (who is the assistant group editor of Nation Media Group, a member of the steering committee of the NED-created World Movement for Democracy, and chair of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance – a group that since 1999 has received annual NED support for its work in Malaysia).

Here it is significant to note that the three aforementioned media freedom groups – IPYS, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance – are all members of a media network known as the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX). Their affiliation to IFEX is especially noteworthy because 16 of IFEX’s 72 members have received funding from either, the NED, the Westminster Foundation or Rights and Democracy (the NED’s counterpart organisations in the UK and Canada respectively). Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, to name just two, are perhaps the most notorious media organisations that can be counted among these 16 ‘democratically’ tied groups. (A full exposition of IFEX’s ‘democratic’ links will be outlined in my forthcoming article Polyarchy and the Public Sphere.)

Finally, it is also important to point out that Democracy Award winner, Kavi Chongkittavorn, serves on the executive board of the International Press Institute (IPI). This affiliation is indicative of Chongkittavorn’s ‘democratic’ credentials, as IPI is not only an IFEX member, but this group’s interests have historically been closely aligned with those of American foreign policy elites, as in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the IPI actively opposed UNESCO’s proposed New World Information and Communication Order. This is significant because in 2000 IPYS was awarded the IPI’s Free Media Pioneer Award: an award which is cosponsored by Freedom Forum, which provides a further clue as to the political nature of the award, as emeritus chair of Freedom House, Bette Bao Lord, is also a trustee of the Freedom Forum. Similarly, Allen H. Neuharth, the founder of Freedom Forum, is also a member of the advisory board of the World Press Freedom Committee.

IPYS Venezuela through it ongoing demonization of Chavez’s media policies is currently fulfilling a vital role in the US-led war on Venezuelan democracy. This should be even more worrisome for progressive activists as the NED notes IPYS “has become an authoritative voice on freedom of expression issues in Venezuela, and is a point of reference for journalists, academics and human rights defenders.” So while it is hardly likely that corporate media outlets will ever view the work of ‘media freedom’ groups like IPYS with skepticism, it is vital that all people concerned with freedom and democracy work to expose the insidious nature of their anti-democratic work.

First and foremost, to counter the negative influence of the ‘democracy promoting’ establishment on nongovernmental organizations (like IPYS or Human Rights Watch) it is crucial that progressive citizens committed to a participatory democracy work to develop alternate funding mechanisms for sustaining grassroots activism. Then perhaps as James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer (2001) observe in their seminal book, Globalization Unmasked, progressive NGOs and activists will be able to “systematically criticize and critique the ties of their colleagues with imperialism and its local clients, their ideology of adaptation to neoliberalism, and their authoritarian and elitist structures.” As they go on to note, it is vitally important that progressive NGOs encourage their less progressive counterparts “to get out of the foundation/government networks and go back to organizing and educating their own people in Europe and North America to form socio-political movements that can challenge the dominant regimes and parties that serve the banks and the [Transnational Corporations].” This is certainly no small order, but it is certainly one that will better enable concerned citizens all over the world to promote participatory democracy rather than polyarchy.