Reporters Without Borders (RWB). The name, modelled on that of humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), conjures the idea of an organisation that monitors global standards of press freedom, offers insightful and hard-hitting investigative reports on world conflict and defends the safety of courageous journalists in war-torn countries. One would imagine that such an organisation would lend its support to one of the few countries in the world that is taking major leaps in democratising the media by breaking the existing monopoly of corporate domination.
And surely, an organisation that claims to laud truthful press coverage would denounce the actions of a television station — Venezuela's Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) — that participates in a coup against a democratically elected government. In April 2002, a US-backed military coup was launched against the government of President Hugo Chavez. RCTV broadcast opposition calls to overthrow the Chavez government; encouraged viewers to participate in a demonstration that was part of the coup strategy; banned pro-Chavez coverage during the period of the coup; falsified footage of government forces firing on demonstrators (which was used as a justification for the coup); and refused to report Chavez's April 13 return to power on the back of a mass uprising led by the poor, instead running soap operas and films.
Instead, RWB is at the forefront of the right-wing media war against Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution. Indeed, the political lines of the US government, the US-backed Venezuelan opposition and RWB coincide exactly.
RWB is purportedly non-partisan and independent. However, it receives funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the International Republican Institute, both of which are financed by the US Congress. Last year, information obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act revealed that RWB had received funds over at least three years from the IRI, linked to US President George Bush's Republican Party.
In April 2005, RWB secretary general Robert Menard admitted: "We indeed receive money from the NED. And that hasn't posed any problem."
On the contrary, the funding source is increasingly becoming a problem for the organisation's credibility. RWB's attacks on Venezuela's popularly elected socialist government coincide with a growing effort by Washington to destabilise and discredit the revolutionary movement. Both major patrons of RWB have been deeply involved in the efforts to overthrow Chavez.
In the years preceding the 2002 coup, millions of dollars of US government funding was directed to opposition groups that participated in the attempt to overthrow Chavez.
According to the Washington DC-based International Relations Center, the NED and the IRI have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars since 1998 (the year Chavez was first elected) to anti-government groups, including the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (a right-wing, pro-boss union federation) and the Assembly of Educators. The IRC's profile of the NED notes that "with NED funding, IRI had been sponsoring political party-building workshops and other anti-Chavez activities in Venezuela" prior to the 2002 coup. A December 2002 report by the IRC's Mike Ceaser notes that even before the 1998 presidential election, the IRI "worked with Venezuelan organizations critical of Chavez to run newspaper ads, TV, and radio spots that several observers characterize as anti-Chavez".
As an instrument of quasi-governmental political aid, the IRI is extremely close to the Bush administration. It operates in more than 65 countries, according to its website. It has been linked to the overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, who was popular with the country's poor.
Institutions like the IRI and the NED help Washington keep its subversive activities against unfriendly regimes at arm's length and help prevent scrutiny of its foreign policy. Of course, with US Congress providing all the funding for the IRI and NED, the assertion of neutrality is baseless.
The NED was founded in 1983 by then President Ronald Reagan with the explicit purpose of "planting the seeds of democracy in Latin America" — in other words, intervening against international efforts to undermine Washington's political hegemony, something that Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution is undoubtedly doing. From 2002 to 2005, the NED's federal financing tripled, from US$26 million to $75 million, the New York Times reported in January 2006.
RWB has managed to retain some degree of credibility by continuing to criticise the treatment of journalists in Iraq. However, its role in the propaganda war against the Venezuela revolution, and the fact that it has only just begun to admit the dubious sources of its funding after years of refusing to do so, are increasingly attracting criticism.
RWB has been at the forefront of the concerted push by the right wing, both in Venezuela and internationally, to distort the Venezuelan government's decision not to renew RCTV's broadcast licence in May as a result of the station's participation in the April 2002 coup and numerous violations of Venezuelan broadcasting laws. RWB's June 5 report on its May 24-28 "fact-finding" mission to Venezuela is riddled with unsupported assertions and outright falsehoods.
For example, RWB claims that Chavez has "an impressive media apparatus at this disposal for getting his message across". Yet according to a June 2 Venezuelanalysis.com article by Gregory Wilpert, only three out of 200 television channels are state-owned (VTV, Vive, and Avila TV) and only two out of 426 radio stations are state-owned. There are no state-owned newspapers. A May 31 RWB report asserts that Chavez intends to "eliminate all the opposition press", a statement with no grounding. RCTV can continue to broadcast over cable and satellite, it merely cannot occupy one of the limited, free-to-air frequencies.
Although the June 5 report grudgingly admits that Chavez was elected and remains supported by the vast majority of Venezuelans, it omits any mention of the government's plans to replace RCTV. The station will be replaced on free-to-air television with a new public network, Televisora Venezolana Social (Tves), which will exclusively source programs from thousands of independent and community-based contributors.
This plan simply does not correlate with the claims by RWB and the Venezuelan opposition that Chavez's intends to enforce "media hegemony", nor does it represent "a major setback to democracy and pluralism", as RWB's Menard asserted. On the contrary, it seems that Venezuela is on a path to rupturing the monopoly that the wealthy elite have over the media, and passing this media power to the people. It is this — the creation of a genuine "mass" media — that Venezuela's capitalist media companies are desperate to undermine, hence the renewed vigour of the right's campaign against Chavez.