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Fair and Balanced or US Govt. Propaganda?

Fox News vs. Hugo Chavez

by NIKOLAS KOZLOFF

Washington, DC

Given recent friction between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the White House it inevitably was only a matter of time before Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News would start to ratchet up its shrill ideological pressure. Since taking office in 1998, Chávez has had a stormy relationship with his powerful northern neighbor. Chávez, who established close ties with Washington’s anathema, Cuban President Fidel Castro, criticized U.S.-led efforts for a free trade zone in the Americas, which he insisted would primarily benefit the U.S., while opposing the war in Iraq, resulting in no mystery as to why he has long been so reviled by the Bush administration. Tensions have been bristling between the two nations particularly since April 2002 when Chávez, the democratically elected president, was briefly removed from power in a coup which involved U.S. funding.

A maverick politician and former paratrooper, Chávez accused (not without merit) Washington of sponsoring his attempted overthrow as well as supporting a devastating oil lockout in 2002-3. Not one to easily soften his language, Chávez bluntly referred to the United States as "an imperialist power." What is more, according to the Venezuelan leader, Bush had plans to have him assassinated. In a further rhetorical sortie, Chávez warned that if he were killed the United States would have to "forget Venezuelan oil."

In a series of recent television reports Fox News has derided the firebrand leftist leader, presenting the current Venezuelan political habitat entirely from the perspective of the country’s conservative middle-class opposition as well as the Bush administration.

In siding with the opposition, Fox News joins the ranks of almost all of the Venezuelan television stations including Radio Caracas TV and Venevision (see NIKOLAS KOZLOFF’s Thursday report, "Chávez Launches Hemispheric, "Anti-Hegemonic" Media Campaign in Response to Local TV Networks Anti-Government Bias) which have launched a vitriolic and highly personalized savaging of Chávez over the past few years. In his reports, Fox reporter Steve Harrigan speaks solely with members of the Venezuelan opposition and shows Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice critical of Chávez. Of course, Fox News has the right to present the news as distortedly as it sees fit. However, its exclusive adherence to anti-Chávez sources completely caricatures the station’s claim to be "fair and balanced." In fact, when it comes to Venezuela, it strives to be a propaganda mill.

Fox Source #1: Leopoldo Lopez

In short bits scarcely lasting longer than a television commercial, Harrigan, a former CNN Moscow correspondent, intones that Chávez is "moving towards totalitarian rule." To support this view he turns to such redoubtable Venezuelan political figures as Leopoldo Lopez. "The danger we are facing as Venezuelans," says Lopez, "is the possibility of one day waking up and all of the sudden not having any of our liberties." What Harrigan failed to disclose however is that Lopez, as the municipal mayor of the Caracas district of Chacao, has worked closely with the Primero Justicia party. According to Venezuelan human rights lawyer Eva Golinger, Primero Justicia is the "most extreme opposition party to Chávez." What is more, Golinger has written that after the April 2002 coup against Chávez, Lopez signed the "Carmona Decree" which dissolved all democratic institutions including the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General and Public Defender. Additionally, the Carmona Decree did away with "an overwhelming number of laws and constitutional rights implemented during the Chávez administration." At the time, this action was denounced by almost all of Latin America’s leaders.

Lopez’s colleague at Primero Justicia, Leopoldo Martinez, was promoted to Minister of Finance under the Carmona coup regime. Even more revealing, Golinger reports that Primero Justicia received training and support from the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit U.S. organization which receives millions of dollars in laundered funding from the U.S. taxpayer funded National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This piece further corroded Harrigan’s fast disappearing reputation as a professional by failing to disclose vital information to Fox viewers about the political biases and special interests of his sources.

Fox Fails to Disclose Lopez’ Record

What is more, Fox viewers were left woefully uninformed about Lopez’s track record during the April 2002 coup. The day after Chávez was removed from power on April 12, Lopez and Baruta Mayor Henrique Capriles Radonski (see below) placed Chávez’s Interior and Justice Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin under arrest. Chacin later claimed that as he was being escorted out of his residence into a police car, he was physically attacked by a mob. Lopez responded by saying that he was innocent and was ordered to carry out the order by the Public Ministry, now under the control of the leader of coup regime, Pedro Carmona. However, after Chávez was restored to power, Chacin asked the country’s attorney general to open an investigation of the incident. In late 2004 Lopez was indicted by the Caracas metropolitan attorney for his involvement in the raid on Chacin’s home and the subsequent arrest of the minister.

Fox Source #2: Capriles Radonski

Harrigan continued his assault against accuracy by once again indulging in over simplification when he interviewed the mayor of the Caracas municipality of Baruta (bordering Leopoldo Lopez’s Chacao district), Henrique Capriles Radonski. Capriles remarks, "I spent 20 days without looking at the sun, without looking at the sky, without having open air." While it is true that Capriles was imprisoned in a highly controversial, politically-charged case, Harrigan omits important information that would help American viewers to better comprehend Venezuela’s volatile politics and give some rare perspective to the course of events there. For example, in his report, Harrigan doesn’t mention that Capriles was head of the U.S.-partly funded Primero Justicia party. This is not an insignificant point. Indeed, one can only imagine the reaction from Fox were the Democratic Party to accept money from a foreign government which was interested in getting rid of the Bush administration.

Radonski and the April 2002 Coup

What is the controversy swirling around Capriles and what did Fox neglect to tell its viewers? During the April 2002 coup against Chávez, hundreds of angry middle-class opposition demonstrators destroyed cars parked outside the Cuban embassy in Baruta. Not stopping there, the mob cut off water and electricity to the building and threatened to forcibly enter the facility and do harm to the frightened occupants inside. Later, Chávez officials charged that Capriles, as the leading authority in Baruta, did not enforce the law and allowed the demonstrators to run amok. Irate staff at the Cuban embassy later issued a statement reading, "The immediate responsibility of Mr. Capriles Radonsky and other Venezuelan state authorities was demonstrated when they failed to act diligently in order to prevent an increase in the aggression to which our embassy was subjected, causing serious damage and endangering the lives of officials and their families in clear violation of national and international law."

Meanwhile, the Baruta mayor insisted that he was merely trying to defuse a volatile situation. Later, the Cuban embassy denied assertions made by Primero Justicia deputy Julio Borges that the Cubans had asked for Capriles’s mediation at the scene. In an official statement issued by the embassy, the Cubans claimed that "these actions (the mob-incited acts of vandalism) occurred with impunity in the presence of the Baruta police who had instructions not to impede these actions." Capriles claims that he notified authorities and asked for assistance. “I talked with the people outside," he has stated. "I said, ‘This is an embassy, you cannot go inside.’"

During the incident Capriles was videotaped at the scene asking Cuban officials for permission to inspect the embassy on behalf of the angry mob. Though the tape supports his claim that he tried to calm the crowd, it also shows him speaking with the Cuban ambassador. In fact, what he is shown asking is for the Cuban ambassador to supply him with proof that there are no members of the government hiding inside the embassy (in another court case, the tape was used as evidence by both prosecutors and defense). For their part, Chávez officials charged that Capriles was demanding the right to inspect the embassy, which was a violation of international norms.

Capriles Radonski Arrested

In March 2004, a warrant was issued for Capriles’s arrest. On May 11 he turned himself in. Prosecutor Danilo Anderson, who had apparently developed a convincing case which linked US agencies to the coup, charged Capriles with property damage, intimidation, violating international principles and trespassing. Meanwhile, Leopoldo Lopez led a march of Chacao residents to the town hall to support Capriles. In an ironic twist, Lopez, who himself signed the Carmona Decree in 2002, remarked that the government was "kidnapping" the country’s institutions in order to engage in "political persecutions." Lopez rejected the charges against Capriles and argued that Venezuelans should be outraged about "undemocratic maneuvers." Capriles was held for four months and was released conditionally in September. In October, an appeals court dismissed the case against him.

In a dramatic development however, Anderson was the victim of a car bomb assassination when his SUV blew up in Caracas. Anderson was in charge of prosecuting several Chávez opponents involved in the April 2002 coup, including Capriles. Though no arrests were made, early suspicions focused on the Chávez opposition. Capriles remarked, "The government and the judicial system must find those responsible and do justice." He added, "I had many differences with Danilo Anderson, but these were fought out in the public prosecutor’s office." Since late last year, Venezuelan authorities have taken into custody a number of suspects who they accuse of playing a role in Anderson’s assassination. Despite the irretrievable loss of Anderson, the state has chosen to go on appealing the Capriles case.

Capriles Radonski: Democratic defender or menace to democracy?
Once again, Fox fails to report

In his report on Venezuela, Harrigan again interviews Capriles who remarks, "If you don’t have a rule or somebody who respects the rules, they can do whatever they want. They can be Fidel Castro second part." Clearly the young and somewhat flashily charismatic Capriles has become a symbol of popular resistance to the Chávez government. His supporters claim that he has been unfairly railroaded by the regime and that attacks against him have been politically motivated. But, does Capriles himself have any regard for the democratic process and "the rules?" Recent developments have cast some doubt on Capriles’ legitimacy. In early 2004, the Chávez opposition, frustrated by the failed coup attempt of 2002 and by an unsuccessful lock out in 2002-3, initiated the "Guarimba Plan." As Venezuela analyst Steve Ellner has written, under this urban sabotage plan "small groups blocked traffic and burned trash on key avenues in Caracas and other cities. Street damage in Caracas alone, according to Infrastructure Ministry estimates, reached $1 million in the first week. In addition, armed bands of opposition organizations, including the ex-leftist guerrilla group Red Flag, hurled Molotov cocktails and attacked the National Guard-violence that police in areas controlled by opposition parties refused to stop." As Ellner reports, as mayor of Baruta, Capriles "said police were right not to interfere because protestors were doing ‘nothing less than exercising their legal right to protest.’"

Fox’s Over-Simplifications

Though recent developments have cast doubt on Lopez’s and Capriles’ self-serving claims to be militants in the cause of good government, Fox oversimplifies the bitter political fracturing of the country by ignoring its complex history. It would seem that it is far easier to lop Capriles and Lopez amongst the forces of good than to actually investigate, from the perspective of both sides, a far more complex picture that would better conform to reality. But this would not hold true to tabloid tendencies that Fox’s Washington bureau, under Brit Hume, is universally seen as incorporating. If the network started to question Capriles’s and Lopez’s democratic credentials too closely, this might interfere with the underlying narrative with which Fox is very comfortable. In this scenario, Condoleezza Rice and the State Department fight for democracy and economic modernization and Hugo Chávez is a "totalitarian" who needs to be controlled, if not eliminated.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is a senior research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and author of Oil and Power in Venezuela forthcoming from University Nebraska Press. He can be reached at: nikoolas@hotmail.com