Latin America News Coverage: Half the Story Is Worse Than None
Barack Obama had a few choice words for Bill and Hillary Clinton after the South Carolina primary, about people who would "say anything and do anything to win an election."
Imagine if the U.S media had reported his remarks without ever reporting what the candidate was responding to. (He was reacting to former president Bill Clinton's comparison -- widely seen as racial politicking -- of Obama's South Carolina victory to Jesse Jackson's in the 1980's; and Hillary Clinton's attack ads).
It would not be considered acceptable journalism in the United States to omit these key facts. But in U.S. coverage of Latin America, the same standards do not apply.
For example, the press has run a number of reports lately on a diplomatic dispute between Venezuela and Colombia, which is important because the two countries share a 1300 mile border that has been plagued for decades by paramilitary and guerrilla violence. The press was quick to report some rather undiplomatic remarks from President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela about President Uribe of Colombia, whom Chavez called "a liar" and "fit to be a Mafia boss" rather than president.
Missing from US and English-language press coverage were the key events to which Chavez was responding, and indeed the main cause of the current dispute. In the days before last New Year's eve, the Venezuelan government had arranged for the release of high-profile hostages held in the Colombian jungle by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrilla group. A high-level international team of observers were on hand, including former President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina, Brazil's top presidential foreign policy advisor, and representatives from France, Switzerland, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba and the Red Cross.
The mission failed, and recriminations followed. President Uribe said that the FARC were lying the whole time, that they never had any intention of releasing the hostages because they did not have one of the three that they had promised to deliver (a 3-year old boy who was born in captivity). President Chavez angrily accused Uribe of "dynamiting" the mission. He said that the FARC was in fact ready to release the two hostages that they held, but had to retreat from Colombian military operations. President Uribe maintained that his military, under orders from him, had held to a cease fire in order to allow the release. Who was telling the truth?
When the two hostages, Consuelo Gonzalez and Clara Rojas, were finally released on January 10, Gonzalez - a former Colombian congresswoman -- told this story to the press:
"'On December 21, we began to walk toward the location where they were going to free us and we walked almost 20 days. During that time, we were forced to run several times because the soldiers were very close,' she said. Gonzalez also lamented that on the day that Alvaro Uribe set as a deadline for the release, the Colombian armed forces launched the worst attack on the zone where they were located. 'On the 31st, we realized that there was going to be a very big mobilization and, in the moment that we were ready to be released, there was a huge bombardment and we had to relocate quickly to another place.'"
No English-language reporters questioned the truth of Gonzalez' testimony; it was simply not reported. The one exception was an Associated Press article, where it was buried and barely mentioned, and edited out of most newspapers. By eliminating this vital information, the media prevented readers from knowing that the Colombian government had reneged on its end of the bargain, putting the lives of the hostages at risk in what looked like an attempt to embarrass Chavez and abort the mission.
This kind of coverage of Latin America is all too common. For example, the democratic government of President Evo Morales in Bolivia is trying to reverse centuries of apartheid rule over the country's indigenous majority. Yet these efforts are often portrayed in the U.S. media as a "power grab" by the president and as "Chavez's project." This is despite the fact that the rewriting of the constitution is a long-standing demand of Bolvia's powerful social movements, long before Evo Morales ever met Hugo Chavez. The omission of crucial information plays an important role in creating a false impression. Thus, CNN reported that "Governors in eastern Bolivia opposed the proposed constitution because it was passed without the presence of opposition legislators," without mentioning that this was because of a boycott by these legislators. (The same report also erroneously states that the new constitution would allow "Morales to run for president indefinitely.")
Editorial boards then use this "half-reporting" to produce even more exaggerated editorials denouncing Latin America's new democracies as "authoritarian" and worse. The result is that those who follow the news coverage of Latin America here can end up with less understanding than those who ignore it.