While pro-government media orchestrate a propaganda-driven depiction of China, the benefactor, private media fail to serve citizen oversight with fact-checked pieces.

Ana Julia Niño Gamboa

Executive summary

This initial investigation, focused on the coverage that the Venezuelan media has given to the so-called Chinese “humanitarian aid”, shows traces of pragmatism in local journalism that seems to concur with that famous statement of Deng Xiaoping “No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat”. In the midst of this severe crisis worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, all help is necessary; but this should not become an obstacle to the search for the truth. Instead, Venezuelans are exposed to government media doing militant journalism for the cause of propaganda, magnifying the alleged donations and, in turn, private media that report what the official spokespersons say but without much detail. To this, we must add the systematic practice of opacity by the government: The cocktail of disinformation is served.

It seems that the closest we can get to detailed information regarding the humanitarian aid coming from China was found on September 29, when Foreign Affairs Minister Jorge Arreaza, upon welcoming Chinese flight No. 8 containing 15 tons of humanitarian aid to Venezuela, stated that, in total “1,970,000 quick tests have been brought to the country – over 680,000 PCR kits – 9.7 million masks, 1.6 million disposable gloves, 138,000 insulation suits, 14,000 protective glasses, 5 insulated ambulances, 70 invasive ventilators, 15 air purifiers, 50 oxygen generators, among other supplies”. Right then, he let this afterthought slip “Instead, from the US, we have only gotten sanctions, blockade, and people lining up to fill their car tanks with gasoline”. The information is not supported by the official sites of the organizations involved, so it cannot be consolidated or fact-checked.

Although this investigation is aimed at reviewing the media coverage of such aid in Venezuela, we cannot help noticing the intensive propagandistic activity undertaken by China worldwide in order to rid itself of the responsibilities it is assigned for the alleged incubation of the virus and its subsequent concealment. Obviously, the deep Venezuelan crisis triggers the springs of acceptance of everything that will lessen the effects of the pandemic. Against this backdrop, as Spanish journalist and writer Juan Pablo Cardenal points out, “China would be trying to present itself to the world as a reliable and responsible international player, as well as a partnering benefactor thanks to its generous help and donations, as the great global leader in crisis management”.

Introduction

The Venezuelan government has found in China an ally willing to stir the narrative on U.S. imperialism, the paradox is that imperialism delivers supplies collected but in a different color. This has been the case since the rise of Hugo Chavez to power and has continued during the Nicolas Maduro administration, thereby securing a key partner in the international arena while China is seeking a friendly space for the ideology of its communist party, as part of its geopolitical strategy in Latin America and the Caribbean.

From the relationship that dates back to 1999, agreements of a diverse nature have spawned. For now, we are interested in those relating to humanitarian aid amidst this pandemic, towards a possible after-COVID-19 scenario. We refer to the public side to this type of relationship and gauge the impact of this information on the Venezuelan media because, at the end of the day, we are talking about access to information that, by its nature, is public, is of public interest, and demands full accountability from government entities.

Our analysis is centered on the media’s viewpoint, but it is impossible to address this issue without assessing the enormous investments made by China to position its solidarity with the world, after the reasonable doubts that point to it as responsible for incubating the virus and subsequently concealing information on the severity of this matter. On the other hand, it focuses on the interest of the Venezuelan government to access new sources of funding without resorting to multilateral organizations, while appealing to the narrative entrenched in the absolute responsibility of US sanctions, not the inefficiency typical of Chavismo, as well as in the serious health, economic, social, and political crisis crippling Venezuela.

We work from a perspective of freedom of expression, with special emphasis on the right of access to timely, true, and transparent public information as one of the fundamental components for confronting another pandemic virus, disinformation. In this case, we seek to show what the Venezuelan media disseminate on this subject as an exercise allowing us to evaluate their viewpoint on an issue that seems not to be limited to Chinese altruism.

We documented this investigation with online information searches on the websites of 14 (pro-) government and private media in a period from March 16, 2020 (national quarantine order issued), to September 2020. Almost all the news items are regarding the announcements of the arrival of tons of supplies consisting of humanitarian aid.

We also reviewed the official websites of the ministries of health, economy, and foreign affairs to ascertain the proper availability of humanitarian aid data, because this input is essential for journalistic work, and is public information.

Table 1: Profile of media reviewed

OutletURLProfile
Últimas Noticiaswww.ultimasnoticias.com.vePro-government
Efecto Cocuyowww.efectococuyo.comPrivate
El Universalwww.eluniversal.comPrivate
El Nacionalwww.elnacional.comPrivate
Telesurwww.telesurtv.netPro-government
Alba Ciudadwww.albaciudad.orgPro-government
La Iguana TVwww.laiguana.tvPro-government
Correo del Orinocowww.correodelorinoco.gob.vePro-government
Venezolana de Televisiónwww.vtv.gob.vePro-government
Runrun.eswww.runrun.esPrivate
La Patillawww.lapatilla.comPrivate
El Estímulowww.elestimulo.comPrivate
El Pitazowww.elpitazo.netPrivate
Agencia Venezolana de Noticias (AVN)www.avn.info.vePro-government
Source: Author’s research

Between disinformation and tons of propaganda

The arrivals of supplies and equipment from China appear intermittently on the media searched, and when they do, they are reported in the form a casual tip, an almost everyday event with no great media impact, at least for the private media in our search. For the pro-government media, the report takes the form of propaganda, one whereby the standard raised is anti-imperialistic, not so much in favor of a new order encouraging plurality and the freedom of people. Instead, the narrative deployed remains silent about the presence of the United States and its sanctions, although paradoxically sanctions are the protective buffer from the inefficiency of the Chavista government.

Table 2: Overview of issues and related facts

InformationRemarks
Number of flightsData in disarray available from Foreign Affairs Press Service. Dates cited by the media carry differ in day and number.
Nature of items receivedGovernment spokespersons talk indistinctly about donations and purchases, but they provide no further details. The media reproduce the information.
Tonnage of suppliesIncoming amounts are not always disclosed. A prima facie review shows contradictions in the overall amounts stated by spokespersons.
Distribution of suppliesDetails never supplied
Follow-up on informationNone
Statement by Chinese Ambassador in VE, Li BaorongDelivery-oriented. In the media, the tone of his speech is hardly reviewed.
Propaganda in each deliveryNo distinct reference made in the private media reviewed. Inevitably present in pro-government media.
Source: Author’s research

The review conducted on the screened websites obviously shows two remarkable facts: The coverage designed by the pro-government media aligns itself with the regime’s position and its current favoritism for the government of China as it somewhat scornfully regards the US. Meanwhile, the coverage of the private media seems to be subject to giving a rather insubstantial account of the facts relayed by government channels.

Table 3: News treatment by media profile

Pro-government mediaPrivate media
Pro-government media close ranks with the official discourse. In this regard, they are incorporated into the propaganda activity of both the Venezuelan and Chinese governments.Most limit themselves to repeating the official account, that is, they almost aseptically recite what government leaders post on their Twitter accounts or in official broadcasts. There is no discernible hint of propaganda activity.
In each official event of reception of supplies reported by the media reviewed, the strategic alliance of both nations is underscored, never lacking the mandatory reference to the US government and sanctions, as an explanation of the crisis being experienced by Venezuela in the official narrative.We found several pieces not produced locally, but reproduced from international agencies. In these, a striking headline scantly connected with the main text of the news item is displayed.
The same tone against the US serves China to portray itself as the necessary benefactor that advocates for the community of common destiny for mankind, promoted by President Xi JinpingByline absent in several of the news items read.
A strategy that has activated its propaganda machine, under these severe pandemic-triggered circumstances in which no help can be declined.In other cases, some of the media reviewed do not provide any information regarding this binational exchange.
Source: Author’s research

Each of both sides seen in our review shows its own perspective:

The first, which concerns the pro-government media, seems quite logical to us in its dynamic of spreading and amplifying official propaganda. Therefore, rather than informing, they advocate for the discourse that the government wishes to position and they publish with a proselytizing attitude. At the same time, they put their feeds at the service of Chinese propaganda and the desire of expansion of its communist party in Latin America and the Caribbean. In this respect, Venezuela serves as a beachhead for its media strategy in the region, as reported by scholar and researcher Andrés Cañizález, when referring to the inclusion of state agency Xinhua as a sub-domain in pan regional, multi-state channel Telesur’s website.

The second, that of the private media, seems uncritical of facts that, from the moment they source information from the government, leave room for doubts and questions. For example, how much of the medical supplies and equipment delivered by China are donations and how much is part of trade agreements, what is the amount of these transactions and the terms of payment. Even in the case of donations, it is not specified what is being delivered and how the distribution will be conducted among healthcare centers and hospitals. These aspects do not appear in the pieces reviewed; at most, a reflection finds its way expressed in terms such as “no further details were provided” or “no other specifics were made available”.

We do not know the amount of supplies, equipment, or medicines that China has brought into Venezuela; but we do know that the weight can be measured in tons of propaganda in favor of the Asian government’s policies and its expansionist project. Therefore, the new world order so invoked revolves around the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

Certainly, the diplomatic relations between China and Venezuela have a date of birth prior to the rise of Chavismo to power. Twenty years ago, that relationship existed and developed widely not only between both governments; it was more comprehensive and spanned over the private sector. Back then, we did not use to see a Chinese ambassador, for example, chanting the ruling party’s slogans.

Conclusions

The opacity of the government, on the one hand, and the apathy of the media, on the other, put together a dangerous puzzle of disinformation, the pieces of which always fit against citizens’ right to information.

The work of the media in service of citizen oversight, in the case under analysis, is meager. Although the objective of this work is not to find explanations for this behavior of the media, we believe it is useful to note that the crisis caused by the pandemic and the precarious situation in Venezuela may play in favor of aid being appreciated wherever it comes from, without estimating the cost that must be paid afterwards.

If there is any truth in our assumption, Venezuelan journalism has the challenge of overcoming the limitations of authoritarian regimes, especially in social, economic, political, and health environments that put the country on survival mode.

Media coverage and well-supported information from journalists on the geopolitical issues at stake in these times are fundamental. Warning that there are no innocent actions by China and Russia, nor by the United States, is part of the inescapable facts to understand and accurately explain the challenges facing the country. Today, China is presented to us as the great global leader for the management of this crisis, despite being singled out as the one responsible for concealing the timely information that could have prevented the spread of the coronavirus; it remains to be seen the testing field for its vaccine that we will become here in Venezuela.

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