Al Jazeera’s ‘Venezuela Divided’ Falls Into Classic Journalist’s Trap

EspañolFault Lines, a documentary series produced and broadcast by Al Jazeera America, is the network’s latest flagship investigative program in the Americas. Tomorrow, June 28, they will premiere a new episode called “Venezuela Divided.”

Al Jazeera America
(AJAM Twitter)

Correspondent Sebastian Walker travels to Venezuela to portray how a polarized society is split in half over its political future, while trying to survive an economic debacle. However, as a Venezuelan who watched the preview, I could only ask myself which Venezuela is he actually portraying?

Walker starts off by visiting a Labor Day Chavista rally. With skeptical faces, supporters hear Maduro’s words, maybe in an attempt to convince themselves that the revolution is on the right path, even with Hugo Chávez now absent.

While Maduro’s popularity has continued to sink, students and other members of the opposition have led massive protests that have taken the country by storm. Chronic food shortages and inflation are the driving factors for the protesters’ discontent. Walker, however, points out how the poor are somehow fine with it when he visits one of the biggest slums in the country, Petare.

Rather than gloss over the crisis, it would have been more interesting to explore how state-owned markets and subsidized food have made the poor even more vulnerable and dependent on government aid. The subsidies and welfare policies that Chavismo has fostered have tried to “protect” the poor from the severe harms of inflation, at least with food and other basic supplies, and at the same time, dissuade them from taking the streets.

It’s also a shame that during this “investigative” documentary, the peaceful protests are somehow reduced to a small group of radicals that randomly set fire to bus stations and police units. Even though numerous NGO’s, political parties, and news outlets have shared many photos and videos that show the authorities’ participation as agent provocateurs in otherwise peaceful rallies, Walker says it has just “been difficult” to find that evidence. Why didn’t Walker contact Foro Penal, the main NGO that has been reporting all the human rights violations during the protests?

In the documentary, Walker characterizes the protests as an “excuse” to oust Maduro from power. However, he ignores compelling motives such as politically driven repression, a lack of freedom of speech, corruption in a biased justice system, and partisanship of institutions. These fundamental problems have kept anyone in opposition excluded for many years.

Al Jazeera America's Fault Lines Venezuela Divided
(Al Jazeera America)

Even though this national wave of protests started in the city of San Cristóbal, Táchira, the program solely focuses on a small group that confronts security forces in a specific part of Caracas — a very narrow view of a wide and deep problem. In order to understand what is really going on on the streets of Venezuela, the correspondent should have visited other important cities, aside from the capital, where mayors have been arbitrarily arrested for not repressing the protests, students have been raped while being detained for protesting, and the mass demonstrations have gone far beyond wealthy neighborhoods.

Curiously enough, Al Jazeera correspondent Andy Gallacher, who came to Venezuela in March of this year, achieved a much deeper analysis on the matter.

“If you go somewhere like San Cristóbal, it’s an entirely different picture. About everyone in this city is out on the streets and it’s almost entirely anti-government. It would be too much of a broad brush sweep to say that these people are little rich kids down on the streets trying to cause trouble, it’s a far deeper problem than that,” Gallacher explains.
The video cannot be watched in the United States.

Walker then goes to 23 de Enero, a colectivo‘s headquarters, where they show kids playing baseball while adults happily eat soup. This attempt to make it seem as if these pro-government groups are all unarmed and want peace comes across as simply naïve to me.

The Al Jazeera correspondent talks with Genaro García, a member of the Catia Presente colectivo, who explains how their purpose is only to do “social work or provide the connection between the government and the community.”

During the episode, Walker walks through the streets of 23 de enero, where walls are covered with graffiti and paintings that read “Juancho Vive” (Juancho lives). Juan Montoya, also known as “Juancho,” was a police officer who also served as a leader for one of these colectivos, and was murdered in the events of February 12.

During his interview, the community representative assures that Juancho won’t be forgotten, and explains how his legacy will continue.

It’s interesting to point out that the “legacy” that these “peaceful” colectivos say they will protect is in fact far from peaceful. In an article released last April 2013 by Al Jazeera itself, correspondent Chris Arsenault talks with the same Juan Montoya, who explained the role the colectivos should have in Chávez’s revolution.

“Violence is a tool,” he said to Al Jazeera. “It’s going to be seen as something good or bad depending on your interests.” These words were said, after assuring that they just “wouldn’t accept” an electoral victory from the opposition in the near future.

But beyond what Juancho said, the article includes strong remarks from a former officer with Venezuelan military intelligence that put into question the images shown in Fault Lines.

A mural portraying Hugo Chávez holding a semi-automatic rifle in Venezuela
A mural portraying Hugo Chávez holding a semi-automatic rifle above the slogan, “Independence and Socialist Homeland.” (Andréa Schmidt)

The colectivos in 23 de Enero “are the authority, they set the rules for living… They have two faces: a dark face and a public face.” During his time in intelligence, he explains, “They were involved with drug trafficking and kidnapping on one hand and social-cultural work and sports on the other. They did some things that were good for their community. The money they would raise, they would use to arm themselves.” The former officer, who requested to remain anonymous with Al Jazeera, continues, “if you get along with them, you’ll have no problems, but if you compete with them in the drug business there will be trouble. It’s even worse in ideological terms.”

No wonder Venezuelan and international human rights organizations have accused those same groups of instigating violence during the protests. It has been proved that these armed groups engage in repression right alongside the authorities to “protect” the revolution in the poorest slums of Caracas. And they get away with this because they support the regime.

The fact that Al Jazeera’s own reporting was conveniently left out of the documentary shows how superficial the analysis was. The failure of institutions in taking control of these slums, where the law of the strongest prevails, or in this case, the law of the colectivos, is an important part of the criticisms put forwards by the opposition, and at the same time, left out in the episode.

Unfortunately, Fault Lines missed an opportunity, as they have produced what is far from an investigative documentary. In an attempt to do “unbiased” reporting, the program fails to inquire beyond the testimonials, and tragically falls into the classic journalist’s trap. In the end, Al Jazeera portrays exactly what Maduro’s regime wants to sell: radical small protests led by violent groups, an opposition averse to dialogue, while pro-government and allegedly unarmed community colectivos only want peace.

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