On Sunday March 3rd 2003 the newspaper El Nacional published an interview with Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, in which the erstwhile Chavez supporter strongly criticised the government.
One can imagine the excitement that greeted the scoop: here was a high profile Chavista who had previously praised his administration for being in the vanguard of a new global social justice movement now doing down his former friend. The headline splashed gleefully across the front page quoted Ramonet: ‘Chavez lo Esta Haciendo Realmente Mal’. (Chavez is doing things really badly/Chavez is fucking things up).
The introduction to the interview also alluded ironically to the time Chavez had praised the objectivity of Le Monde Diplomatique and held it up as a model for Venezuelan journalists to follow.
Unfortunately for El Nacional, when Ramonet returned to Paris to discover the many irate letters and messages attacking him for his volte-face, he wrote a letter denying all knowledge of the interview. "Never have I said any such things concerning Major Chavez," he said before adding that he had never even met the interviewer and reaffirming his support for Chavez's presidency.
This crushing revelation was accompanied by a letter from the interviewer - one Emiliano Payares Guzman - admitting that the interview was a complete fabrication written with the intention of testing the professional rigour of the Venezuelan press.
After emailing the faked interview to a website called www.analitica.com and claiming - equally spuriously - that the meeting was facilitated by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, Payares Guzman watched with surprise and amusement as it was published first on the website and then subsequently in El Nacional. The interview's authenticity was never checked.
The paper claimed that it had tried and failed to contact Ramonet a few hours before going to press but decided that as the piece had already been printed elsewhere it didn't need any further verification. Needless to say they ended up with humble pie all over their shirts.
There are of course more sinister implications in this affair. El Nacional is owned by Miguel Henrique Otero, one of a cadre of media moguls and businessmen behind last year's abortive attempt to overthrow Chavez's democratically elected government. Indeed, it has been reported that prior to the coup on April 11th 2002 the plotters gathered in Otero's house several times.
After an initial honeymoon period during which Otero and Cisneros the head of Venevision supported Chavez's election bid, relations between the media and the government have soured. Chavez himself regularly refers to the non-state owned channels as ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse’.
The TV stations in particular have played an active role in the campaign to destabilise the country best illustrated by coverage of the coup. Hundreds of ads encouraging viewers to take to the streets were broadcast, and the stations rejoiced at the president's subsequent resignation. However, when pro-Chavez forces began to demand his return, the massive demonstrations and other events leading to his reinstatement were unscrupulously ignored with one station famously electing to show Pretty Woman instead.
This gross bias continues. During the recent national strike the advertising continued. Even now with the strike over and tensions easing, the TV stations still carry the advertisements from the Coordinadora Democratica encouraging people to demonstrate against the government. Can you imagine the reaction if ITV started running ads encouraging people with anti war stance?
Within this context you have to wonder whether there would have been the same sense of heedless urgency had ‘Ramonet’ been praising the Bolivarian revolution.
This is not to pretend that Chavez is without fault - the more reasonable accusations against him are not without foundation. But as the claims and counter claims of War in Iraq - didn't it use to be called the War on Terrorism? - have shown us, we must beware of giving credence to journalism overly informed by vested interests and media bias.