Dec 1 2012

Democracy & Double Standards

U.S. coverage of Venezuelan and Georgian elections

Amnesty International (10/1/12) describes it as a nation where ruling party officials have “abused public institutions and administrative re-sources to restrict the freedom of assembly, expression and association of opposition supporters,” many of whom have been “fined, fired, harassed or detained.”

Free speech advocates condemned its president for shuttering an opposition TV station for alleged complicity in a coup plot, right before its 2008 elections. The region’s leading election monitor found those elections plagued by violence, intimidation and ballot box-stuffing. Its president has been criticized for changing the law to sidestep term limits and remain in power.

"President Mikheil Saakashvili at a rally on Friday in Tbilisi. Parliamentary elections are Monday"

credit: Justyna Mielnikiewicz for The New York Times

Venezuela? No—U.S. ally and former Soviet state Georgia, whose 2008 “reelection” of pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili also included, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (3/4/08), “tampering with voter lists, results and protocols,” and copious evidence of blatant vote-buying: Among the many irregularities, according to witnesses cited in OSCE’s report, Saakashvili campaign workers “distributed vouchers for firewood” to voters who promised to vote for the president.

At the time, George W. Bush sent a congratulatory message to Saakashvili (1/14/08) calling the Georgian election “the most competitive in Georgia’s history” and falsely claiming it had been “determined by international organizations to be in essence consistent with most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and shared standards for democratic elections, despite significant challenges.”

Georgia’s actual culture of political repression resembles the distorted portrait painted by U.S. corporate media of the administration of President Hugo Chávez (Extra!, 2/09). When it comes to the fairness of elections, Georgia ranks far behind Venezuela, whose presidential and legislative elections have all been approved by international monitors since Chávez was first elected in 1998. Indeed, Venezuela’s election process has been deemed “the best in the world” by former U.S. president and elections expert Jimmy Carter (Huffington Post, 10/5/12).

However, U.S. media coverage of Georgia and Venezuela gives the reverse impression, typically portraying Venezuela’s electoral environment as by far the more foreboding and undemocratic (NACLA, 10/8/12).

As an independent leader whose policies favor Venezuelans over international business interests, Chávez has become a familiar bête noire in official U.S. circles. That has made him a whipping boy for a U.S. media that largely takes its cues from Washington—for instance, regularly referring to Chávez as a “dictator,” a “strongman” and an “autocrat” (Extra!, 11–12/05; NACLA, 10/8/12). From the New York Times and other newspapers applauding his overthrow in 2002 (Extra! Update, 6/02) to ABC World News anchor David Muir (10/7/12) declaring him a “fierce enemy of the United States” on the eve of last month’s elections (FAIR Blog, 10/10/12), Chávez is vilified and demonized in U.S. media.

As a February 2009 Extra! survey of 10 years of coverage found, the U.S. media portrayed Venezuela’s human rights atmosphere as worse than its nightmarish neighbor, Colombia, despite what actual human rights agencies report. In advance of the recent elections, U.S. media repeated false charges of vote-buying (see page 12) based on Chávez’s large expenditures on social programs for the poor, the central plank in the platform he has run on for 14 years.

But there’s little of that for Saakashvili, who, as a darling of U.S. elites since coming to power in Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, gets far more respect, if not altogether kid-glove treatment from U.S. media.

As Georgia’s October 1 parliamentary elections approached, missing was the froth and fury over Saakashvili’s authoritarianism that preceded Venezuela’s elections a week later. Even as Saakashvili peppered the leading opposition party, Georgian Dream, with fines and arrest warrants (ironically, for alleged electoral infractions), and stripped its leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, of his Georgian citizenship, Saakashvili continued to be portrayed as a modernizing, corruption-fighting, free market, pro-Western leader.

Saakashvili is a particular favorite of U.S. neocons like Washington Post deputy editorial desk editor Jackson Diehl, who wrote (9/30/12) that “the effervescent president” and his “small circle of mostly young reformers” had been aggressively trying “to integrate Georgia into Western institutions like NATO and the European Union.” Without the slightest trace of irony, Diehl called Saakashvili a “bipartisan favorite of Washington internationalists who hope to see a genuine democracy take root in a region dominated by Vladimir Putin–style strongmen.”

In a classic example of false balance, Diehl wrote that “neither side in this Caucasian standoff has been willing to play entirely by democratic rules.” While he copped to Saakashvili’s stripping Ivanishvili of his citizenship (later reinstated under international pressure), in addition to “putting pressure on a Georgian bank he owned” and pushing through a campaign finance law specifically targeting his opponent, Diehl’s bill of particulars on Ivanishvili consisted of the dissident “conduct[ing] an eccentric campaign, passing up free airtime on the state television channel, sitting out a televised debate” and publicizing polls that “show him with a wildly improbable lead.”

A Washington Post editorial (10/2/12) just after Ivanishvili’s party won the Georgian election mentioned some of Saakashvili’s flaws, but nevertheless concluded by congratulating the strongman: “But Mr. Saakashvili has left a democratic legacy; the United States and European Union should insist that the new regime sustain and build on it.” Saakashvili apparently has earned this praise by agreeing to actually leave office when his term ends next year.

The New York Times commentary was a little tougher on Saakashvili than the Post’s, but still lacked the fiery condemnation featured in coverage of Chávez, whose temporary overthrow the Times once applauded (FAIR Media Advisory, 4/19/02).

Just days before Georgia’s recent elections, the Times (9/29/12) editorialized that “no leader of the former Soviet republics has been more pro-Western than President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia,” adding that “he moves easily in Washington and dreams of bringing his country into full NATO membership.” Though questions about this image are beginning to emerge: “His government’s handling of prisons and its approach to parliamentary elections set for Monday are raising doubts about his commitment to democracy and reform.”

New York Times news reports on Georgia before the election were not as propagandistic as its reporting on the Venezuelan election; many of Saakashvili’s faults were there to be found if one looked, particularly in the reporting of Ellen Barry (“Better Off Than They Were Nine Years Ago, Georgian Voters Ask: At What Cost?,” 9/30/12; “Fearing Rigged Vote, Georgian Prepare for Election,” 10/1/12).

To a lesser extent, the Washington Post has reported on the dark side of Saakashvili’s record, but its news accounts just before the October election sounded more like the paper’s editorial page. For instance, the Post’s Kathy Lally (9/24/12) reported that Saakashvili’s government “had been mostly viewed as sure-footed—until last week, when a scandal erupted over evidence of systematic abuse and torture in the nation’s prisons.” Lally largely framed the criticism of Saakashvili as claims by his opponents, instead of citing the public record. Wrote Lally:

Though President Mikheil Saakashvili and his circle have eliminated day-to-day corruption, turned the despised police into a trusted force and made government services citizen-oriented and easy to obtain, they have not permitted development of political competition, their critics say.

Lally went on to describe Georgia’s importance to the U.S.:

Georgia, perched in the Caucasus Mountains in the shadow of Russia and Iran, has been a staunch U.S. ally, sending troops to Afghanistan and providing energy security with a pipeline that takes oil from Azerbaijan through Georgia and on to Turkey.

This helps to explain why coverage has largely soft-pedaled Saakashvili’s abuses of democratic principles and human rights, and why “fierce enemy” Chávez’s perceived foibles are exaggerated.