Jul 1 2002

Spotlighting (Some) Venezuela Killings

Deaths during pro-Chavez protests don't interest New York Times

If you followed mainstream U.S. news coverage of the recent coup in Venezuela, you probably know that people were killed during the April 11 demonstrations against President Hugo Chavez. You also heard those killings cited as a justification for removing Chavez from office. But if you relied on the New York Times for news, you might have missed the fact that even more people were killed on the coup regime’s watch—during the pro-Chavez protests that led to Chavez’s April 14 return to power.

The Associated Press (4/14/02) reported 40 confirmed deaths over the course of the coup, with 16 of those killings occurring during the April 11 demonstrations. According to the AP, many of the later deaths occurred when “police opened fire on pro-Chavez demonstrators in several poor neighborhoods.” Two prominent Venezuelan human rights groups, COFAVIC and the Archdiocese of Caracas Human Rights Vicar, issued similar findings: 17 people were killed on April 11, and 23 more were killed on April 13 (New York Times, 4/16/02).

Other estimates are higher: The news agency Inter Press Service reported (5/2/02) that 17 people were killed on April 11, with as many as 40 killed in the next two days. Officials from the newly restored Chavez regime put the total death toll at 68 (Washington Post, 4/17/02). It’s not clear who was responsible for all these deaths; Venezuela’s National Assembly has convened a Truth Commission to investigate the question.

From the outset, coup leaders portrayed their ouster of Chavez as an outraged reaction to the April 11 violence, and blamed him for those deaths—a version of events that the Bush administration quickly endorsed. Since then, questions have arisen about this account, some of which have been reported by the New York Times. An April 27 piece, for example, examined the political allegiances of the victims of the first round of killings, finding that “the number of Chavez supporters killed was almost equal to the number of opponents.” Another article (4/29/02) contradicted the idea that Chavez bore sole responsibility for the April 11 violence, saying that “multiple gunmen—uniformed and civilian, pro- and anti-Chavez—fired weapons” at those protests.

These pieces did not connect all the dots—the April 29 report, for example, was headlined “New Evidence in Killings of Anti-Chavez Protesters,” even though the article two days earlier had found that about half of the victims in question had pro-Chavez views.

But these articles were notably more skeptical than the bulk of Times coverage. Early reports conspicuously avoided the word coup, saying that Chavez had been “obligated to resign” after protests “in which at least 14 people were killed by gunmen identified as his supporters” (4/13/02). After the coup failed, the Times stepped back from blaming Chavez for the April 11 deaths, saying they resulted from “bloody clashes between crowds of Mr. Chavez’s supporters and foes” (4/17/02), but the paper still echoed coup leaders’ contention that the military was simply “responding” to the violence when it removed the president.


“Tell the truth”

Nearly all of the New York Times‘ articles about the coup have left out altogether the killings at the April 12-13 pro-Chavez protests, favoring sanitized statements like “additional protests and internal struggles were the undoing of the takeover” (4/19/02). As cited above, the Times did report on the second wave of killings—but it did so in detail only once, in a page A10 article (4/16/02). Apart from that, the Times has largely failed to mention them, even though it appears that April 12-13 was when the majority of the deaths occurred. Instead, the paper has focused on investigating the killings at the initial, anti-Chavez protests, calling them “the worst case of political violence in Venezuela in a decade” (4/29/02).

The paper passed up numerous opportunities to tell the full story of coup-related violence. For example, an April 18 story, which purported to take readers “Behind the Upheaval in Venezuela,” focused on “the protesters who poured from the slums and tore through the streets to seize the national palace and put President Chavez back,” but neglected to mention that two dozen or more of them were killed. Similarly, an article about “Venezuela’s Two Fateful Days” (4/20/02) devoted 10 paragraphs to the shootings at the anti-Chavez demos, and even featured them in a timeline chart of key events, but said not a word about the second wave of killings.

Remarkably, even the nearly 1,500-word article (4/27/02) headlined “As Fears Linger, Venezuelans Press for Truth About Killings” failed to report the deaths at the pro-Chavez protests. Emphasizing the grief of families who lost people on April 11, the article said Venezuelans were demanding answers: “Who are the 16 men and the woman who died, and how did they die?” The dozens of other people killed did not even rate a nod of acknowledgment.

One Times article (4/23/02) chastised Venezuelan journalists for failing to cover “the biggest news story in years”—the pro-Chavez protests—but again failed to note the deaths there. It did, however, note that poor Venezuelans had appealed to foreign journalists to “tell the truth” about the coup.