There have been mixed responses from both national and international media following Wednesday’s violence in Venezuela, which left three dead and several dozen wounded. In particular, there have been contradictory accounts of exactly what happened in the surrounds of the Attorney General’s office in Caracas, when an opposition activist, Bassil Alejandro Dacosta (24), and a Chavista social activist, Juan Montoya (40), were both killed by gunshots as armed groups emerged on the scene toward the end of the opposition’s march in the area.
Both state owned and independent pro-government outlets alleged that Wednesday’s violence, including the two murders which occurred near the Attorney General’s office, was planned by right-wing opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and perpetrated by radical armed opposition groups. In a report titled “Right-Wing Shock Group Causes Death and Chaos”, Caracas-based newspaper Ciudad CCS further said that according to unofficial reports, Juan Montoya was shot from a nearby building, suggesting a premeditated attack. It also mentioned the presence of “violent motorbike riders” who “threw stones and large objects at the police and National Guard”.
Venezuelan media also reported Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz’s statement, which said that “political operators” and “50 hooded people” had appeared at the end of the opposition march and engaged in acts of violence against those present. Ortega said that the nature of the violence appeared “planned” by “fascists”, which suggests that she suspects that radical opposition groups were behind the crimes.
Several politically-neutral private Venezuelan media sources, such as newspaper Ultimas Noticias and website Noticias 24, chose not to comment in detail on the events surrounding the violence. They reported the government’s and opposition’s reactions to the events, without attempting to attribute the violence to either side.
Some pro-opposition media outlets accused security forces and pro-government groups called colectivos of perpetrating violent acts and the murders yesterday. Conservative newspaper El Universal said that Montoya and Dacosta died from “shots by colectivos and SEBIN (the national intelligence service)”. National opposition newspapers El Nacional and Tal Cual made similar accusations, in editorials titled “Brutal Attack” and “Absurd Violence”, in which they claimed that police forces or colectivos (depending on the version) opened fire on anti-government protesters.
Perhaps due to conflicting reports of Wednesday’s violence and with the official investigation just beginning, many international media outlets did not take a strong partisan line in their coverage. CNN Español wrote a rather neutral report which didn’t document the violent events in detail, however mentioned both the government’s and radical opposition’s interpretations of the day. Meanwhile Spanish-language network Telesur, which is favourable to the Venezuelan government, led with a piece arguing that police involvement in yesterday’s killings was ruled out, however it also did not offer a conclusion as to who the assassins were. The article further lamented that, “The events yesterday reflect that the opposition has once again chosen the path of destabilisation”.
In English-language media, Reuters news agency wrote a fairly straightforward article which despite having journalists on the scene, could only report that the two murders yesterday afternoon occurred in “chaotic scenes” during post-protest violence. The agency also mentioned the current division within the opposition between moderates and hardliners, and that violent hardliners have been blocking roads and creating unrest (although it didn’t mention that these groups are sometimes armed and attack civilians) as part of a strategy to try and force President Maduro from office.
Other international outlets took a more interpretive angle on yesterday’s violence, either tacitly or openly nodding to the opposition’s line of “authorities cracking down on peaceful student protesters”. Britain’s Sky News led its article with hard-line opposition leader Maria Corina Machado’s claim that two student protestors had been killed for “raising their voices” against the government. Associated Press’ (AP) piece, re-printed in a variety of sources such as Fox News, hinted the same line, leading with, “Armed vigilantes on motorcycles attacked anti-government demonstrators in Venezuela”. AP said the attackers were “unidentified”. The BBC meanwhile seems to have simply borrowed its article from Associated Press. The article de-contextualised yesterday’s events by omitting to explain the hard-line opposition’s “exit” strategy to force Maduro’s resignation, or the presence and actions of armed opposition radicals at protests in recent weeks. Al-Jazeera went further, stating what some other international media have implied but have not said due to lack of evidence, by writing of Wednesday’s violence, “Armed members of a pro-government vigilante group arrived on motorcycles and began firing at more than 100 anti-Maduro student protesters”.
As Venezuelan authorities begin to investigate those responsible for Wednesday’s violence, international media have suddenly turned their attention to events in the country. However these reports have often failed to explain the context of yesterday’s protests, such as the hard-line opposition’s “exit” strategy to try and force the government’s resignation, or the violent actions of radical opposition groups on city streets over the past week and a half building up to yesterday’s protests. Some reports also failed to mention the peaceful pro-government demonstrations that occurred on the same day.
Perhaps eager to brand the Venezuelan government with the “repressive” tag, at least a few international outlets have even suggested that Wednesday’s violence and deaths were due to “pro-government vigilantes” at a time when such a conclusion is far from clear, as the debate within Venezuela over the events highlights. In several of the articles the radical opposition’s violent actions, both on Wednesday and in recent days, have been whitewashed from the story. The BBC was a case in point. These outlets should be more responsible in their reporting so as not to mislead the global public on what is currently happening in Venezuela. As the radical wing of the opposition once again attempts to force the government’s “exit” through street actions and violence rather than more democratic mechanisms, accurate reporting will be key for international observers to understand this crucial political juncture for the country.