'Extreme Dishonesty' – The Guardian, Noam Chomsky and Venezuela
Noam Chomsky on Venezuela – the transcript
After being found out to be a shitty biased newspaper.
The Guardian publishes a transcript of its interview with Noam Chomsky about Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, and the Afiuni affair
We reported on Sunday that Noam Chomsky had accused Hugo Chávez of amassing too much power and making an "assault" on Venezuela's democracy.
The article was based on a telephone interview with the scholar on the eve of Chomsky publishing an open letter which criticised the jailing of a Venezuelan judge, Maria Lourdes Afiuni, after she made a ruling which angered Chávez.
Chomsky subsequently told a blogger that the article was "dishonest" and "deceptive", an accusation that has been reported elsewhere.
Below is a transcript of the original interview between the reporter, Rory Carroll, and Chomsky.
Rory Carroll: A few questions about the [Afiuni] case. Do you believe Judge Afiuni could receive a fair trial in Venezuela?
Noam Chomsky: Well as far as I'm aware she's not receiving any trial at all. I rather doubt, I'd be sceptical about whether she could receive a fair trial.
I mean it's kind of striking that, as far as I understand, you probably know better, other judges have not come out in support of her. Which seems rather strange given the circumstances. If Amnesty International does I don't see why judges in Venezuela shouldn't. That suggests an atmosphere of either intimidation or unwillingness to consider the case seriously. I don't know. My suspicion is she would not receive a fair trial.
RC: And what would this case then tell us about the independence of the judiciary in Venezuela? Is there independence of judiciary here or does the executive control it?
NC: You would know better than I do. I can only cast suspicions. I haven't investigated it closely. My suspicion is that the judiciary is not as independent as it should be. We may compare it to Colombia next door. Colombia's human rights record is incomparably worse. The judges in the constitutional court have been investigating cases of corruption, crimes at the highest level, and they have been intimidated. They have received death threats, and they have to have bodyguards and so on. And apparently that's continuing under [President José Manuel] Santos.
RC: But in the case of Judge Afiuni what do you make of the intervention of the president calling for her to be jailed for 30 years – what should one conclude from that?
NC: It's obviously improper for the executive to intervene and impose a jail sentence without a trial. And I should say that the United States is in no position to complain about this. Bradley Manning has been imprisoned without charge, under torture, which is what solitary confinement is. The president in fact intervened. Obama was asked about his conditions and said that he was assured by the Pentagon that they were fine. That's executive intervention in a case of severe violation of civil liberties and it's hardly the only one. That doesn't change the judgment about Venezuela, it just says that what one hears in the United States one can dismiss.
RC: Some would say that in the case of Venezuela leftwing thinkers have been reluctant to criticise things that have been criticised by Amnesty International and so on because the government is seen as a champion of leftwing values and basically [has] had a free pass in term of leftwing critiques. What do you think?
NC: Well I don't [think] there's an organised leftwing that one can speak for. But my impression is that such reluctance as there is, is because Venezuela has come under vicious, unremitting attack by the United States and the west generally – in the media and even in policy. After all the United States sponsored a military coup which failed and since then has been engaged in extensive subversion. And the onslaught against Nicaragua – against Venezuela – in commentary is grotesque. So I think it's natural that the leftwing commentators won't want to join in it. That's pretty standard. Take the Soviet dissidents: the more honest ones would not have wanted to join Pravda's and Izvestia's denunciations of alleged US crimes.
RC: Is this letter the first public criticism that you have made of human rights issues in Venezuela?
NC: I don't recall but probably not. I am constantly involved in such protests all over the world ranging from Syria to Cuba to Iraq. So there may have been others in Venezuela that I don't remember.
RC: Was there any response to your original letter? I understand that in December you sent a private letter to the authorities here over the Afiuni case. Was there any feedback from that?
NC: The [initiative] was jointly with the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard, which actually initiated it. So if there was any response they would know. There may have been an indirect response. Other than that I can't tell. It is the case that after that letter and other internal discussions that Judge Afiuni was released to house arrest with better conditions and medical care. Whether there was a connection I don't know.
RC: You have been described as an anarchist libertarian. From that perspective what's your take on the enabling laws and the evolution of executive power in Venezuela?
NC: I am opposed to the accumulation of executive power anywhere. One would have to ask whether there is justification for them in terms of the security situation and the attacks on Venezuela. I personally don't think so. But that would be the one consideration that I could think of that would ameliorate it.
RC: So that does mean you think the enabling powers are unjustified?
NC: In my view they are not justified. I can see room for debate about it but my judgment in that debate is that the arguments in favour are not persuasive.
RC: In your visit here in 2009 you said a better world was being created. Is that still the case?
NC: Actually what I said is that there are steps towards a better world in Venezuela and as far as I know that's true. There have been some significant steps – the sharp poverty reduction, probably the greatest in the Americas, the [social programme] missions, and the self-governing communities look like promising initiatives. It's hard to judge how successful they are but if they are successful they would be seeds of a better world.
Also the international initiatives I think are quite significant. Venezuela has played a significant role in very important developments in South America and Latin America. Particularly the steps towards unification and integration which are a prerequisite for independence. Venezuela played a leading role in initiating Unasur [Union of South American nations] and the Bank of the South, and most recently the formation of Celac [the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States] which is to have its first meeting this July. Celac, if it works, will be the first functioning organisation in the western hemisphere that includes every country in the western hemisphere except the United States and Canada, and that would be quite an important step towards integration and independence. So yes I think these are positive initiatives which have to be balanced against other things.
RC: With Hugo Chávez in Cuba the last several weeks a lot of people are saying this shows there is too much reliance on one man because everything appears to have almost stopped in his absence, at least in the political sphere. What's your take? Is there too much reliance on one man and his charisma?
NC: Anywhere in Latin America there is a potential threat of the pathology of caudillismo and it has to be guarded against. Whether it's over too far in that direction in Venezuela I'm not sure but I think perhaps it is.
RC: What makes you say that? Is it a recent thing or a trend over the past few years?
NC: It's a trend which has developed towards the centralisation of power in the executive which I don't think is a healthy development.
RC: Specifically are you thinking of the judiciary or other factors?
NC: Decision-making powers generally seems, eh, the constraints imposed by the legislature are there but they seem limited.
RC: If you were to come back here what would be your advice to the president, or your reflections to him?
NC: I didn't give advice [during the previous visit]. I was there just a few hours and I was mostly listening to his account of how his role in Venezuelan policy has developed. But I don't think he would come to me for advice.
RC: More generally about Latin America, looking around the region, given the election of recent governments, are you optimistic? Is this headed in a positive direction?
NC: I think what's happened in Latin America in the past 10 years is probably the most exciting and positive development to take place in the world. For 500 years, since European explorers came, Latin American countries had been separated from one another. They had very limited relations. Integration is a prerequisite for independence. Furthermore internally there was a model that was followed pretty closely by each of the countries: a very small Europeanised, often white elite that concentrated enormous wealth in the midst of incredible poverty. And this is a region, especially South America, which are very rich in resources which you would expect under proper conditions to develop far better than east Asia for example but it hasn't happened.
And in the past 10 years for the first time there have been significant steps towards overcoming these problems. First of all towards integration. And in some of the countries also towards dealing with these devastating internal social problems.
Now when I say there have never been attempts before that's not quite true. There have been attempts but they've typically been crushed by force. Take say Lula's Brazil, the most important country in the region.
Now the United States picks Lula's Brazil as their fair-haired boy but his policies are not so very different from those of [President Joao] Goulart's government of the early 60s. At that point the Kennedy administration was so horrified by these policies that they organised a military coup which took place right after Kennedy's assassination. It instituted the first of the vicious national security states in Latin America which spread like a plague throughout the hemisphere. Well OK now they've got a degree of independence and freedom which enable them to proceed. That's all very important. In fact it has a certain similarity to the Arab spring of the past few months. Maybe there are steps in the Middle East region to separating themselves from the control of the traditional imperial powers and moving towards a degree of independence and addressing their own internal problems. They've a long way to go but those are very important developments in the world and I think the ones in South America are the most important.
RC: Finally professor, the concerns about the concentration of executive power in Venezuela: to what extent might that be undermining democracy in Venezuela?
NC: Concentration of executive power, unless it's very temporary and for specific circumstances, let's say fighting world war two, it's an assault on democracy.
RC: And so in the case of Venezuela is that what's happening or at risk of happening?
NC: As I said you can debate whether circumstances require it – both internal circumstances and the external threat of attack and so on, so that's a legitimate debate – but my own judgment in that debate is that it does not.
July 06, 2011
'Extreme Dishonesty' – The Guardian, Noam Chomsky and Venezuela
The headline of last Sunday's Observer article on Venezuela set the tone for the slanted and opportunistic piece of political 'reporting' that followed:
'Noam Chomsky denounces old friend Hugo Chávez for "assault" on democracy'.
And then the opening line launched into a barrage of spin:
'Hugo Chávez has long considered Noam Chomsky one of his best friends in the west. He has basked in the renowned scholar's praise for Venezuela's socialist revolution and echoed his denunciations of US imperialism.'
The ironic sneer directed at the Venezuelan president apparently basking in Chomsky's 'praise', and the sly hint of robotic 'echoing' of his buddy's rants, were indicative of the bias, omissions and deceptions to follow.
Reporter Rory Carroll, the Guardian's South America correspondent, had just interviewed Chomsky and set about twisting the conversation into a propaganda piece. (For non-UK readers who may not know: the Observer is the Sunday sister publication of the Guardian newspaper).
Carroll's skewed view was clear and upfront in his article:
'Chomsky has accused the socialist leader of amassing too much power and of making an "assault" on Venezuela's democracy.'
As we will see shortly, this was a highly partial and misleading account of Chomsky's full remarks, leading him to declare afterwards that the newspaper had displayed 'extreme dishonesty' and that Carroll's article was 'quite deceptive'.
The news hook was the publication of an open letter by Chomsky pleading for the release of Venezuelan judge María Lourdes Afiuni who is suffering from cancer. Afiuni, explains Carroll, 'earned Chávez's ire in December 2009 by freeing Eligio Cedeño, a prominent banker facing corruption charges.' After just over a year in jail, awaiting trial on charges of corruption, the Venezuelan authorities 'softened her confinement to house arrest'.
In the open letter, prepared together with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, Chomsky says:
'Judge Afiuni had my sympathy and solidarity from the very beginning. The way she was detained, the inadequate conditions of her imprisonment, the degrading treatment she suffered in the Instituto Nacional de Orientación Femenina, the dramatic erosion of her health and the cruelty displayed against her, all duly documented, left me greatly worried about her physical and psychological wellbeing, as well as about her personal safety.'
He concludes with the plea:
'I shall keep high hopes that President Chávez will consider a humanitarian act that will end the judge's detention.'
Towards the end of Carroll's article, the journalist injected some token balance:
'The Chávez government deserved credit for sharply reducing poverty and for its policies of promoting self-governing communities and Latin American unity, Chomsky said. "It's hard to judge how successful they are, but if they are successful they would be seeds of a better world." '
But the blatant spin of the headline and the article's lead paragraphs had already done the required job – President Chávez is so extreme that even that radical lefty Noam Chomsky, one of his best friends in the West, has now denounced him.
Chomsky Responds: 'Extreme Dishonesty' And A 'Quite Deceptive' Report
Activists and bloggers were quick to email Noam Chomsky to ask for his response to Rory Carroll's article in the Observer. In particular, Chomsky replied as follows to one aggressive challenger who made a series of personal attacks on him:
'Let's begin with the headline: complete deception. That continues throughout. You can tell by simply comparing the actual quotes with their comments. As I mentioned, and expected, the NY Times report of a similar interview is much more honest, again revealing the extreme dishonesty of the Guardian.
'I'm sure you would understand if an Iranian dissident who charged Israel with crimes would also bring up the fact that charges from Iran and its supporters cannot be taken seriously in the light of Iran's far worse abuses. If you don't understand that, which I doubt, you really have some problems to think about. If you do understand it, as I assume, the same is true. That's exactly why bringing up [the jailed US soldier Bradley] Manning (and much more) is highly relevant.'
Joe Emersberger, an activist based in Canada, also approached Chomsky for a reaction to the piece:
'The Guardian/Observer version, as I anticipated, is quite deceptive. The report in the NY Times is considerably more honest. Both omit much of relevance that I stressed throughout, including the fact that criticisms from the US government or anyone who supports its actions can hardly be taken seriously, considering Washington's far worse record without any of the real concerns that Venezuela faces, the Manning case for one [Manning is the alleged source for huge amounts of restricted material passed on to WikiLeaks], which is much worse than Judge Afiuni's. And much else. There's no transcript, unfortunately. I should know by now that I should insist on a transcript with the Guardian, unless it's a writer I know and trust.' (Joe Emersberger, 'Chomsky Says UK Guardian Article "Quite Deceptive" About his Chavez Criticism', Z Blogs, July 4, 2011)
In fact the very next day after Carroll's article appeared, and no doubt stung by the rising tide of internet-based criticism, the Guardian took the unusual step of publishing what is presumably a full transcript of the interview. (Also unusually, the Guardian did not allow reader comments to be posted under the transcript.)
But the transcript only served to prove Chomsky's point about the 'deceptive' nature of the printed article. His comparisons to the justice system in the United States – in particular, the torture and abuse of Bradley Manning – were edited out. Carroll had asked him about the intervention of the Venezuelan executive in demanding a long jail sentence for Judge Afiuni. Chomsky replied:
'It's obviously improper for the executive to intervene and impose a jail sentence without a trial. And I should say that the United States is in no position to complain about this. Bradley Manning has been imprisoned without charge, under torture, which is what solitary confinement is. The president in fact intervened. Obama was asked about his conditions and said that he was assured by the Pentagon that they were fine. That's executive intervention in a case of severe violation of civil liberties and it's hardly the only one. That doesn't change the judgment about Venezuela, it just says that what one hears in the United States one can dismiss.'
'Venezuela has come under vicious, unremitting attack by the United States and the west generally – in the media and even in policy. After all the United States sponsored a military coup [in 2002] which failed and since then has been engaged in extensive subversion. And the onslaught [...] against Venezuela in commentary is grotesque.'
Nothing of that appeared in the published Observer article.
Also given scant notice were Chomsky's observations about positive developments in Venezuela and Latin America generally in trying to overcome the horrendous impacts of over five centuries of European, and latterly also US, colonialism and exploitation:
'I think what's happened in Latin America in the past 10 years is probably the most exciting and positive development to take place in the world. For 500 years, since European explorers came, Latin American countries had been separated from one another. They had very limited relations. Integration is a prerequisite for independence. Furthermore internally there was a model that was followed pretty closely by each of the countries: a very small Europeanised, often white elite that concentrated enormous wealth in the midst of incredible poverty. And this is a region, especially South America, which are very rich in resources which you would expect under proper conditions to develop far better than east Asia for example but it hasn't happened.'
The above quotes by Chomsky are only extracts of the longest answers, by far, that he gave in his interview with Carroll. But they didn't fit the journalist's agenda of setting up Chomsky in 'denouncing' Chávez's supposed 'assault' on democracy.
Carroll once accurately declared that he is 'not a champion of impartiality'. Indeed, Joe Emersberger has done much sterling work, exposing and challenging Carroll's biased journalism from Latin America. Carroll and his editors clearly have supreme difficulty in answering Emersberger's cogent emails, judging by their repeated failure to respond.
Readers may recall that the Guardian has a dubious track record in recording and accurately reflecting the views of Noam Chomsky; that is, when it doesn't conform to the usual pattern of completely ignoring him. The Guardian's smear of Chomsky in 2005 marked a real low in the history of this 'flagship' newspaper of 'liberal' journalism. See 'Smearing Chomsky - Guardian in the Gutter', 'Smearing Chomsky - The Guardian Backs Down' and the external ombudsman's report.
Perhaps what is most noteworthy about this whole episode is best summed up by Emersberger:
'This is not the first time Rory Carroll has taken a highly selective interest in Chomsky's views on Latin America. When Chomsky signed an open letter in 2008 critical of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Rory Carroll also jumped all over it. At about the same time, Chomsky signed an open letter to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe about far more grave matters but it was ignored by the Guardian. At the time, I asked Rory Carroll and his editors why they ignored it but they never replied to me. They also ignored an open letter to Uribe signed by Amnesty International, Human Rights watch and various other groups. I asked Carroll and his editors why that open letter was ignored and - as usual - no one responded.'
Noam Chomsky was once famously described by the New York Times as 'arguably the most important intellectual alive'. And yet, as mentioned earlier, the Guardian is normally happy to ignore him and his views. But when Chomsky expresses criticism of an official enemy of the West, he suddenly does exist and matter for the Guardian. That indicates what we already knew: that the liberal press is perfectly aware of the importance of Chomsky's work. They just ignore it because it undermines the wrong interests.
Rory Carroll's article is a wonderful glimpse of the kind of status Chomsky would enjoy if he promoted the myth of the basic benevolence of the West, and focused on the crimes of official enemies. He would be feted as one of the most insightful and brilliant political commentators the world had ever seen. He would be far and away the world's number one political talking head. His face would be all over the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent, the BBC, the New York Times and so on.
There is a humbling lesson here also, of course, for those people who are all over the media. In important ways, the media is a demeritocracy.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Rory Carroll, the Guardian's South America correspondent
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Please blind-copy us in on any exchanges or forward them to us later at: