2007 Venezuelan referendum

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

I am writing with regard to your December 4, 2007, complaint and request January 3, 2008, for a review by this Office of CBC Radio reports concerning the 2007 Venezuelan referendum campaign and vote.

I cannot fully express my regret on how long this complaint has taken to be reviewed. When I assumed the role of Ombudsman last November, I began working with the incumbent to clear a substantial backlog. Work on that continues. There were some extenuating circumstances in your case, but that is of little consolation. We have not fulfilled our role to provide timely reviews in this case and I am sorry for that.

Since your complaint CBC has revised its Journalistic Standards and Practices policy, and this Office has instituted a practice of identifying complainants publicly to improve the transparency of the process. But, since both policies took hold after your complaint, neither will apply in this instance.

I am writing with regard to your December 4, 2007, complaint and request January 3, 2008, for a review by this Office of CBC Radio reports concerning the 2007 Venezuelan referendum campaign and vote.

I cannot fully express my regret on how long this complaint has taken to be reviewed. When I assumed the role of Ombudsman last November, I began working with the incumbent to clear a substantial backlog. Work on that continues. There were some extenuating circumstances in your case, but that is of little consolation. We have not fulfilled our role to provide timely reviews in this case and I am sorry for that.

Since your complaint CBC has revised its Journalistic Standards and Practices policy, and this Office has instituted a practice of identifying complainants publicly to improve the transparency of the process. But, since both policies took hold after your complaint, neither will apply in this instance.

REVIEW

On December 2, 2007, Venezuela held a referendum vote to amend 69 articles in its constitution. Among other things, the vote was designed to eliminate term limits for the president, reorganize administrative districts, prohibit large land estates, place the central bank and international reserves under the president's control, expand social security benefits for workers in the informal economy, lower the voting age, reduce the work week, and permit the president power to declare an unlimited state of emergency.

The referendum was narrowly defeated. Analysts identified student-led activism as one of the prime instruments of defeat, but also noted the relatively low turnout of those traditionally supportive of Chavez. (A subsequent referendum in 2009 was won by Chavez.)

The complainant wrote December 4, 2007, to express concerns that CBC Radio's reporting on the Venezuelan referendum campaign and result was “profoundly lacking in balance.”

He asserted that CBC Radio's South American correspondent, Connie Watson, had taken a consistent position against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez during the campaign and only found supporters after the referendum result.

He said the CBC's focus on one campaign issue — the element of the referendum to change term limits to permit Chavez to extend his office — did not reflect the concerns of Venezuelans. He dismissed it as an important issue for Canadians to understand, given there are no term limits on our leaders. He said the only people concerned about his hold on power were “those who supported the failed 2002 coup,” in which Chavez was ousted for two days before he was restored to power.

The complainant observed that CBC found opponents of Chavez who spoke English and the reports didn't note their relatively privileged backgrounds. He contrasted their presentation with those in support of Chavez: “entirely Spanish-speaking, living in poverty, divided over their leader, and confused about what the referendum meant.”

The complainant asserted that Watson did not report on all but one of the referendum measures and left the impression that supporters of Chavez were “anti-democratic at worst and stupid at worst.”

He objected to Watson reporting on an anti-Chavez resident buying a Christmas tree in celebrating the referendum outcome, suggesting it was calculated to make Canadians identify more with her point of view than, say, “Spanish-speaking slum dwellers who appear confused about basic democracy.”

He noted the Central Intelligence Agency had been active in several student movements and that Watson had not mentioned it. “This is not a conspiracy, but what the world outside North America has known for half a century,” he wrote. “Now the CBC is allowing Connie Watson to encourage Canadians to ignore clear warnings about America's willingness to break any law it likes as long as it gets what it wants.”

On December 13, 2007, the director of CBC Radio News programming, Jane Anido, wrote the complainant to strongly disagree with his assessment. She provided an extensive list of examples to defend Watson's work.

“She talked with the president's supporters and those who opposed them. She talked with businessmen, bureaucrats, priests and military men, students, academics, politicians and working people and reported on the range of views she heard,” Anido wrote. “But in order to place those views in context, the reports frequently reminded listeners about the referendum, its revolutionary goal and the abolition of term limits.”

She challenged the complainant's view about the importance of the term limit provision in the referendum. “The point is . . . that the abolition of existing limits in Venezuela would mean far greater powers for Mr. Chavez.”

Anido noted that Watson talked to students because they “seemed to be spearheading the opposition,” according to analysts. She noted that Chavez referred to them as “spoiled rich kids” and that one student said Chavez thought they were trained by the CIA and underwritten by America.

Anido noted a report on homeless people taking over a hotel. She said Watson reported on Chavez noting his intelligence officials had uncovered CIA efforts to cause unrest. As for the tree-buying Venezuelan, Anido noted it was a simple clip noting someone was relieved the campaign was over; in the same report, a pro-Chavez Venezuelan noted that the campaign had gone well and “there really is democracy in our country.”

She said the complainant had a strong point of view but that others had other equally valid points of view also worth exploring.

The complainant wrote January 3, 2008, that the consolidation of power was the “most contentious” element of the referendum but that Watson gave it little attention. Nor did she focus on the extension of wealth to Venezuelan society outside Caracas and other cities.

He agreed that Watson included the “yes” and “no” views in the days leading up to the vote and afterward, but he didn't recall her talking to grassroots supporters until the last report on the referendum result.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices in effect at the time spoke to the necessity of accuracy and fairness.

It said information programs must reflect “careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques” in conforming “with reality.”

It said information must reflect and report “equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view (and deal) fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.”

It said CBC, like any journalistic organization, “should ensure that the widest possible range of views is expressed.” On matters in which differing views are held, CBC “must supplement the exposition of one point of view with an equitable treatment of other relevant points of view. Equitable in this context means fair and reasonable, taking into consideration the weight of opinion behind a point of view, as well as its significance or potential significance.”

The policy also addressed coverage of elections and referendum campaigns, although it is presumed these provisions were aimed at Canadian coverage. Nevertheless, they call for particular care. “These series require close and meticulous attention to overall political balance.”

Conclusion

I have reviewed Watson's reports in the week preceding and days following the Venezuelan referendum. I found no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

It is true that most of her reports concerned the referendum provision for the elimination of term limits for the president, Hugo Chavez, and there were not many other focal points as issues in the body of work. Mention was made of other issues, but they were limited to one line of script. (Across CBC's other platforms, though, a wide range of issues was explored.)

But I side with most analysts who at the time viewed that term-limit provision as the lever for several other potential social, economic and political initiatives and reforms ahead, including the administrative reorganization of the country's territories and powers conferred on them.

(I want to review this matter without the benefit of understanding what has happened since, but I cannot fail to point out that the subsequent referendum has vested enormous power in the president's office.)

I found that Watson did well to provide a diverse blend of voices in the reports overall, but acknowledge that individual reports with a very limited running time could not always achieve that diversity.

Equitable coverage does not mean equal coverage. CBC attempts to provide a range of voices to offset varying views, but there is no test of mathematical equivalence to assess the presence or absence of balance.

Watson did not position the supporters or opponents of Chavez in any preferential way. It is true that some of the opponents spoke English, but I cannot conclude that consciously or unconsciously added to their credibility with the audience.

CBC policy reflects the general press freedom to identify relevant ways to present stories, and it is not in the Ombudsman's purview to suggest one angle was more important than another angle of journalistic pursuit.

In this instance, the pre- and post-vote coverage accurately and fairly covered a campaign for an audience that needed its awareness raised about issues. Attention on the country's leader and issues involving his own powers was an effective, acceptable way to tell the story without sacrificing balance or accuracy.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman