Balance and Analysis - Covering Venezuela

The complainant, Joe Emersberger, thought an analysis piece regarding the Venezuelan government seeking Chinese investment in light of its devastated economy lacked balance. He thought CBC News should be seeking out those who support the government and its practices and rely on a right-wing perspective to report on the troubled country. The analysis was built on reasonable and credible facts and sources.

COMPLAINT

You took issue with a story published on the cbcnews.ca website entitled Why some Venezuelans fear Maduro is selling them out to China written by Ottawa-based reporter Evan Dyer. You corresponded directly with the reporter, and after a few exchanges you directed your complaint to this office.

You had several concerns about the piece. Your overall criticism is the lack of diversity of opinion and voices represented, since the article presents a negative view of Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, and places the dire economic hardship of the country at his feet. You believe this is a biased and right-wing view, widely shared by most media. You suggested some other “independent journalists” who should be consulted and quoted. You said you found it “amazing” that Mr. Dyer wrote “an entire article about possible loans from China without saying a word about US economic sanctions on Venezuela.” You consider those financial sanctions devastating and say they have cost the country 6% of its GDP.

You stated that one of the independent journalists you mentioned confronted Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan representative to the UN, regarding his support for the 2002 coup which “briefly installed a US backed dictatorship under Pedro Carmona.” You were concerned that he was quoted in this story without mentioning this fact.

There were other aspects you disagreed with but your overarching concerns were that this article and other CBC coverage did not include pro-government perspectives.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

You received responses from Mr. Dyer, the author of the article, as well as Chris Carter, Senior Producer, Politics, at CBC News. Mr. Dyer did not agree with you that it was critical to mention financial sanctions in the context of this piece because the precarious state of the Venezuelan economy predates their imposition:

Venezuela’s economic collapse began a long time before last August and international sanctions have nothing to do with it.

Sanctions did not force Venezuela to draft a budget that could only be sustained by producing 2.5 million bpd of oil at $160 a barrel.

Sanctions did not cause oil production to fall to 1.2 million bpd — the lowest rate in 60 years.

Sanctions did not force the Venezuelan government to allow up to half the food it imports to rot on the docks through sheer incompetence.

Mr. Dyer further stated that in this instance a “he said/she said” style of reporting was not called for or appropriate. He did not believe there was equivalence and he rejected the idea that the reporters you mentioned, and the information they brought to the table, was independent:

In the case of Venezuela, I don't agree with a definition of balance that means giving equal weight to regime apologists who deny there is a humanitarian crisis, or deny the very obvious responsibility of the Chavez-Maduro government in causing it.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices notes that reporters should “provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise.” That means a reporter can assess the value of information, consider its source and its context and evaluate its reliability and necessity to include it to achieve balance. This policy and practice is particularly relevant to analysis. This article was clearly labelled as such. There is a concept I have cited many times before and that is false equivalence. The notion is that it creates a distorted and therefore inaccurate view if perspectives and statements included in the writing are known to be largely biased or incorrect. There is rarely a precise way to evaluate when it is necessary to present a contrary perspective, except in some notable scientific areas like climate change and vaccination. Even in areas where there may be objective measures there is a time when the evidence may be less than conclusive. Reporters exercise judgement about what is considered relevant and necessary to provide balance and context.

When it comes to political reporting and analysis, of course the challenges are that much greater. You believe the characterization of the Maduro regime in Mr. Dyer’s piece and in much of CBC’s coverage aligns with right-wing pro-American positions. You posed as alternative sources journalists you say are independent. That is your assessment. CBC reporters are not obliged to come to the same conclusion based on their work and the organizations for whom they work, like RT.

The article in question was prompted by a trip by the Venezuelan president to China. It began this way:

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro took his exhausted country by surprise on Wednesday by boarding a flight to China.

The visit — widely believed to be a pitch by Maduro's fiscally-crippled government for a loan — is likely to sound alarms in capitals around the hemisphere as governments try to guess what Venezuela is offering China and what China's motives might be for lending money to a country that can't pay its debts now.

Beijing knows about Venezuela's solvency crisis better than most. Three years ago, China turned off the credit taps after lending Venezuela more than US$50 billion. It later had to grant the Latin nation a grace period for repayment.

Venezuela watchers say that if China is reopening those taps, it can only be in return for far-reaching concessions, leading some to ask whether Beijing is about to establish its first real beachhead here in the Americas.

The context is a geopolitical one - the fact that China has been using heavy investment in strategic areas to gain some concessions from the recipients which align with its interests. There is nothing particularly new in that. Most foreign aid is tied, but in most countries where China has invested heavily citizens are beginning to question the cost. Mr. Dyer points out other places in Central and South America where there may be interest in Chinese investment and how this plays into a larger geopolitical picture. That is perfectly reasonable analysis based on facts.

Mr. Dyer goes on to provide background as to why the country’s situation is so desperate. You believe sanctions should have been part of it. In a broader take on the various forces at work in the country, that level of detail may have been necessary. In this case it was not. You rejected the objectivity of various human rights organizations like Amnesty and Human Rights watch - both of whom have been highly critical of the Venezuelan government’s actions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that crimes against humanity may have been committed by state forces in Venezuela and expressed concern at “the erosion of democratic institutions” in the country.” You may question all these sources. It is not a violation of journalistic policy to be able to state that this is, as Mr. Dyer characterized it, “a corrupt government that seems willing to go to great lengths to remain in power.” There is a fairly significant consensus that this is the case.

As for your criticism of the use of Mr. Arria to comment on the regime, once again I think it is a defensible journalistic choice. It is made clear in the article that he is living in exile and readers would be aware that he is a critic of the government.

I recognize you reject many of the sources and accounts that were used to create Mr. Dyer’s analysis. The argument becomes circular. You said sources you cite are more credible and independent, his are tainted and align with U.S. and corporate interests. I am comfortable this analysis relied on documented information and reliable sources. I asked CBC management about plans to send journalists to Venezuela - it is on-the-ground reporting that allows for the fullest picture. CBC was last there in 2013 and Paul Hambleton, Director of Journalistic Accountability, tells me they have been unable to secure visas since then.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman