Hunger for Facts in Venezuela

The complainant, Joe Emersberger, thought that an online story about the debate over food aid in Venezuela got the facts wrong, and was unfair to the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro. Did CBC’s team in Venezuela take enough care in this instance? I concluded that they did.

COMPLAINT

You were troubled by an article which appeared on the CBC News website on February 8th, headlined Fight over food aid a high-stakes battle in Venezuela as hunger hits hard.

The story was produced by a team of CBC journalists on the ground in Venezuela, and described how food had become a subject of enormous division between the government of President Nicolás Maduro, and the Venezuelan opposition, which includes self-declared president, Juan Guaidó. A controversy at that moment was a U.S.-sponsored shipment of food, which was sitting across the border in Colombia.

You felt the article contained a “gross error” in how it characterized Maduro. You referred in particular to the story’s secondary headline, which read “Maduro says aid not needed in Venezuela, Guaido wants to allow it”, and also to a sentence in the body of the article which readNicolas Maduro, who is fighting to hang onto his presidency, has been firm that this country does not need handouts from abroad.”

You said the truth is that Maduro had requested and accepted some $9-million (US) worth of aid from the United Nations last November. In subsequent correspondence, you emphasized that having harmed Venezuelans through its economic sanctions, the U.S. was now engaging in political stunts by offering this current aid, and you said your views were backed up by statements from the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as the United Nations:

“...the ICRC and UN (hardy radical anti-establishment groups) have also publicly criticized the US "aid" stunt which is aimed at provoking disobedience in the military (ie. a coup).

You are dishonestly conflating the US "aid" stunt with all international aid.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Paul Hambleton, Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices, replied on behalf of CBC.

He acknowledged that the question of humanitarian aid to Venezuela has been highly charged politically, though he argued this was the case on both sides:

I'm sure you would agree that it is not simply a question of asking for and getting, or not getting aid deliveries. Maduro and his opponents are accusing each other of using these aid deliveries as threats to their sovereignty and/or trying to win over the people who need the help.

Mr. Hambleton said that while Venezuela had accepted medical supplies from the UN, Maduro has denied the existence of a humanitarian crisis in his country:

Then as now, he is on the record saying that international aid is a potential threat to his authority and an effort by some countries, including the United States, to destabilize his government.

Mr. Hambleton said the article in question was accurate in part because it was focused specifically on the issue of food aid at that moment, and not on “an effort to track back through the past on aid shipments.” Still, he agreed that the story would benefit from additional context, and so on February 12th CBC added extra information to the paragraph below (I have underlined the new text):

The political value of what may soon happen (or not) on that border is almost existential. Nicolas Maduro, who is fighting to hang onto his presidency, has been firm that this country does not need handouts from abroad (although Venezuela has accepted foreign aid in the past, and Maduro has not always been consistent in his statements on the subject).

REVIEW

The principles guiding coverage of situations such as Venezuela are easy to articulate. The practice of applying them is, not surprisingly, more difficult.

Among those principles are balance and impartiality. I will explore those more fully in an upcoming review of another complaint about CBC’s Venezuela coverage. In this instance, however, the key principle you raised is the most fundamental in journalism: accuracy.

Here is how accuracy is described in CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices:

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

This story was reported by CBC journalists on the ground in Venezuela, which is a good start. It is almost always better to be reporting a story with your own eyes and sources than it is to rely on others from a distance.

The story also benefits from its framing. To explain why I say that, imagine if the issue had been presented by either the government or the opposition: from one direction, it could have been cast as “Maduro prevents food aid from getting to the hungry”. From another direction, it could have been cast as “Guaidó and the U.S. stage stunt at the border to undermine Venezuela’s president”.

The primary headline from the CBC, however, suggests an effort to stay clear of taking sides: “Fight over food aid a high-stakes battle in Venezuela as hunger hits hard.” While a supporter of Maduro might take exception to the implication in the headline that hunger is pervasive, there’s no denying that many refugees from Venezuela have fled to Colombia in recent months describing food shortages. The rest of that headline simply sticks to facts.

The body of the story also demonstrates care in its depictions. For instance, in describing Guaidó’s motives here, the report refrains from casting him as either hero or villain. Instead, it lays out his political calculus:

Juan Guaido, the opposition leader who says he will serve as president until new elections are held, knows that if he can convince the military to open the gates then he will have been able to assert authority that has so far eluded him.

That is a responsible and useful way to present information. I realize that people with an affinity for one side or the other will dislike how the situation in Venezuela is characterized by the media. This story, though, holds up to scrutiny. There are references to the perspectives of each side, as well as a reference to the U.S. sanctions which Maduro says have been so punishing. It’s clear what elements are based on observations by the CBC journalists themselves (such as the composition of the CLAP food bag distributed by the Maduro government). It’s also clear that some statements are attributed to people (such as anti-Maduro activist María Corina Machado). Even though more space is given to people critical of the government, I am not persuaded that the story is unfair to anyone in the conflict.

The two references that concerned you most, of course, were the ones suggesting that Maduro would not accept aid.

In my view, that was a perfectly reasonable notion to include, considering that very week President Maduro had publicly rejected letting the food aid into the country, saying Venezuela would not be a “beggar”. I don’t know how else one would interpret his statements, which were quite categorical, and went beyond simply accusing the U.S. of having malicious intent. The sub-headline was accurate when it said “Maduro says aid not needed”, and the body of the article was accurate when it said Maduro “has been firm that this country does not need handouts from abroad.”

Nonetheless, I see your point that it would be possible for people to confuse “food aid” and “medical aid”, so I am glad to see that the CBC took your concern to heart by adding in the additional context to make clearer how complicated the question of external aid has been.

You argued that was insufficient, that the story was still wrong, and pointed to the articles you had read containing statements by the Red Cross and the United Nations which were critical of the Americans.

When I looked at those statements, I still didn’t see evidence that the CBC story in question was incorrect.

For instance, the United Nations statement came from a February 6th official briefing from the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General. You can find the transcript here, and find this exchange:

Question: Steph, on Venezuela, the opposition has been saying that the army is blocking shipments of aid in the border. Does the UN have any first‑hand information from the agencies that are there?

Spokesman: No, I… no first‑hand information that I'm aware of, but I think it's good to restate a couple of basic principles. First, when, in any country, there is a serious gap in terms of nutrition or basic health care, including vaccinations, that is indeed a serious humanitarian issue. For the United Nations, humanitarian assistance should be needs‑based and carried out in accordance with the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. Humanitarian action needs to be independent of political, military or other objectives. When we see the present standoff, it becomes even more clear that serious political negotiations between the parties are necessary to find a solution leading to lasting peace for the people of Venezuela. Yeah?

Question: Just to follow up, would you appeal the Government to allow the entry of this aid?

Spokesman: Look, I think what is important is that humanitarian aid be depoliticised and that the needs of the people are really… should lead in terms of when and how humanitarian aid is used.

I find it very difficult to read this as a clear criticism of either side. Rather, it appears to be the UN adopting very carefully-nuanced and diplomatic language that seems intended to NOT take sides.

The Red Cross, meanwhile, had refused to participate in the UN-sponsored shipment. The most critical statement I read was when one of its officials said, “We will not be participating in what is, for us, not humanitarian aid” - though I note this remark was made after the CBC article was published, so I can’t find fault with the CBC for not including it. Other Red Cross statements I read were more cautious in tone, along the lines of the UN official’s remarks.

Now, I’m not saying that my interpretation is right and yours is wrong. However, I am saying that the choices made by CBC’s journalists in this instance were reasonable, and within policy. A reader of this story learned that there was a political struggle over food, that both sides were using it as a rallying point, and that it was unclear how it will be resolved. Seven weeks later, not much has changed.

Sincerely,

Jack Nagler
CBC Ombudsperson