A Historic Low for El Nacional

Treating journalistic ethics like a game of Limbo…

In a press conference today, Venezuela’s Human Rights Ombudswoman, Gabriela Ramírez, made a genuinely shocking statement. Making up legal standards off the cuff, she sought to redefine torture as something that can happen only in the context of questioning, for the purpose of eliciting a confession.

In Ramírez’s view, torture-like behaviour inflicted on detainees outside that context must be considered only “mistreatment”, and cannot classify as torture.

That should’ve been a scandal, and not only because it’s Cheneyesque in its goal-post-moving on torture or Clintonesque in its lawyerly parsing of semantics. To be clear Ramírez’s no-torture-without-questioning standard runs directly counter to the definition of torture that is binding under international law, which is identical to the definition in Venezuelan domestic law:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person…

But it’s worse than that, because it wasn’t just any Venezuelan official inventing legal standards out of whole cloth to softball the torture (there’s no other word) allegations her office now faces. It was Venezuela’s lead human rights guarantor doing so, the officer specifically created by the constitution to defend the people from the abuse of the state’s power, that’s who was cravenly inventing non-sense legal standards to wish the “torture” out of abuses that any human rights lawyer anywhere in the world would instantly recognize as such.

And yet, is this what Venezuelans spent the day talking about?

Alas, it is not, my friend. It is not.

And why not?

Because we spent the day instead talking about El Nacional’s deliriously misleading coverage of Ramírez’s statement, coverage that without exactly misquoting Ramírez reinterpreted her words to mean something she very explicitly did not mean to say: that torture “makes sense” in the context of an investigation.

What Ramírez says is that “la tortura tiene un sentido, por eso nosotros tenemos que ser muy rigurososos con el uso de los términos.” In context, when you watch the video, it’s abundantly clear that what she means by that is that “torture has a specific legal meaning” (which, as we already saw above, she clearly doesn’t understand).

Enter El Nacional. At first, the paper selectively edited the quote, leaving out the key “por eso nosotros tenemos que ser muy rigurososos con el uso de los términos”. The maliciously edited quote made it sound like Ramírez was justifying the use of torture as a legitimate means of obtaining a confession!

The opposition tweet-roots when into uproar! Because, imagine! The Human Rights Ombudswoman endorses torture! The horror!

Later, when the video came out, it became entirely obvious that El Nacional was just up to its usual, shamelessly tendentious games again. Worse, El Universal had followed suit, quoting the Ombudswoman’s statement in the same, wildly misleading way.

With characteristic lack of accountability, El Nacional has now changed the story on its website. They haven’t run a correction (they never run a correction!), they haven’t apologized to readers, they haven’t apologized to Ramírez, as though they thought showing a minimum of responsibility for this monumental fuck-up was beneath their dignity.

El Universal, to its credit, acknowledged its mistake, retracted the story publicly and – to me this is key – apologized to its readers.

It’s been a tawdry case study in appalling opposition media standards, the kind of thing that brings out the little chavista we each have hidden away in a little corner of our hearts.

Because notice what’s happened here: the fact that the official principally responsible for protecting Venezuelans’ human rights is using a definition of torture she seems to have cut out of a box of Froot Loops has been almost entirely forgotten already. What should have been a scandal about Gabriela Ramírez once again demonstrating that she’s a regime yes-woman rather than a human rights protection officer has instead morphed into a shitstorm over El Nacional’s failure to uphold even basic, rock bottom standards for journalistic ethics. You do not edit key qualifiers out of a quote to make it seem like it means something much more grave than it does. And if you do, you fess up, fire the person responsible, apologize publicly, and vow never to do it again.

That one of the last few remaining bits of the traditional public sphere open to opposition voices is unable to get even this much right is simply galling. We deserve, so, so much better from El Nacional.