Photo: Natasha Vásquez/AFP
Keeping up with the crisis in Venezuela is already exhausting and taking time to look back and look closely at previous key events is quite a challenge. However, several major media outlets have done a nice job clarifying some of the specific doubts about what happened but some inadvertently ended up missing the most important ones.
The events of February 23rd highlighted the ongoing tug-of-war between Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó: on that day, attempts to deliver humanitarian aid over our borders and from the Caribbean sea were thwarted by joint action of the military, police and colectivos.
Nearly one month later, there are still plenty of questions about the chaos of those hours. On March 10th, The New York Times published a piece (about the video above) in which they raise the issue of who burnt part of the humanitarian aid in the border between Colombia and Venezuela, for which many observers blamed Maduro-aligned forces.
The article points out that a Molotov cocktail thrown by protesters from the Colombian side caused the fire, and that the fire was not started by Venezuelan security forces as several U.S. government officials claimed at the time.
The story had limited relevance among the Venezuelan public, overwhelmed by the nationwide blackout at the time of its release. Many in the Venezuelan diaspora, however, took offense, going so far as to protest the New York Times’ editorial line outside their headquarters a few days later.
Reviewing both the article and video, one can understand these grievances. Even if the investigation seems to be well-done and gets its main point across, it missed the larger context of the situation. The article doesn’t mention the terrible violence or dire conditions in Venezuela, and focuses narrowly on the role of the U.S. government.
The article points out that a Molotov cocktail thrown by protesters from the Colombian side caused the fire, and that the fire was not started by Venezuelan security forces.
It tightly follows the line advanced in the headline: Footage contradicts U.S. claim that Nicolás Maduro burned the aid convoy. The article presents itself as huge scoop despite illuminating just a small corner of the overall picture in Venezuela.
So, this article sadly feels more like it’s feeding the narrative of Trump’s White House being continuously misleading in many other issues. The Venezuelan crisis simply works as a set-up, and a chance to properly explain our plight is lost. After all, it’s no secret that the “Gray Lady” (the Times’ nickname) and the Trump administration have a complicated relationship.
I don’t think that Nick Casey and his collaborators acted in bad faith or abandoned any journalistic principles. I believe that they simply focused too extensively on a single detail at the expense of telling the larger story.
But the Times isn’t the only media outlet interested in February 23rd. Investigative website Bellingcat, whose audacious investigations on high-profile stories like the Skripal poisonings and the shootings in Christchurch have caught the internet’s attention, did their own report about the events of February 23rd. Coincidentally, both articles came out on the same day.
Under the title “Fire in the Border”, it reports in detail the incidents that occurred in Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and with Brazil, and discusses the burning of the aid. However, the piece also documents the brutal repression inside Venezuela, and thus better contextualized February 23rd than the Times piece did.
One aspect that can’t be dismissed is that even if we can’t know everything that happened that day, both sides have tried to use that to their advantage in establishing their narratives. And the hegemony has done that, even by deliberately twisting photo evidence.
The Spanish version of the Agence France-Presse’s Fact Check website released this report on March 12th in which they reviewed several photographs published by Telesur’s reporter Madelein Garcia of an alleged opposition protester throwing gasoline on some aid packages.
Those pictures were taken by journalist Karla Salcedo, who works for Colombian TV channel Caracol. The images show the man throwing water to put out the fire. AFP reviewed the original material, corroborated that Salcedo did take the pictures, and confirmed—at least to a degree—that the liquid thrown wasn’t flammable.
Even if we can’t know everything that happened that day, both sides have tried to use that to their advantage in establishing their narratives.
But that didn’t stop Maduro’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza from presenting the images during a U.N. Security Council meeting days later, as evidence that the U.S. and the opposition were damaging aid convoys to discredit the Maduro regime.
Telesur never answered AFP’s calls, and García insists on her version of the story. And lest we forget, Telesur is an international cable TV channel founded by Chávez’s government to spread its version of current affairs—in short, propaganda.
The media can’t assume the role of the institutions that could (and should) find the truth of what really happened those days. The court of public opinion is not a replacement for the court of law, but it can still help to clear out the fog of disinformation. And in these times, where the weight of doing our work is heavier than ever before, we have to be more careful and persistent.
Detailed, fact-based reporting about both the regime and the opposition remains vital to understanding the crisis in Venezuela, particularly when the regime relentlessly pollutes the media landscape with its own propaganda. This reporting, however, should always be mindful of the broader crisis in which the country finds itself, and journalists should not publish pieces that fail to make even a mention in passing of this crisis.