Photo: IPYSve, retrieved.

On June 17th, a massive electricity blackout affected Argentina, Uruguay and parts of Paraguay. As the government of Mauricio Macri has promised to investigate the causes and release their full findings soon, the technical and political implications of what really went wrong are not just known, but openly discussed by public opinion down South.

A very different scenario of what’s been happening here, with this year’s blackouts.

After almost four months, most Venezuelans are still unsure of what caused the power to go out for days and the blackout effects are still being felt (with power rationing) in parts of the country. That’s because the Maduro government insists in denying, misleading and openly lying,  instead of just being transparent.

NGO IPYS Venezuela recently released “Blackouts and Disinformation at Telesur,” which reviews how the state-owned multinational news channel covered the March 2019 blackouts. Seven articles and three blog entries were chosen and submitted to a rigorous fact-checking process.

After almost four months, most Venezuelans are still unsure of what caused the power to go out for days and the blackout effects are still being felt.

The piece was written by local journalist Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez, a specialist in fact-checking at digital news outlet Efecto Cocuyo, who said in an interview with Caracas Chronicles that the Telesur coverage contains instances of “disinformation practices.”

For example, the channel only points to the official explanation of the incident: a U.S. cyber-attack. To push their argument, they misquoted an article by magazine Wired on the issue and dismissed the more plausible problem of wildfires affecting our powergrid. They even refused to give context on the long-term electrical crisis we’ve suffered for years.

This year, Telesur claimed that the humanitarian aid sent by the U.S. was poisoned and that the burning of an aid truck trying to cross the Colombian-Venezuelan border, on February 23rd, was caused by an opposition demonstrator on purpose. Both allegations were proven false, but no correction or apology came at all.

Gutiérrez explains that this is easily classified as propaganda: “Packaging of information with a clear political-ideological intent to be disseminated in state media.”

The report also shows how Telesur plays an active role in creating an echo chamber with its fellow hegemony outlets, that reinforce the official line and work as a shield against any attempt to question it. For example, the channel usually uses its own correspondents as the main (if not only) source in some stories. Telesur doesn’t verify claims from Maduro’s officials either. 

The effectiveness of disinformation in Venezuela is helped by the state-policy of censorship, too: independent media outlets Efecto Cocuyo and El Pitazo have been the latest targets of online blockings by orders of government regulator CONATEL. In the case of El Pitazo, this is the fourth serious blocking of their main website in almost two years. Limiting news sources that could serve as counterweights to the hegemony is key.

This issue of disinformation leads to the larger theme of opacity, which Javier Liendo addressed weeks ago, and it reminds us of HBO’s mini-series “Chernobyl” critically acclaimed for its historical accuracy: a dire technical accident has nationwide consequences, and the state, far from coming forth with the most honest, public assessment of what happened (so citizens can better prepare themselves) is focused instead on its own reputation, going to great, absurd lengths, to not lose face and look efficient abroad.

If that sounds familiar, it’s not a coincidence. In Gutiérrez’s words:

If you can easily recognize who is benefited or harmed by a piece of news, then that piece should be taken with a grain of salt.

“The state of opacity that exists in Venezuela is a lack of statistics, transparency and accountability, which are prime requisites of a democracy. NGOs like Transparencia Venezuela or the Venezuelan chapter of Amnesty International are making efforts to recollect and/or visibilize data which shows the consequences of this statistical opacity or the refusal to recognize certain social phenomena like the diaspora. The fight against disinformation is another matter. This comes as civic formation of the reasonable doubt.”

“If a piece of information arrives to you via WhatsApp or Instagram, angering you or making you happy to an extreme degree, it’s probably disinformation. If you can easily recognize who is benefited or harmed by a piece of news, then that piece should be taken with a grain of salt. Also, am I really finding out info that no other media outlet, with more resources, was unable to get, and no one else knows about? That’s obviously suspicious.”

The best tool to keep informed against a state that’s manipulating information is certainly to find alternative sources of news, but you must also discriminate the information you’re consuming.

No easy task in a post-truth world.

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