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When journalists rely on diplomats Ottawa ‘spins’ the news

Canadian diplomats abroad seek to shape coverage of their work. And the more nefarious their actions the harder they toil to “spin” what they’re doing as something positive.

During a recent interview Real News Network founder Paul Jay described how Canadian officials in Caracas attempted to shape his views of the country’s politics. Jay noted:

My first trip to Venezuela in 2004, I was producing the big debate show on Canadian TV called Counterspin on CBC Newsworld. … I was a known quantity in Canada. And so when I was in Venezuela, I said I’ll go say hello to the Canadian embassy. I was trying to figure out what was going on in Venezuela. I figured some Counselor would pat me on the head and say welcome to Venezuela.

“No, I got the number two chargé d’affaires that greeted me and brings me into a meeting room with seven members of the opposition who then for two hours beat me over the head with how corrupt the regime was, how awful it was, and so on…

“What business does a Canadian embassy have with bringing a Canadian journalist into a room with opposition people, essentially trying to involve me in a conspiracy against the Venezuelan government. Canadian government role in Venezuela was promote and nurture the opposition.”

Today is the 15th anniversary of the Canadian-led coup in Haiti.
Photo : Sgt Frank Hudec, Caméra de combat des Forces canadiennes

Around the same time Canadian officials sought to convince Jay that Hugo Chavez’s government was corrupt, former Montréal Gazette reporter Sue Montgomery had a similar experience in Port-au-Prince. In Parachute Journalism in Haiti: Media Sourcing in the 2003-2004 Political Crisis”, Isabel Macdonald writes: “Montgomery recalled being given anti-[President Jean-Bertrand] Aristide disinformation when she called the Canadian embassy immediately after she had been held up by armed men while driving through Port-au-Prince days before the [US/France/Canada] coup. Canada’s ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Cook, told her, ‘We’ve got word that Aristide has given the order to the chimeres [purported pro- Aristide thugs] to do this kind of thing to international journalists because he’s not getting any support.’ According to Montgomery, Cook had urged her to tell the other international journalists who were staying at the same hotel: ‘I think you should let all your colleagues at the Montana know that it’s not safe for them.’”

Given only two days to prepare for her assignment, Montgomery was ripe for official manipulation. Though she later realized the ambassador’s claim was ridiculous, Montgomery told other journalists at Hotel Montana (where most international journalists stay in Port-au-Prince) that Aristide’s supporters were targeting them.

The Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince succeeded in influencing Canadian reporters’ coverage of the country. In her MA thesis titled “Covering the coup: Canadian news reporting, journalists, and sources in the 2004 Haiti crisis,” Isabel Macdonald concludes that the reporters dispatched to Port-au-Prince largely took their cues from official Canada. “My interviews revealed that journalists’ contacts with people working in the Canadian foreign policy establishment appear to have played a particularly important role in helping journalists to identify appropriate ‘legitimate’ sources.”

CBC reporter Neil Macdonald told Isabel Macdonald his most trusted sources for background information in Haiti came from Canadian diplomatic circles, notably the Canadian International Development Agency where his cousins worked. Macdonald also said he consulted the Canadian Ambassador in Port-au-Prince to determine the most credible human rights advocate in Haiti. Ambassador Cook directed him to Pierre Espérance, a coup backer who fabricated a “massacre” used to justify imprisoning the constitutional prime minister and interior minister. (When pressed for physical evidence Espérance actually said the 50 bodies “might have been eaten by wild dogs.”)

Almost all Canadian correspondents develop ties to diplomats in the field. Long-time Globe and Mail development reporter John Stackhouse acknowledges “Canadian political officers” in Indonesia for their “valuable insights” into the country during General Suharto’s rule. In Out of Poverty, Stackhouse also thanks “the Canadian diplomatic missions in Accra, Abidjan and Bamako [for their] … invaluable service in arranging interviews and field trips.” During a period in the mid-2000s when she wrote for the Globe and Mail and CBC, Madeleine Drohan conducted media workshops in Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and elsewhere sponsored by the Canadian embassy, High Commission and Foreign Affairs (she taught journalist ethics!).

One of the best Canadian foreign correspondents of the 1970s,” Jack Cahill discusses some ways diplomats relate to reporters in If You Don’t Like the War, Switch the Damn Thing Off!: The Adventures of a Foreign Correspondent. “The Canadian government”, the former Toronto Star reporter notes, “can be good to foreign correspondents if it thinks they are reliable and I had two passports, one for general purposes and one for difficult countries.”

In what may reflect his nationalism, Cahill dubs Canadian diplomats “more reliable” than their southern counterparts. Disparaging his US colleagues, he writes: “There is little doubt, however, that some US foreign correspondents depend almost entirely on their embassies, and thus indirectly the CIA, for their information. It is, after all, the natural thing to be attracted to the truth as propounded by one’s own countrymen in the Embassy offices, at the official briefings, and on the cocktail circuit. It’s this information, with its American slant on world affairs, that eventually fills much of Canada’s and the Western world’s news space.”

Jay described his experience at the Embassy in Caracas mostly to highlight Canada’s long-standing hostility to the Hugo Chavez/Nicolas Maduro governments. But, his story also helps make sense of the dominant media’s alignment with Ottawa’s push for regime change in Venezuela today.

Globe and Mail Latin America correspondent Stephanie Nolen, for instance, promotes Canada’s last ambassador to Venezuela. Describing Ben Rowswell as “widely respected by Venezuelans while he was there”, Nolen recently retweeted Rowswell claiming: “the coup happened in July 2017 when Maduro suspended the constitution. The question now is how to fill the void – by backing the president who uses force to remain in power after his term expires, or the leader of Venezuela’s last remaining democratically elected body?” Rowswell has been quoted in at least a half dozen Globe and Mail articles about Venezuela in recent weeks.

Diplomats’ influence over international correspondents is one way the foreign policy establishment shapes discussion of Canadian foreign policy.

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What the mainstream media doesn’t tell you about Venezuela

The corporate media is wholeheartedly behind the federal government’s push for regime change in Venezuela. The propaganda is thick and, as per usual, it is as much about what they don’t, as what they do, report. Here are some important developments that have largely been ignored by Canada’s dominant media:

  • At the Organization of American States meeting called by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on January 25 the Canadian-backed interventionist resolution was defeated 18-16.
  • The “Lima Group” of governments opposed to Venezuela’s elected president was established 18 months ago after Washington, Ottawa and others failed to garner the votes necessary to censure Venezuela at the OAS (despite the head of the OAS’s extreme hostility to Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro).
  • Most of the world’s countries, with most of the world’s population, have failed to support the US/Canada push torecognize National Assembly head Juan Guaidóas president of Venezuela.
  • The UN and OAS charters preclude unilateral sanctions and interfering in other countries’ affairs.
  • UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for sanctions, Idriss Jazairy, recently condemned US/Canadian sanctions on Venezuela.

As well, here are some flagrant double standards in Canadian policy the media have largely ignored:

  • “Lima Group” member Jair Bolsonaro won the recent presidential election in Brazil largely because the most popular candidate, Lula Da silva, was in jail. His questionable election took place two years after Lula’s ally, Dilma Rousseff, was ousted as president in a ‘parliamentary coup’.
  • Another “Lima Group” member, Honduras president Juan Orlando Hernandez, defied that country’s constitution a year ago in running for a second term and then ‘won’ a highly questionable
  • “At the same time”as Canada and the US recognized Juan Guaidó, notes Patrick Mbeko, “in Democratic Republic of Congo they refuse to recognize the massive recent victory of Martin Fayulu in the presidential election, endorsing the vast electoral fraud of the regime and its ally Félix Tshisekedi.”

Beyond what the media has ignored, they constantly cite biased sources without offering much or any background. Here are a couple of examples:

  • The Globe and Mail has quoted Irwin Cotler in two recent articles on Venezuela. But, the decades-long anti-Palestinian and anti-Hugo Chavez activist lacks any credibility on the issue. At a press conference in May to release an OAS report on alleged rights violations in Venezuela, Cotler said Venezuela’s “government itself was responsible for the worst ever humanitarian crisis in the region.” Worse than the extermination of the Taíno and Arawak by the Spanish? Or the enslavement of five million Africans in Brazil? Or the 200,000 Mayans killed in Guatemala? Or the thousands of state-murdered “subversives” in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil?
  • CBC and Canadian Press (to a slightly lesser extent) stories about former Venezuelan Colonel Oswaldo Garcia, whose family lives in Montréal, present him as a democracy activist. But, notes Poyan Nahrvar, Garcia participated in a coup attempt last year and then launched raids into Venezuela from Colombia until he was captured by the Venezuelan military.
  • The media blindly repeats Ottawa’s depiction of the “Lima Group”, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described as an organization established to “bring peace, democracy and stability in Venezuela.” One report called it “a regional block of countries committed to finding a peaceful solution” to the crisis while another said its members “want to see Venezuela return to democracy.” This portrayal of the coalition stands its objective on its head. The “Lima Group” is designed to ratchet up international pressure on Maduro in hopes of eliciting regime change, which may spark a civil war. That is its reason for existence.

As part of nationwide protests against the “Lima Group” meeting taking place in Ottawa on Monday, activists in Montréal will rally in front of Radio Canada/CBC’s offices. They will be decrying not only Canada’s interference in Venezuela but the dominant media’s effort to “manufacture consent” for Canadian imperialism.

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