Why Is TeleSur a Flop? Look No Farther than Its Libya Coverage
By Al Giordano
As a student of rebellion and resistance, when people rise up I pay attention, study and try to learn as much as possible. Humans are at our most creative when we rebel and the moments when many do it all at once are the great engines of innovation, invention and evolution. Any man, woman or child of any age who participates in a grand and successful revolt is forever changed and liberated by the experience. He and she are no longer so easily enslaved or cowered by fear. Rebellions against injustice and tyranny are the single best catalyst through which people become our better selves and fulfill our most human of destinies.
For eighteen days in January and February 2011 the Egyptian people, especially its youths, treated the world to a lesson in civics. Their successful toppling of the thirty year dictator Hosni Mubarak was the very best kind of rebellion because it was disciplined, it was strategically and tactically executed, and the population understood that the justice and freedom it craved would not be found in bloody retribution against the sectors (most demonstrably in Egypt, the Armed Forces) that had propped up the regime, but in peeling those sectors’ support away from it.
A lot has been written and said during and since Mubarak’s fall about how the Egyptians did it, but having lived through other moments like it in other parts of the world I find most of the explanations unsatisfactory. I constantly return to a question raised by the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem:
"By a strange oversight, no historian has ever taken the trouble to study how people actually lived during the most extreme revolutionary moments."
The media, including that part which has been sympathetic and in solidarity with the Egyptian revolt, has proved so far completely incapable at the task of coldly and rationally documenting what exactly the young organizers, authentic journalists, bloggers and other change agents in Egypt did, under extremely difficult conditions, to end a thirty-year dictatorship in eighteen days. That’s where the story remains, largely unreported. And yet most of the protagonists are still alive and able to tell it; time has not yet buried this human-made miracle under ancient ruins for the archeologists to uncover and play guessing games.
And so I begin this essay with an announcement: Narco News and our School of Authentic Journalism will send a team of journalists to Egypt in the coming weeks to find and report that living history. With documentary filmmaker Greg Berger and others, and the wise guidance and counsel of Egyptian authentic journalist Noha Atef, among others who have kept us very well informed throught these historic weeks, we will go to the homes of the organizers and those who broke the regime’s media blockade and record their story in their own words. As authentic journalists do, we will do our best to strip ourselves of any preconceptions, Western and other, about what happened, and instead let those who made it happen explain it to us, and through these pages, to you.
Instead of asking the questions that every media organization is asking them, we will ask the questions that community organizers, students of civil resistance, strategists, tacticians and aspiring revolutionaries everywhere want to know: How did you do it? And how can we do it in our own lands, too?
It was that same thirst to know and understand how successful movements and their change agents make history that led me, fourteen years ago, to the rebel indigenous lands of Chiapas, Mexico, which led to a much longer period of study, and forced me to learn new languages and ways of doing things that, until I saw and experienced them, were alien to my New Yorker upbringing. That same admiration for grassroots movements, in April 2002, led us to be the first English-language publication (and, in fact, one of the first in Spanish) to report that international media claims that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had “resigned” were false, that instead a military coup d’etat was underway and he had been kidnapped. And we reported the popular movement that overturned that coup in three days and, as best we could from a distance, how it happened. Weeks later I was in Caracas, talking with the people in the neighborhoods, and especially the pioneers of its community radio and television and alternative media who broke the information blockade and mobilized the public that April, and also spent a total of twelve hours in the company of President Chávez, who I consider a very smart man, listening carefully to his analysis of what had happened.
That same need to understand how change is made has brought me, over the years, to the coca growing lands of Bolivia, the gigantic cities of Brazil, and, in the summer of 2009, to most states in the country of Honduras which was suffering – and continues to be plagued by the consequences of – a bloody coup d’etat. We have reported on the social movements from all 31 Mexican states and its capital. We have reported on successful movements and also those that have not yet succeeded, and have seen the details of what strategies and tactics more often bring victory, and which more often keep peoples mired in defeat. When other media, including “alternative media,” have pointed their cameras and microphones up above, at the heads of state and the machinations of those in power during periods of popular revolt and change, Narco News has instead gone to the streets and country roads where the people struggle from below, and provided their voices and wisdom a larger audience than they otherwise would have had for their grievances, dreams and the lessons of their unique experience.
For the past fourteen years, events in Latin America have dominated my interest, ignited my passions, and those two motives have always guided my journalism. For much of 2008, when a community organizing renaissance began anew in the United States (a process still underway, as we watch events unfold in Madison, Wisconsin), with the help of our readers, I went to study and report it: In Nevada, in Texas, in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and offered my findings to gatherings of community organizers at universities in the aforementioned Madison and in Chicago, as well as via these pages.
Now comes Northern Africa where the hands of thousands write new chapters in the history of human resistance against imposition and dictatorship. The people of Egypt, I suspect, have changed everything in the global equation and in one fell swoop have sent the nation-states and their leaders scrambling to understand how the old geopolitical map, still so soiled by the Cold War hangover, is useless to them now. It was the revolt by Tunisians and toppling of their authoritarian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that ricocheted into the hearts and minds of Egyptians, who have now inspired civil resistances in Yemen, Algeria, and elsewhere, most grippingly at this moment in Libya.
Events in Libya today are the straw that is breaking the old geopolitical camel’s back, and just as Egypt is placing new realities on the imperial capital of Washington DC, Libya presents a wake up call for the rival capitals whose leaders place themselves in resistance to US imposed hegemony.
The name of Muammar al-Gaddafi is spelled many ways around the world (Khadafi, Qaddafi, etcetera) but today – at this moment when so many of its more than six million citizens are in open revolt against his rule - it is spelled D-E-S-P-O-T. And that brings a lot of sadness as he culminates his betrayal of all the original hope and promise of the Green Revolution he led in 1969, which the author Hakim Bey once described as fusing philosophical underpinnings of “anarco-syndicalism” with “Sufi mysticism” and held out the possibility of an authentically “radical Islam.”
But let’s face reality: Gaddafi’s Green Revolution mutated into something far more sinister, and what is left is anything but revolutionary.
As Vishay Prashad wrote yesterday in Counterpunch:
"Little of the luster of 1969 remains with the old man. He is a caricature of the aged revolutionary. We are far from the 'revolutionary instigator' whose watchword was 'the masses take command of their destiny and their wealth.' The game will be up when the military tilts its support..."
Yesterday, I watched Gaddafi’s seventy-minute long televised speech, a rambling, manic rant that no observer could reasonably interpret as anything other than the self-destruction of a once great young man, now a senile, vicious and mentally unstable old fool.
Amy Davidson, senior editor of The New Yorker, watched it, too. Gaddafi’s speech was as mortifying and Looney Tunes as she, too, observed:
To watch the speech Muammar Qaddafi gave today is to feel very frightened for Libya. It is not simply that he talked about killing and love in one breath—“purifying their tribes” by executing protesters being something that “those who love Muammar Qaddafi” should do—or that he swore never to leave a post he denied having; denied that he had ordered any shootings after days of automatic gunfire (but said, “When I do, everything will burn”); called protesters drug-taking “rats” who Libyans should “attack in their lairs” (elsewhere, he called them “cats”); took out his “Green Book” and made a show of reading it, like a cross between Ophelia and Captain Queeg, as he mused about betrayal and glory, martyrdom and “masters in Washington and London,” his grandfather and Libya’s grand reputation; or that, when he finished speaking, he extended his hand to a supporter for a kiss. It was all of those things, adding up to the suspicion that a great many lives are in the hands of a man who may be not only megalomaniacal and deluded but actually deranged.
If you have been monitoring the international media for hard facts (and proof of them) about what is actually happening in Libya, you have probably spent many hours, as we have, tuned in to the Pan-Arabic TV news network Al Jazeera, which has also been so important recently as a source on news from Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and throughout Arab lands. There, incontrovertible proof, images and eyewitness testimony have documented the scale of the atrocity that Gaddafi is committing against his country’s own citizens: the deployment of military soldiers and paramilitary mercenaries with orders to shoot at protesters, the burning alive of soldiers who refused to do so, the use of military jets to strafe the crowds under a rain of bullet fire (as Juan Cole points out, this is eerily reminiscent of Mussolini’s 1930s aerial bombardments of Libya to impose a “Roman Peace” upon its people).
And so it is especially disheartening to see and hear some of the heroic and historic leaders of revolutionary Latin America praise Gaddafi (Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega went so far as to claim that Gaddafi “is again waging a great battle”) at this moment when Libyan dictator behaves like Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza, Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Banzer, Carlos Andres Perez and every other despicable war criminal and dictator the Western Hemisphere has suffered and which Boliviarian América rose up to topple.
While it is true that in better days Gaddafi aided and supported revolutionary movements in Latin America, these are movements which have not hesitated to dispose of their own traitors from within and so it is sadly astounding to witness the acrobatics with which some leaders (and their State owned media, I will get to that in a moment) are evidently obfuscating and clumsily attempting to defend, or at least provide a smokescreen of cover for, Gaddafi’s indefensible actions at present.
More wily and clever than Ortega’s bombastic show of solidarity with Gaddafi – and thus, more disappointing, because he should know better – was Fidel Castro’s column yesterday, in which he argued:
“One can be in agreement with Gaddafi or not. The world has been invaded with all kind of news, especially through the mass media. We shall have to wait the time needed to discover precisely how much is truth or lies, or a mix of the events, of all kinds, which, in the midst of chaos, have been taking place in Libya.”
Of course, to the extent that it has been difficult to get the true facts out of Libya is almost entirely a consequence of Gaddafi’s own actions: he has shut down the Internet, cell phones and land lines, banned foreign journalists, and done everything a tyrant can do to prevent the sifting of Castro’s “truth or lies.” And yet Gaddafi’s own words are clear as day: A call for his supporters to go house by house and kill any citizen who dissents, “attack their lairs,” he said... the crazed exaltation of “purifying the tribes” and the promise that “everything will burn.” That his words have been made real by bloody actions on a massive scale has been meticulously documented on Al Jazeera, on YouTube and in testimony from Libyans who escaped across the border as well as that of military and diplomatic officials who have defected. Castro’s call to “wait and see” at an hour of moral crisis is a call for consent and complicity with genocide.
Somewhat less skillful, on Castro’s part, has been his ham-handed attempt to shift the attention from the atrocity underway to a hypothetical one: His statement that, “the United States is totally unconcerned about peace in Libya and will not hesitate to give NATO the order to invade that rich country, possibly in a matter of hours or a few days.”
First of all, what could NATO possibly do to the Libyan people that Gaddafi isn’t already doing?
Second of all, the rapid rate at which Gaddafi’s own military officers, diplomats, even his Interior Minister, have defected and sided with the protesters, as well as the total control the resistance has assumed of the nation’s second most important city of Benghazi, the defection of tribal leaders who control many of the oil producing lands of the south, all these events indicate that it is not NATO or foreign powers that will most quickly dispose of the despot, but the very people he has governed for 42 years.
The popular rejection of Gaddafi this week has not been led by the imperialist West (which, since 2001, has worked in harmony with Gaddafi after he joined harmoniously with George W. Bush’s “war on terror”), but, rather, by Libyans. And the Libyan people have now been joined by all of Pan-Arabia. Yesterday, the League of Arab Nations (Kuwait, Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Jordan, UAE, Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Dijibouti, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, Mauritania, Comoros & Somalia) kicked Gaddafi’s representative out of their meetings and suspended Libya from the organization, calling on him to cease the violent repression of demonstrators. And while it is true that many of these states are essentially US allies and clients, it is more the rumbling in their own streets by the regional Pan-Arabic movement toward freedom that has them sweating and so eager to divorce themselves from Gaddafi’s crimes. The proverbial “Arab Street,” suddenly awake and on the move, is speaking through them. And their distancing from Libya’s go-down-in-flames response to rebellion portends well for movements in Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria and elsewhere that are following Tunisian and Egyptian footsteps today because it indicates that other heads of state and dictators are learning that absolute repression of the kind attempted by Mubarak in Egypt, and even more severely by Gaddafi in Libya, isn’t going to save their asses or their regimes. Notably, some are now bending over backwards to make concessions to pro-democracy movements in their lands, and a great regional awakening marches on.
Perhaps reading these words, kind reader, you have found some of the information new or useful. Much of it has also been reported by Al Jazeera from an Arab perspective. And, as in Egypt just days ago (yes, it seems like an eternity already), the Gaddafi regime is blaming the messengers:
At a news conference in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, on Tuesday, a government spokesman said: "We used to respect our brothers in Qatar, but the brothers in Qatar directed Al Jazeera to incitement and to spread lies. They directed hired Libyan and Egyptian sheiks that have Qatari citizenship and high monthly salaries to start this conspiracy."
This is exactly how the Honduran coup regime and that of Iranian president Mamoud Ahmedinejad responded to civil resistances in their countries in 2009: blame the media. The Honduran coup rulers shut down the Internet, deported reporters from TeleSur, and to this day it remains the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, assassinating them at a faster pace than in tyrannies twenty times its size. The Iranian regime did the same: shut off the Internet and deported reporters from BBC Persia.
Which brings us to the sticky matter of TeleSur, the six-year-old TV network based in Venezuela, funded largely by that government and, to a lesser extent, by those of Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Uruguay. On its first day of broadcasting, I wrote an essay, Welcome TeleSur to the Struggle to Light Up the Skies. There had been so much distortion by the Commercial Media, internationally and in Latin America, of events down here that I and many others eagerly grasped on to TeleSur and held out the hand of friendship and alliance.
Six years later, TeleSur is widely considered among much of the Latin American left to be a colossal flop and a predictable formulaic bore, a project so steeped in its own bureaucracy and conflicting loyalties that it is an understatement to say it “has not lived up to its potential.” In the past year, it has participated in the demonization of the historic indigenous movements in Latin America, absurdly attempting to tag the continent’s original peoples as imperialist agents of the United States, largely based on the McCarthyist falsehoods of one of its commentators, the North American lawyer Eva Golinger. If you have not read about what occurred last October to cause a massive grassroots backlash from so much of the Latin American left against TeleSur’s shoddy “journalism,” this story, by Narco News reporters Fernando Leon and Erin Rosa, is illuminating, to say the least.
But it is the Pan-Arabian resistance that has shaken the wheels off of TeleSur altogether. While citizen journalists in Libya courageously break the information blockade to post videos on YouTube and elsewhere to show the carnage wrought by the death throes of the Gaddafi regime, while Al Jazeera and other international media document beyond a reasonable doubt the war crimes it is committing, TeleSur has treated its viewers to a total cover-up and whitewashed version of events in Libya. It has served as a clownish propaganda vehicle for the embattled Libyan dictator.
The version of events fed to TeleSur viewers portrays Gaddafi pronouncing “I am a revolutionary,” and repeats his claims that “extremist groups are paying the demonstrators” against him without a shred of irony or proof. It portrays the dictator as defending the country of Libya from “the insults that have been made agains the Libyan people in recent days.” The subheds alone demonstrate TeleSur’s spin: “Youths receive money from extremist groups,” and, “I will fight to the last drop of my blood” and “Following the Constitution,” and “Solid Libya.”
Of course, TeleSur gave top billing to Castro’s claim of a “plan by the US for NATO to invade Libya.” Libyan demonstrators are portrayed as pillaging and burning everything in sight (“furious hordes,” a general is quoted as describing them) and that “there are no police, nor Army, nor security forces” to be found.
Not a word about the multiple massacres by Gaddafi’s troops, who according to TeleSur, contrary to repressing the people, are not even present, nor the aerial attacks by military planes on the crowds. TeleSur has reported nothing about the defections by military, diplomatic and tribal pillars of support for the regime. In sum, TeleSur is feeding a total falsehood to its viewers and calling it “news.”
Meanwhile, the self proclaimed gringa “novia de Venezuela” (that’s from her own website masthead, you can’t make this stuff up!), Eva Golinger, who accompanied Chávez to Libya, Iran, Russia and Belarus last November, complained yesterday on her Twitter feed: “Look, I’ve never defended Gaddafi! To the contrary, I am analyzing the causes of the terrible situation that is happening in Libya. I don’t know why they say that.”
Golly gee, ya think maybe the recent NY Times profile on Golinger (in which she vainly granted an interview to the known golpista reporter Simon Romero only to act surprised later on when it wasn’t as flattering as she had hoped: “The article makes me sound like some kind of propaganda queen for the Venezuelan government,” she doth protested too much) might have something to do with that impression? Here is an interesting passage from the puff-piece-gone-awry:
In October, she accompanied Mr. Chávez on a seven-country tour that included visits with Venezuelan allies like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran. “Chávez presented me as his defender to Ahmadinejad,” said Ms. Golinger, describing the Iranian leader as “gentle” after giving him her book at a dinner.
She came away from the trip with her own appreciation of other Venezuelan allies like President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, who is often called Europe’s last dictator.
After meeting Mr. Lukashenko in person, she described him as “really nice.” As for Belarus itself, she said its Western critics were mistaken because it is “not a dictatorship.” Rather, she said, “It is socialism.” She praised a Belarussian agricultural town she visited. “People seemed really into their communal work and stuff like that,” she said.
To be fair, Golinger wasn’t quoted as saying anything, pro or con, about her State sponsored visit to Gaddafi’s Libya. She did call the Iranian dictator “gentle” and the Belarusian despot “really nice,” without offering a shred of criticism of the tyrannical behavior of the regimes of any of the countries she visited. A journalist-of-the-state simply does not do that if one wants to be invited on future junkets.
And that’s the point. At an hour of moral crisis it is not enough to issue smug denials that one has never defended an evil if one is not also vocally denouncing and resisting it while it is happening.
Interestingly, Venezuelan President Chávez – who recently made news sleeping in a tent that Gaddafi had gifted to him on the recent trip to Libya – has remained absolutely silent on the matter since the Libyan resistance rose up in recent days.
But I know something about how big news organizations function in their dysfunction, and TeleSur is very similar to CNN or Fox News or any other cable news network in its operating principles. I’ve had first hand dealings with various TeleSur employees and freelancers and, like their counterparts in commercial media, they live in constant, abject fear of getting “the call from Caracas” (their words) or angering their superiors. TeleSur is a viper’s nest for anyone employed there, filled with bullying middle managers and cut throat colleagues who covet each other’s jobs, with an often absent upper level management (right now TeleSur chief Andrés Izarra is virtually AWOL as he serves the dual function of Venezuela’s cabinet level Minister of Information and Communications). Many frustrated journalists throughout the hemisphere come to us for counsel when they have problems with their bureaucracies, and we’ve heard enough stories from TeleSur journalists to recognize their plight as so similar to those of corporate media employees.
So it’s not really clear if TeleSur is behaving this week as chief American propagandist for Gaddafi because a line has been handed down, or because in a dysfunctional absence of any line its panicked employees are overcompensating based on what they see as Venezuela’s geopolitical alliances. The news organization also suffers an increasing tendency that corrupts all the beautiful and good accomplishments of the Bolivarian revolution by attempting to make the news overly about one head of state and his allied heads of state rather than about an organized people. But I sense that fear plays a huge role in how previously good journalists have turned themselves into propaganda monkeys for war crimes in Libya today.
What is strangest about TeleSur’s astonishing fictionalization of the Libyan crisis is that the news organization has an existing agreement with Al Jazeera in which each network may use the video footage of the other. But none of the strongest images or reports by Al Jazeera from Libya have made it past the cutting room floor in Caracas this week.
TeleSur has thus converted into a worst-case scenario that plays into the cartoon caricature version of the Bolivarian revolution painted by its worst enemies and the bloody coup mongers of the imperial right. The damage they are doing to the cause of the Venezuelan people, a majority of whom built the Bolivarian revolution, is immeasurable. It features circus clowns like Golinger spewing half-baked conspiracy theories (her latest: that “it’s sad but reality, that what happened in Egypt was prepared in USA laboratories”). Did you catch that? Now she is defaming the Egyptian resistance and its participants who toppled a thirty-year US-propped regime as, somehow, agents of US imperialism! It’s the same exact script she used against the indigenous of Ecuador when they opposed multinational oil and mining companies imposed on them by that country’s government.
Well, this is why authentic journalists have to go to the source – in Egypt or Honduras or anywhere else where competing media try to impose their spin on events from afar – to interview the people on the ground who make history, instead of those who merely wash, spin and dry it. I look forward to reporting to you what the heroic Egyptian resistance organizers have to say about this attempt to portray them as dupes of a foreign power. But mostly, I look forward to learning the real history of the resistance that now gives birth to many resistances.
The Cold War ended twenty years ago but its vestiges have guided too many of right and left alike in a hackneyed obsession with a supposed geopolitical map. Rebellions against their enemies are portrayed as good but rebellions against their allies are defamed as the manipulations of foreign powers.
I personally have never viewed being of the left as adhering to such a geopolitical map, in which the atrocities by autocrats – be they named Gaddafi or Ahmedinejad or Mugabe or Lukashenko or Putin – are considered “gentle” or “nice” or acceptable in any way simply because they position themselves (often as mere acts of theater) as opposed to US imperialism. Likewise, I reject the vision of those on the right, who apologize and cover up for any crime against humanity if it is seen as serving US or Western interests, and in truth most of my reporting for 14 years abroad has aimed my pen and keypad directly at those US-sponsored hypocrisies and injustices, and I imagine that I will continue to do so for the rest of my years. Being on the left, to me, means that one favors freedom, justice (economic and political), human rights, authentic democracy, and full powers of assembly and speech for all, in every land, at every moment. Rebellion and resistance against all tyranny, no matter what flag it raises, is the single greatest expression of what makes us human. It is the engine of evolution of our species. And when it is done strategically, nonviolently, with discipline and creativity, it makes the greatest works of art this world has ever seen.
Here and now, on the eve of the springtime of 2011, what is, in a way, similar to the Prague Spring moment of 1968, which revealed the Czechoslovakian’s people’s yearning to be free and exposed the worst authoritarian and imperial tendencies of the former Soviet Union, we are witnesses (and hopefully participants) of this masterpiece of humanity which I will call The Civil Resistance Renaissance.
Our work, as authentic journalists, in documenting and telling its story – and training others of talent and conscience who seek to do the same - has only just begun.
Update 3:14 p.m. Friday, February 25: A little more than a day after we published this story, TeleSur has published its first honest story in a week from Libya, from the resistance-controlled city of Benghazi:
"Here, the people fill the streets celebrating freedom from the government of Gaddafi. What can be seen in the streets is a new country, a country that doesn't recognize the government, where the people themselves have organized committees, are cleaning the streets, the food is gratis, the people distribute the food, they send free medical attention, and have increased their military control. On all sides are people with guns, but peace reins...
"It should be remembered that this is a country where previously very few foreign journalists entered and their uprising was done without those journalsits present, with very little communication, and the faced a ferocious repression. They have shown us terrible photos and images that we would never be able to show on television of bullet ridden bodies. The people here say that hundreds of people died last Saturday and Sunday, but they resisted, they continue fighting and at this moment they are in control of the city."
It may also be of interest to our readers that the reporter, Reed Lindsay, is a 2003 graduate of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, and we have received information from other TeleSur journalists that there is a strong debate within that news organization at present over its coverage of Libya, perhaps unprecedented in the network's six years in that journalists within the channel - the workers of the station - have strongly objected to the simulation and dishonesty that plagued TeleSur's Libya coverage up until now. As with the larger Bolivarian revolution, there are many, many people of conscience who see human rights and resistance as higher priorities than geopolitical alliances, so things have taken an interesting turn, to say the least. Let's hope to see more of it.
Update #2, 6:24 p.m. Friday, February 25: The saga thickens, and this is probably going to have some impact on the network's headquarters in Caracas. While the TeleSur team in rebel-held Benghazi reported that it can do its work freely among friendly crowds, the network's crew in the regime-held capital of Tripoli, TeleSur has just reported, was arrested twice today by regime forces, a crew member was beaten, a camera was seized, and during one of the arrests they were dragged out of a vehicle with Venezuelan embassy diplomatic plates. Developing...