FLASHBACK: Full Disclosure: Buying Venezuela’s Press with US Tax Dollars

The US has been covertly funding opposition-aligned journalists in Venezuela, says Jeremy Bigwood.

Jeremy Bigwood is an investigative reporter whose work has appeared in American Journalism Review, The Village Voice, and several other publications. He covered Latin American conflicts from 1984 to 1994 as a photojournalist.

This article is reproduced, excluding endnotes, from NACLA Report on the Americas (September/October 2010). *Third World Resurgence No. 240/241, August-September 2010, pp 66-69

THE US State Department is secretly funnelling millions of dollars to Latin American journalists, according to documents obtained in June under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The 20 documents released to this author – including grant proposals, awards, and quarterly reports – show that between 2007 and 2009, the State Department’s little-known Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour (state.gov/g/drl) channelled at least $4 million to journalists in Bolivia, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, through the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF, padf.org), a Washington-based grant maker. The documents shed light on one small portion of the overall US effort to covertly fund journalists all over the world.

The records released thus far pertain only to one particular programme, called ‘Fostering Media Freedom in Venezuela’, for which the State Department gave PADF $700,000 for the period 2007-09. The programme provides journalism grants to unnamed individuals and sponsors journalism education programmes at four regional universities. In carrying out this project, PADF collaborated with Venezuelan media NGOs associated with the country’s political opposition, only two of whose names were not redacted from the declassified documents. It is unclear whether the programme has continued. If it has, and the State Department gave PADF the previously awarded amount, the US government will have spent almost $1.5 million on journalism development in Venezuela since 2007.

Both the State Department and PADF declined to comment for this article.

‘Fostering Media Freedom in Venezuela’ is just one small component of the US government’s covert funding of foreign news outlets and journalists. Not only the State Department but also the Department of Defence, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), and the US Institute for Peace (USIP) all support ‘media development’ programmes in more than 70 countries. The US government spent $82 million in 2006 alone on global media initiatives (not counting money from the Pentagon, the CIA, or US embassies), according to a 2008 NED report.

These government entities fund hundreds of foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs), journalists, policy makers, journalist associations, media outlets, training institutes, and academic journalism faculties. Grant sizes range from a few thousand dollars to millions. For some groups and individuals, the funding can come from more than one US government source and can be disbursed either directly from a US embassy or through intermediaries, which are usually US subcontractors or ‘independent international non-profit organisations’, like PADF.

By serving as an intermediary, PADF has until now hidden the State Department’s role in developing Venezuelan media – one of the political opposition’s most powerful weapons against President Hugo Ch vez and his Bolivarian movement. Neither the State Department, PADF, nor the Venezuelans whom they fund have disclosed the programme’s existence. Yet, as one document notes, the State Department’s own policies require ‘all publications’ that it funds to ‘acknowledge the support’. The provision was simply waived for PADF. ‘For the purposes of this award,’ the document reads, ‘ …the recipient is not required to publicly acknowledge the support of the US Department of State.’ The document does not explain how the programme’s purposes – which, among other things, include establishing professional norms in journalism – do not require PADF or its ‘subgrantees’ to acknowledge that they are funded by the US government.

Although $700,000 may not seem like a lot of money, the funds have been strategically designed to underwrite the best of Venezuela’s news media and recruit young journalists. The documents detail a series of grants doled out to unnamed individual journalists, including two kinds of grants ‘for innovative reporting and investigative reporting’, with the winning content disseminated online ‘and to selected independent media audiences’. We don’t know who won these grants, but we do know that they were substantial. One of them consisted of 10 one-year grants of $25,000 each. For many journalists, especially in Latin America, $25,000 a year is a high salary. PADF also holds ‘2 competitions, one per year, for a total of $20,000 in funding awarded to at least six entries’.

PADF’s Venezuela programme also supports journalism education, which is undertaken to produce investigative work ‘via innovative media technologies’. This grant supports ‘a series of trainings for local journalists focused on the basic and advanced skills of Internet-based reporting and investigative reporting’, aiming to engage ‘a wide range of Venezuelan media organisations and news outlets, including four university partners’. A quarterly report from January-March 2009 mentions courses at Andr‚s Bello Catholic University, the Metropolitan University, the Central University of Venezuela, and Santa Mar¡a University. PADF proposes targeting universities in the capital city of Caracas as well as regional campuses in ‘the Andes, Center East, Zulia and the Western region of the country’.

These initiatives have been undertaken with the collaboration of well-connected opposition NGOs that focus on media. Only one of the documents names any of these organisations – which was probably an oversight on the State Department’s part, since the recipients’ names and a lot of other information are excised in the rest of the documents. A 2007 document names Espacio P£blico (espaciopublico.org) and Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (ipys.org.ve) as recipients of ‘subgrants’. Neither of these organisations has disclosed its participation in the PADF Venezuela programme. On its website, Espacio P£blico describes itself as a ‘non-profit, non-governmental civil association that is independent and autonomous of political parties, religious institutions, international organisations or any government’ (emphasis added). The other ‘subgrantee’, the Venezuelan chapter of Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPyS-Ve), is a Peru-based journalism organisation funded by USAID and the NED. Both groups strongly criticise the Ch vez government for its alleged assault on free expression and other human rights in Venezuela.

The disclosure in July of these organisations’ collaboration with PADF led to calls in Venezuela for a public investigation, forcing Espacio P£blico and IPyS to issue statements on the matter. ‘In Venezuela, it is in no way a crime’ for NGOs to accept international financing, IPyS declared. The organisation denounced the revelations as the latest example in a series of ‘threats, slanders, and defamatory campaigns… put forward by [pro-Ch vez] political agents with absolute impunity’. This was little more than an attempt, IPyS emphasised, to paint the organisation and its allies as foreign agents of the US government. Espacio P£blico issued a similar statement from the National College of Journalists and the National Press Workers’ Union.

Neither statement addressed the real issue: the NGOs’ failure to disclose the US government’s funding of their activities. Moreover, the documents released thus far do not indicate that the Venezuelan journalists and students who participated in this programme were acting as direct ‘agents’ of the US government. Indeed, those who benefited from the PADF grants and education programmes may not have known that the State Department was funding them. And so far as we know, the State Department was not dictating editorial policy in Venezuela or providing its sponsored journalists with talking points. However, the NGOs that worked with PADF targeted their grants and training programmes at journalists who were disposed to pursue reporting that bolstered the US posture toward Venezuela – while never disclosing the source of their funding.

Traditionally, the leading ‘democracy promoter’ in Venezuela is USAID, followed by the NED, with about a third as much funding. In 2005 an FOIA request yielded documents showing that the two entities were underhandedly directing millions of dollars to Venezuelan opposition NGOs. At the time, USAID’s main intermediary was Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), a Maryland-based contractor, along with smaller entities associated with the US government, including the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and Freedom House. After these findings were published, DAI was forced to close its office in Caracas. With the USAID and NED covers blown wide open, the US government apparently sought new funding channels, at least one of which PADF has provided.

PADF’s main office is housed within the Organisation of American States (OAS), granting its officers privileged access to the big players in hemispheric affairs. Funded by various US government agencies and a few private sources – including Stanford Financial Group (recently under investigation for bad banking practices and its CIA connections) and ex-Cuban rum maker Bacardi – PADF has worked in Latin America and the Caribbean since 1962, generally focusing on economic development and disaster relief. Its mission statement, however, does leave open the possibility of getting into the ‘democracy promotion’ racket: The online mission statement says the organisation ’empowers disadvantaged people and communities’ not only ‘to achieve sustainable economic and social progress’ but also ‘to strengthen their … civil society’ (emphasis added). ‘Strengthening civil society’, like ‘promoting democracy’, is NGO-speak for meddling in another country’s politics, even promoting so-called regime change. As one of the documents notes, for example, PADF has worked in Cuba ‘with USAID and private funding to nurture the emergence of independent civil society and entrepreneurship and accelerate a democratic transition’ (emphasis added).

PADF emphasised its solid connections and years of experience in its bid to work as the State Department’s intermediary. In one grant proposal, the organisation described itself as ‘affiliated with the OAS’ and said it ‘operates independently of bureaucratic obstacles that could otherwise slow implementation and sub-grant approvals’. PADF added that it already had ‘over two years of experience working in Venezuela to strengthen local civil society groups working in close coordination with the local OAS office with an ongoing USAID/[Office of Transition Initiatives] grant’. It is ‘one of the few major international groups that has been able to provide significant cash grants and technical assistance to Venezuela NGOs’, the proposal said, adding: ‘To date we have provided over 10 grants to strengthen the institutional capacity of local groups that provides us with unique capability and experience to carry out the proposed… project.’

PADF furthermore advertised that it has access to many sources of cash flow: ‘In addition we can facilitate private sector cash and in-kind donations from both US and in-country donors to complement project resources, if and when needed. PADF’s partnerships with regional business and civil society associations and other regional groupings further enhance our capabilities. They provide for rapid access to international agencies, hemispheric leaders and networks of corporate donors and NGO partners.’ PADF even offered a novel way of evading the official Venezuelan exchange rate. ‘By using PADF’s new “bond swap” system to transfer funds to Venezuela,’ PADF noted, ‘we calculate that the additional local currency generated will be sufficient to meet all in-country expenses within the new US$ budget limit.’ In short, PADF offered its services as a dynamic money-laundering machine.

The revelations that the United States is funding journalism in Venezuela and elsewhere in the hemisphere come on the heels of a report released in May by the centre-right think tank FRIDE (fride.org), based in Madrid, which found that since 2002, the United States has funnelled an estimated $3 million to $6 million every year to ‘small projects with political parties and NGOs’ in Venezuela through an alphabet soup of shifting, intertwined channels. (The FRIDE report was removed from the group’s website soon after it was publicised in June.) Thus, the government support for media fits together with a larger, long-term US effort to strengthen its favoured political movement in Venezuela and elsewhere throughout the hemisphere in the era of Latin America’s ‘left turn’.

Today’s US media sponsorship has deep roots in the history of North American interventionism. Clandestine US funding of media in various countries was first exposed in the 1970s during two congressional investigations convened after the Watergate scandal. Media had by then played a critical role in several US interventions in Latin America, especially after the 1954 invasion of Guatemala and overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz. During that formative operation, a radio station called La Voz de la Liberaci¢n broadcast messages denouncing Arbenz and cheerleading the invasion. It claimed to be Guatemalan but was in fact run by the CIA, airing from Honduras.

The ‘successful’ Guatemala operation quickly became a model emulated in subsequent interventions. As one CIA analyst put it in the 1980s: ‘The language, the arguments, and the techniques of the Arbenz episode were used in Cuba in the early 1960s, in Brazil in 1964, in the Dominican Republic in 1965, and in Chile in 1973.’ Over time, however, US propaganda became more sophisticated and more clandestine. Rather than produce and disseminate its own propaganda, the CIA funded private media companies and journalists, often providing them material to publish or broadcast. During the run-up to the 1973 coup that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende, for example, the CIA had established editorial control of El Mercurio, the country’s most prestigious newspaper, which ran constant articles and editorials against the Allende government and in favour of neoliberal economic policies.

As the research of Peter Kornbluh shows, the CIA in less than a year spent $1.95 million on El Mercurio, which was also funded by the ITT Corporation, the CIA’s main private collaborator in Chile. ‘Sustained by the covert funding,’ Kornbluh notes, ‘the Edwards media empire [which owned the paper] became one of the most prominent actors in the downfall of Chilean democracy. Far from being a news outlet, El Mercurio positioned itself as a bullhorn of organised agitation against the government.’ The newspaper was essential, even decisive, in setting the stage for the coup, as the CIA itself recognised. When asked in 2008 if the CIA still funds foreign journalists, agency spokesman Paul Gimigliano said, ‘The CIA does not, as a matter of course, publicly deny or confirm these kinds of allegations.’

After the congressional investigations in the 1970s, the burden of funding overseas media shifted to entities like USAID and the NED, the latter described by the New York Times as ‘a quasi-governmental foundation created by the Reagan Administration in 1983 to channel millions of Federal dollars into anti-Communist private diplomacy’. One of the NED’s first major projects was supporting La Prensa, a major pro-US newspaper in Nicaragua previously funded by the CIA. The NED began funding the paper in 1984 with a grant of two years for $150,000 through a Washington cutout called PRODEMCA.

By early 1987, NED delegations were openly visiting La Prensa. During the 1990 presidential campaign, NED provided the newspaper with at least $1 million, with much of the funding being funnelled through Venezuelan and Costa Rican pass-throughs. Thanks in part to this and other US democracy promotion initiatives, the pro-US candidate Violeta Chamorro – whose family owned La Prensa – was elected president in 1990.

Domestic manipulation

The US government’s use of news media to achieve political outcomes is not limited to efforts abroad. In January 2005 a series of reports revealed that various government agencies had doled out money to at least three US columnists who supported the Bush administration’s social policies, including the No Child Left Behind law and the Healthy Marriage Initiative. And in 2008, the New York Times revealed that the Pentagon had hired more than 75 retired military officers to appear on network and cable news shows to promote the Iraq war.

‘Records and interviews,’ the Times wrote, ‘show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse – an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.’ To date, none of the networks that featured these undisclosed Bush administration publicists – ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox – have mentioned the Times story, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Although these commentators failed to disclose their arrangements with the US government, they at least presented themselves as editorialists. Yet perhaps the worst recent example of the US government’s meddling in news media anywhere involved Florida-based ‘reporters’ who covered Cuba, US-Cuban relations, and the Cuban American community. The story was first publicised in September 2006, when the Miami Herald reported that at least 10 South Florida journalists, including three staffers at the Herald’s Spanish-language sister paper, El Nuevo Herald, had been moonlighting for Radio and TV Mart¡, the Miami-based government broadcaster that targets Cuba with US propaganda. New documents released in response to an FOIA request and made public in June show that a handful of these journalists were working for the government while producing unerringly hostile coverage of five Cubans convicted of espionage in 2001. The lawyers for the Cuban Five, as they are known, tried unsuccessfully to have the trial moved out of Miami, where the unsequestered jury was likely to be exposed to the prejudicial coverage.

At a time when US journalism is widely acknowledged to be in decline – with thousands of people laid off from the industry since 2008 – it is ironic that the government has seen fit to pump millions of tax dollars into developing the profession elsewhere, even as calls for a government ‘bailout’ of domestic journalism are ignored or ridiculed as socialistic. Another irony is that undisclosed foreign state support for ostensibly independent reporting violates basic principles of journalism’s professional integrity, yet much of the US funding has been undertaken in the name of fostering professionalism and inculcating journalistic standards.

Reporters in Venezuela and elsewhere in the region can and should hold their governments to account. But they should be wary of grants and seminars administered through US-connected NGOs, since covert funding may in some cases cause unwitting recipients to break their countries’ laws. In the end, US officials will have to ask themselves if all this covert funding is really going to successfully help the opposition and ‘promote democracy’ – or whether it will simply backfire and reveal how in practice, Obama’s stated vision of hemispheric relations as guided by ‘mutual respect and common interests and shared values’ is little more than lip service.