Treating Dictator with Kid Gloves, AP Downplays Hugo Chavez's Latest Land Grab

In an unbylined item Sunday evening, the Associated Press informed readers that Venezuelan ruler Hugo Chavez, continuing a six-year campaign of agricultural land seizures, has ordered the expropriation of a huge swath of farmland from a British company, and unilaterally decided that any compensation which might occur will be paid in his country's own currency, over which the country's banks exercise strict repatriation controls.

The report frames the amount of land being seized in a way which will ensure that many readers won't appreciate its massive scope. More important, in something seen frequently in reports about authoritarian regimes, it treats the specific objections of opponents -- in this case, current landowners -- as arguments instead of observable and determinable facts. Here are several paragraphs from the report (bolds are mine):


Chavez orders more land taken from British firm

Venezuela's president on Sunday ordered the expropriation of 716,590 acres belonging to a British-owned company amid a disagreement over compensation for earlier takeovers of ranchland from the firm.

President Hugo Chavez announced the latest seizure after saying that Venezuela refuses to pay compensation in foreign currency to Agropecuaria Flora, a local subsidiary of the British company Vestey Group.

Chavez said the government had received a demand from the company that it be paid in dollars for the previous seizure of tens of thousands of acres. But the government insists in paying in bolivars, Venezuela's currency.

It's difficult for foreign companies operating in Venezuela to repatriate profits and other income in bolivars due to foreign currency controls in the South American country.

... Owners of large farms and cattle ranches have criticized the takeovers, arguing that Chavez's socialist-inspired policies have failed to boost agricultural production and made Venezuela increasingly dependent on imports of food from countries such as Brazil and Argentina.

How differently would a reader react if the AP had described Chavez's seizure as "over 1,100 square miles" (at 640 acres per square mile, it's actually 1,120 square miles) instead of in acres, which many if not most readers won't mentally convert? The land Chavez is seizing is over 90% of the size of Rhode Island, and 45% of the size of Delaware. What's more, if (emphasis if) the estimate of arable land in Venezuela per Google is correct at 2.85%) and if all land being seized is arable, the seizure would represent over 11% of all arable land in the entire country (arable land = 2.85% x 354,000 square miles = 10,089 arable square miles; 1,120 square miles seized divided by 10,089 arable square miles = 11.1%).

If he intends to pay at all, Chavez's preference to pay in bolivars would appear to be based on his ability to devalue the currency (which he has done), and its two-tiered nature, with separate rates for "essential" and "non-essential" goods. Whichever rate translates into fewer British pounds would clearly be the one he would intend to use.

The final excerpted paragraph uses a frequently employed technique in press coverage of authoritarian regimes. It is a fact that agricultural production did not rise appreciably in the first nine years (1998-2007) Chavez and his Bolivarian government took controlled the country (I could not find data for more recent years). It is also a fact that Venezuela's food imports have risen dramatically, from 40% of all food needs in 2000 to 70% in 2010. Yet the AP presents the objections of "owners of large farms and cattle ranches" as something they are "arguing," as if what they are asserting is debatable, instead of as something they are pointing to as facts and verifiable observations.

This "journalism" will even go to absurd levels such as what was seen here in late 2008 in a post about the AP's coverage of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe: "critics blame Mugabe's policies for the ruin of what had been the region's breadbasket. Mugabe blames Western sanctions ..." -- as if the two competing assertions have equal value. No; one (Mugabe's policies ruining the country) is true; Mugabe's is false. It's not a violation of journalism to point that out.

As long as we get mush such as that cited in this post, everyday Americans' understanding of key developments around the world will be incomplete and erroneous. I would suggest that this may be the entire point.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.