Russia’s state-funded media amplifying Venezuelan government’s stances on contentious regional issue
International media have extensively covered the Venezuelan migration crisis that has plagued millions over the past few years, with correspondents weighing in from border towns across Latin America. But while United Nations figures affirm 2.3 million people have left Venezuela since 2015, one outlet has prioritized reports of a few thousand that have decided to come back to the country. The outlet is Actualidad RT, the Spanish-language version of the Russian-funded television network.
While the majority of international analysts attribute the crisis is in large part a result of the failed economic policies of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Maduro himself tends to attribute the crisis to external factors. Actualidad RT sides with the Venezuelan government’s narrative on the mass exodus of Venezuelans fleeing hardship.
Twenty articles and videos published between August and September 2018 about Venezuelan migration (full list here) showed the extent to which Actualidad RT has given airtime and online space to covering and amplifying Caracas’ narratives and positions on the issue, while minimizing and questioning other perspectives. The outlet selectively picked its sources to portray a one-sided version of the story, framing its coverage to not only reinforce the Venezuelan government’s narratives but to endorse and repeat them.
The outlet’s website has ample reach, with about 39 million visits per month, around 13.3 percent from Venezuela, according to SimilarWeb. Its traffic increased by five million visits since February 2018, when @DFRLab conducted an analysis of RT’s presence in Latin America. The February analysis detected a bias in favor of Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, who was running in uncontested elections denounced by the international community — results were not recognized by the United States, the European Union, and 14 Latin American countries.
RT’s coverage of these issues exhibit elements of a well-known strategy of Russian disinformation: dismiss, distract, distort, and dismay (4Ds of Disinformation). While denying the existence of a migrant crisis and questioning its alleged impact and political implications, they also claim that U.S. and European Union sanctions are to blame for the country’s dire economic situation.
Dismiss the Crisis, Distort the Data
Actualidad RT, like the Venezuelan government, has constructed a narrative that questions the existence of a migration crisis in the country. The notion that the Venezuelan crisis is being disproportionately mischaracterized by Western media appears often in Actualidad RT’s coverage. For instance, a piece titled, An Awkward Neighborhood: What is the real dimension of Venezuela’s “migratory crisis”? (archived on September 21) explicitly said, “rhetoric towards the South American country [Venezuela] has limited itself to show the phenomenon with spectacularism and apparent ‘exceptionality.’”
Its main narrative was that migration from Venezuela to the rest of the region is neither exceptional nor worse than it is in other Latin American countries. For instance, Venezuelan Vice President Jorge Rodríguez stated that the “so-called ‘humanitarian crisis’” was a “crumbling house of cards,” and that his government was eager to “go to any international organization, any of them, to show the truth […] that a lot of news media are denying.”
RT reported Vice President Rodriguez’ comments without additional context or facts.
Both the Venezuelan government and RT have questioned United Nations figures on migration. As reported by RT, then-Vice President Delcy Rodriguez argued that the United Nations had gathered its migrant reception data from “enemy countries.” In turn, RT proceeded to try to unearth inconsistencies in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru’s internal statistics.
In an August article titled, Annoying Migration? Venezuelans’ Flow to be Debated in a Meeting Called For in Ecuador (archived on September 21), RT reported that while Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno stated that his country was hosting more than 250,000 Venezuelan migrants, the government’s figures reflected that only 80,000 of them remained in the country a month after they entered.
Accurate migration statistics are remarkably difficult to obtain as they are constantly changing and strictly rely on government reports. Still, UN figures tend to be the most widely accepted by governments, media outlets, and humanitarian organizations worldwide, and they inform both migrant assistance programs and reputable media coverage of the situation.
This strategy of questioning official statistics hints at another argument within this narrative: that the disproportionate portrayal of Venezuela’s migration crisis is politically motivated. RT journalists were careful not to say it themselves, at least in stories analyzed by @DFRLab. They did, however, quote several sources who argued this on different instances or attributed it to someone else. For instance, in a piece titled, ¿Xenophobia or convenient topic? How Venezuelans are dealt with in Ecuador (archived on September 21), a sociologist named Sebastian Salazar Nicholls, who was a left-wing candidate for the Quito city council in 2014, argued that the Moreno government was using the Venezuelan migration situation to distract the media from Ecuador’s economic troubles.
In the same piece, a Colombian economist living in Venezuela named Juan Carlos Tanos was quoted saying Venezuelan migration is “a source of funding” for Cucuta, the biggest Colombian border city. The article stated, “Bogota’s interest for making its neighbor’s migratory situation more visible than its own internal crisis is mainly economic.”
According to both the Venezuelan government and RT’s journalists, sanctions against Venezuela by the United States and the European Union are to blame for the economic and humanitarian crisis that has spurred Venezuelan migration. These sanctions targeted several Venezuelan government officials as well as PDVSA (the Venezuelan state oil company), accusing them of corruption and human rights violations. In a television interview, Venezuelan Vice Minister of Communications William Castillo said these measures aimed to “make the Venezuelan economy crack and squeak, and allow, through this crisis, a political destabilization that ends up overthrowing the government.”
RT actively engaged with this rhetoric. It quoted sources that made similar arguments about the role of the sanctions in the Venezuelan crisis, including Argentine analyst Eduardo Martinez (archived on September 23) and economist Juan Carlos Valdez (archived on September 23). And it reinforced this narrative in its coverage. At the end of a television report, Venezuelan RT en Español journalist Érika Ortega Sanoja stated: “If the sanctions intended to help Venezuela, this goal has not been accomplished.”
But the main message RT conveyed to its audience was “Caracas says the Venezuelan migration is being used to promote an armed intervention in the country” by the United States, as an RT news anchor said in this piece (archived on September 23). President Nicolás Maduro said it himself at this year’s UN General Assembly, where he called the crisis “a total fabrication” by the media aimed at justifying a U.S. intervention.
This is a point repeated several times in the analyzed coverage. For instance, here (archived on September 21) and here (archived on September 23). The more explicit rendition of this appeared in the August 23 edition of the news show Behind the News (archived on September 23), hosted by Golinger and featuring Martínez.
Golinger: Now, Eduardo: To what extent do you think that Washington’s interest in giving away these millions of dollars to help Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, Brazil, and Ecuador has a political agenda? Is this money conditioned to an effort to promote a government change in Venezuela?
Martinez: It has always been. The U.S. in April said so, when it said that it would cut some sanctions to Venezuela if it did not go ahead with the elections, which they considered a fraud…
By questioning the figures, RT dismissed the scale of the crisis. And by pointing out external causes of the crisis, RT attempted to distort its causes and question the validity of the many journalistic reports about it. The idea, again, was to build a narrative in which the crisis was not a result of Venezuelan mismanagement of its complicated economic landscape, but of the U.S. and the right-wing Latin American governments’ work toward destabilizing Venezuela.
Distracting from the Problem
RT also lent airtime to the “Return to The Motherland Program,” a series of government-funded charter flights for Venezuelan migrants seeking to return home. The program is a good distraction mechanism, but generates minor impact. According to Venezuelan government statistics more than 8,000 people have taken advantage of the program, which equates to 0.00003 percent of migrants, per UN figures.
In a television segment covering a Venezuelan march in honor of deceased Chilean President Salvador Allende (archived on September 23), Erika Ortega Sanoja, RT’s correspondent in Venezuela, gave ample airtime to a flight of returned migrants from Peru. The narrative was clear and repeated consistently in the program’s press releases: “They were looking for economic improvement, and they found exploitation, xenophobia, and discrimination.”
RT also distracted from the crisis by devoting coverage to how other Latin American countries have experienced migratory flows. In the Allende report, Sanoja questioned, “Venezuela [was] the country with the largest number of migrants in the region.” She adopted the same angle as the “An Awkward Neighborhood” piece, wherein UN figures on other Latin American migrations are quoted extensively and uncritically, unlike those about Venezuela’s situation, to comparatively minimize the extent of the Venezuelan migration crisis.
In several other stories, the outlet cites Colombia’s 7.4 million internally displaced people due to a longstanding armed conflict, according to the UN Refugee Agency, and Mexico’s 11.8 million citizens living abroad. The report also mentions that for decades, Venezuela was a migrant receiver, as it was a prosperous oil-rich country in a troubled neighborhood. An online video called Argentina Creates an App for Expelling Migrants; Peru Imposes Conditions to Stop Them(archived on September 24) reminds viewers that “amid the Southern Cone dictatorships and the oil boom, many [people] immigrated to Venezuela in the 1970s and 1980s.”
Balance is an important pillar of journalism. It demands news reports publish both accounts of a story. While many of RT’s sources on the Venezuelan issue are aligned with the perspective of the Venezuelan government, the outlet does feature some quotes from opposing views, but often in a way that questions and discredits them.
Consider opposition leader and former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma’s quote about sanctions, featured on one of Ortega Sanoja’s TV report after describing the Venezuelan government’s perspective on sanctions.
Ortega Sanoja: In spite of this outlook, opposition leaders insist on applying more sanctions. From Spain, former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma perceives it this way.
Antonio Ledezma: What we are talking about here is a humanitarian intervention. Because it is proven that the Venezuelan regime, due to its own actions or omissions, is not able to satisfy Venezuelan people’s basic needs on food, health and security.
The doubts raised by Ortega Sanoja when she said “in spite of this outlook” contrast with her own introduction of Vice Minister Castillo’s words on the same issue, immediately after Ledezma’s part: “For Vice Minister William Castillo, the issue here is more than settled. Trump exerts sanctions as a political tool to bring the Bolivarian Revolution to an end.”
Most news media insist their reporters and presenters have a public image of impartiality and fairness, to the point of enforcing strict guidelines for engagement on social media. For instance, the BBC’s guidelines demand that “editorial staff and staff in politically sensitive areas should never indicate a political allegiance on social networking sites.”
This is not the case for some of RT’s most prominent Venezuelan journalists. Golinger is “one of Mr. Chávez’s most prominent defenders in international leftist circles,” according to a 2009 report by The New York Times. One of her books included a foreword by prominent Venezuelan officials and was published by the Venezuelan Ministry of Communications.
Sanoja, in turn, is a former deputy (Congresswoman) for the Socialist United Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Hugo Chavez’s party. She has held important roles in the Caracas-funded Venezolana de Televisión and Telesur TV networks. Her Twitter profile, @ErikaOSanoja, (archived on September 23) leaves no doubt about her political leanings. It is crowned by a banner photo of late President Hugo Chávez carrying a camera on his shoulder, next to her, with a microphone in hand. She retweeted most often (other than RT) Bolivian President Evo Morales (@evoespueblo), Maduro’s biggest ally in the South American continent; journalist and Maduro sympathizer Larissa Costas (@larissacostas); and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Larreaza (@jaalarreaza).
Her account mostly amplifies the Venezuelan government’s agenda, retweeting officials, but sometimes expressing political opinions, such as this response (archived on October 1) to Organization of American States Secretary-General Luis Almagro shows.
This editorial positioning should come as no surprise: RT and Telesur have several editorial agreements, as they share content and co-produce a show. There is an evident ideological synchronization between Maduro and RT: in a 2015 interview with the channel, Maduro said the Russian media conglomerate is “the medium for the spreading of the truth.”
This is also a hint on the Russian government’s stance on the situation in Venezuela. The Kremlin, an ally of the Maduro regime, has not yet expressed an explicit position on the migration issue. There has been recent talk about international action in the country: several Latin American countries called for the International Criminal Court to probe President Maduro for human rights violations, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called the latest Venezuelan army movements close to the Colombian border “an intimidation.” Should events escalate to the UN Security Council, Moscow’s position will become increasingly relevant.
Actualidad RT’s portrayal of the Venezuelan migration crisis has consistently been one-sided and reflective of narratives espoused by the Maduro regime. The outlet selectively chooses sources and angles that reproduce and support Caracas’ perspectives on the situation and exclude or discredit opposing views. This narrative blames Western media for allegedly disproportionate and unfair coverage of the situation, and claims the goal of such coverage is to justify a military intervention in Venezuela.
Both the television network, which is available online for free and on air in several Latin American countries, and its online presence have engaged in a disinformation strategy commonly used by Russia, three of the “4Ds of Disinformation”. RT dismisses the scale of the migration; its coverage distorts the facts by framing them in ways that minimize the responsibility of the Venezuelan government; and it distracts its viewers by focusing on small-scale, media-friendly, government efforts that improve the lives of only a few thousand migrants while failing to address the underlying causes of the crisis.
@DFRLab, along with the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, will continue monitoring the situation.
Jose Luis Peñarredonda is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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