U.S. Government’s Anti-Democratic Media Operations

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Robert McChesney’s and Mike Weisbrot’s article on the
Venezuelan government’s lifting of the license of RCTV
and the outcry in the U.S. over its being a violation of the
freedom of the press needs to be situated in the context of
the U.S. government’s own record of using the media to
destroy democratic institutions in Latin America.
First, the C.I.A. has covertly “owned, subsidized, or
influenced” more than 800 media operations around the
world (NY Times12/26/77, 1:37). These included newspapers,
magazines, trade publications, journalists working
for mainline newspapers and agencies, and news agencies
themselves. So people in democratic societies around the
world, who thought they were reading legitimate news
reports and interpretations, were in fact reading the planted
material of the CIA’s “Propaganda Assets Inventory.”
This is obviously a violation of the right of such a citizenry
to have access to legitimate information, and to know
the sources of that information, in
order to fulfill their civic responsibilities.
Among the agencies in Latin
America that were covertly owned or
infiltrated were Agencia Orbe Latino
Americare (a features service), The
South Pacific Mail in Santiago, The
Caracas Venezuela Daily Journal, and
LATIN (a Latin American news agency
that was operated by the British news
agency, Reuters). Editors Press Service
was an agency that placed itself willingly
at the disposal of the CIA.
Second, the U.S. government has actually used foreign
media to help violently overthrow or defeat democratically-
elected governments. The two instances that have
received the most scrutiny are the violent overthrow of the
Allende regime in Chile in 1973 and the electoral defeat of
the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1990 election.
Up to 1973, the year that the Allende government, which
had come to power through constitutional means, was
overthrown, the U.S. spent $4.3 million in covert money to
“support and influence” the Chilean mass media (San
Francisco Chronicle, 12/5/75, 1.) From September 9, 1971
to April 11, 1972, the C.I.A. spent a million dollars on one
newspaper, El Mercurio. This newspaper was owned by the
wealthy businessman, Agustin Edwards. The relationship
between Edwards and the U.S. government was so close
that the S.F. Chronicle reported that Edwards had conferred
with top officials of the Nixon Administration on the day
that Nixon ordered the C.I.A. to work with elements in the
Chilean military, headed by General Pinochet, to make a
coup to prevent Allende’s election. They did not actually
prevent the election, but they did overthrow Allende after
the election and instituted a long period of dictatorship,
torture, disappearances, and at least one assassination of a
former Allende cabinet member on the streets of Washington
D.C. Allende himself died in the coup.
Fred Landis, a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois
with dual U.S. and Chilean citizenships wrote a dissertation,
Psychological Warfare and Media Operations in
Chile, 1970-1973 (1975), in which he demonstrated how
the presentation of stories and photographs in El Mercurio
followed closely the U.S. Army’s Psychological Warfare
Manual (he could not obtain a copy of the C.I.A. manual).
I had occasion to talk briefly with a former minister in
the Allende government who told me that one of the biggest
mistakes of that government was not shutting down El Mercurio
when they knew it was part of a C.I.A. effort to overthrow
the government. But they were concerned that this
would give the U.S. and its domestic Chilean accomplices
more ammunition to paint the democratic socialist Allende
government as repressive and dictatorial.
There are two differences between the U.S. government’s
M.O. in Chile and in Nicaragua. In the case of Nicargua,
the U.S. overtly (except during the time that
the Boland Amendment banning aid to the
Nicaraguan Contras was in effect—to no real
effect because the government illegally and
covertly continued doing so leading to the
Iran-Contra affair) joined with the military
dictatorship in Argentina to put together an
armed force of anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans
to try to destroy the Nicaraguan government.
It attacked mainly key civilian targets like
collective farms and health clinics, seldom
engaging the stronger government army.
C.I.A. agents also attacked Nicaragua’s oil
storage facilities in the port of Corinto and
mined Nicaragua’s harbors. In effect, the US.
was waging open warfare on Nicaragua, and
was declared guilty of it by the International
Court of Justice that ruled that the U.S. owed
reparations to the government of Nicaragua.
Placing itself above international law, the
U.S. simply refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the
court. At the same time, it was BOTH overtly and overtly
supporting the anti-Sandinista newspaper, La Prensa.
A second difference between the Chilean case and the
Nicaraguan one is that by the time of the Nicaraguan operation
the U.S. Congress had created the National Endowment
for Democracy (NED, created in 1983). While formally
being private, it distributes public funds allocated
by Congress. One source estimates that between 1984 (the
year that the Sandinistas won the first elections after the
revolution they led that overthrew the U.S.-backed
Somoza dictatorship) and 1990 (the year that the Sandinistas
lost the elections after six years of a Contra war that
destroyed the economy and killed 30,000 to 40,000 people
in a country of 3.5 million), the C.I.A. spent $28-30
million and the NED spent $15,850,000 to get rid of the Sandinista-controlled government. If we compare the total
amount with what it would be if a foreign power had
financed elections in the U.S., taking into account the
population differential it would come to $3.1 billion to
$3.4 billion. (S. Brian Willson, 1990, www.brianwillson.com/
The NED also funded an organization called PRODEMCA
(Citizens Committee for the Democratic Forces in
Central America). PRODEMCA, which supported the
Contras, is reported to have given $100,000 to La Prensa
to support the right-wing opposition in the 1984 elections.
Between 1987 and 1988, PRODEMCA is reported to
have given an additional $170,000 to La Prensa. While
many Democrats spoke and voted against the U.S.’s support
of the Contras, most Democrats as well as Republicans
supported the money funneled through the NED—
even though the U.S. was militarily attacking Nicaragua at
the time and PRODEMCA was promoting the Contra
cause. Imagine if during wartime an enemy was on U.S.
soil or supporting an armed insurrection in the United
States and was at the same time contributing money to its
favored U.S. parties and news media!
Unlike the Allende government in Chile, the Sandinista
government did suspend La Prensa, but only for a
year. Just as the Allende government had foreseen, the
liberal “democratic” governments and media in the West,
led by those in United States, used the closing down of
the paper in a world-wide propaganda campaign to portray
the Sandinistas as dictatorial, and the U.S. and the
Contras as fighters for democracy and freedom, including
freedom of the press that the U.S. was so badly corrupting
all over the world.
Thus, when we read that the government of Venezuela
has refused to renew the T.V. license of a powerful media
network with close ties to the U.S.—one that played a role
in the attempted right-wing coup against the elected government—
we should be more than skeptical about the
U.S. government’s criticism and posturing as the defender
of democracy and freedom of the media.
* In the spirit of full disclosure, I report that I was Landis’s
thesis adviser. Since the Public I is a newspaper, we do not
cite all of the sources used in, or relevant to, our articles.
Anyone interested in a more complete bibliography of
sources on this subject can contact me at a-fields (at)

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