It is a little over 11 years since Hugo Chávez first assumed the presidency in Venezuela, following a landslide election victory that swept the country's discredited traditional parties out of power. Since then, Chávez has presided over a radical and controversial process of reforms that has been increasingly vilified by the mainstream media – and the English-language media has been no exception.
Rightwing outlets, such as Rupert Murdoch's Fox News channel, regularly refer to Chávez as a dictator, even though there have been 12 national elections during his time as president – most of which received unprecedented levels of scrutiny by international observers and were systematically deemed as free and fair.
More surprising for many has been the position taken towards the Chávez government by media outlets generally viewed as "liberal". For example, the BBC has had its coverage of Venezuela questioned recently. In December 2009, researchers at the University of the West of England published the preliminary findings of a 10-year study.
Of 304 BBC reports concerning Venezuela published between 1998 and 2008, the researchers found that only three mentioned any of the Chavez government's positive reforms – such as poverty reduction programmes that have more than halved the poverty rate from 46.5% in 1998 to 23% in 2009. Instead the BBC's reporting has been characterised by insinuations that Chávez lacks electoral support, and even compared Chávez to Hitler in one instance. The research also suggested the BBC has fallen short of its commitment to impartiality, truth and accuracy.
It is within this context of distorted media coverage of Venezuela that I decided to make a documentary on the contemporary political situation in the country. Filmed in the capital, Caracas, in November 2008, just ahead of the 10th anniversary of Chávez's first presidential election victory, I wanted the documentary to provide audiences outside Venezuela with an alternative narrative to the one offered by the mainstream media. I thought that in order to better understand the process underway in Venezuela, two things were essential.
The first was to move away from simplistic interpretations that focus virtually all developments in Venezuela around the figure of Chávez, and instead provide a platform for the voices of the government's grassroots supporters. The mainstream media routinely ignores these people, but they are instrumental in driving the process forward and should be at the centre of the story.
The second was to provide some basic contextual information about the type of democracy that existed in Venezuela prior to the Chávez presidency. Only then can one better understand the attraction of someone such as Chávez to large sectors of Venezuelan society.
I wanted to offer an interpretation of events in Venezuela that moved beyond the ahistorical accounts served up by the mainstream media that promote the idea of Chávez as a buffoon-type figure, devoid of articulate, rational support.
I was motivated by the experience I had living and working in Venezuela between 2005 and 2007. During that time, I initially worked as the Venezuela researcher for John Pilger's documentary The War on Democracy, which explores the brutal interventions against democracy in Latin America by successive US governments.
For the research, I spoke to Venezuelans from all sectors of society but especially to the government's grassroots supporters and community activists in the barrios (low-income neighbourhoods) that encircle Caracas. These activists repeatedly told me that they were aware of the international media's obsession with Chávez the individual – and were frustrated that their voices were ignored in the foreign media, unlike the government's domestic and international opponents. They admired Chávez's leadership qualities and recognised his charisma, but most insisted they were the true force behind Venezuela's process of radical change.
This view was typified by Joel Linares, a Christian grassroots community organiser in the eastern Caracas barrio of Winche: "Here there is only one leader, and it is called the people." The opinions of Linares and others like him emphasise the role of ordinary people in spearheading the struggle to redefine Venezuelan democracy, which the mainstream media is unable or unwilling to reflect.
It is wrong that journalists who serve as vehicles for interpreting reality are allowed to either contemptuously gloss over or ignore the views of more than three-fifths of Venezuelan society. Chávez won the 2006 presidential election with 62.8% of the vote. The levels of distorted media reporting on Venezuela are expected to increase in the run up to key parliamentary elections in September.
And other threats to Venezuelan democracy are very much clear and present with the threatening anti-Chávez rhetoric coming from important sections of the Obama administration, the increased US militarisation of Colombia, and the return of US support for dictatorships in the region (following the overthrow of the democratically elected Honduran government of Manuel Zelaya last year).
Despite its flaws (and there are many), Venezuelan democracy has deepened under Chávez and it is now at the service of the many and not the few. Those of us who believe in the sovereign right of Venezuelans to choose their own form of democracy have a duty to defend that country's process from foreign intervention and attack, whether military or propagandistic. We should also ensure that the "other" Venezuela, which the mainstream media refuse to cover, is heard.
Pablo Navarrete, the director of Inside the Revolution: A Journey into the Heart of Venezuela