The photograph EL PAÍS should never have published

Two of the newspaper’s leading reporters reconstruct the events which led to a fake image of Hugo Chávez being printed on the front page

The EL PAÍS newsroom en Madrid.
The EL PAÍS newsroom en Madrid.BERNARDO PÉREZ

Last week, EL PAÍS made one of the biggest mistakes in its more than 35 years of existence. On Thursday, January 24, the newspaper published a photograph supplied by the Gtres Online agency purporting to be Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez lying in a Cuban hospital bed with a life-support tube in his mouth. Senior staff members decided to publish the photo on the front page, which was accompanied by a brief caption explaining that the newspaper could not verify its authenticity.

Javier Moreno, the editor of EL PAÍS, says the mistake he and his team made was publishing the photograph while admitting that they were not sure if it was of Chávez: “We believed that the photo was verified, when we had not verified it.” All those involved in the incident have since apologized. As soon as the newspaper learned that the photograph was not of Chávez, the management ordered that it be removed from the website of EL PAÍS, and that print editions be withdrawn. A new front page was then printed. The decision to print the photograph has had international repercussions, and the Venezuelan government has said it will bring legal action against EL PAÍS. Moreno says that he is planning to introduce changes to the decision-making process at the newspaper. What follows is an account by two senior journalists at the paper of the events leading up to the publication of the photo.

“Can you talk? It’s urgent.” At 2pm on Wednesday, January 23, Javier Moreno, who is attending the Davos World Economic Forum, in Switzerland, receives a FaceTime videoconferencing message from deputy editor Vicente Jiménez, who has already tried calling his boss twice.

—Javier, we have a photo of somebody who seems to be Hugo Chávez in an operating theater. The agency offering it has already contacted [rival Spanish daily] El Mundo.

—What do we know about the photograph?

—The agency says it was taken by a nurse in Cuba who sent it to her sister in Spain, who offered it to the agency.

—Do we have more information?

—Luis Magán is going to have lunch with the agency’s sales representative.

What do we know about the photograph? Could this be a set-up?” Javier Moreno, editor

Jiménez has been calling Moreno to try to show him the photo. He wants to send it to him in Davos, but Manuel Montero, Gtres’s sales representative, says no. Filming it on FaceTime is the best Jiménez can do. The deputy editor contacts Moreno again, and shows him the photograph. “They showed me the picture, saying that the agency wanted 30,000 euros,” said Moreno, who suggested paying no more than 10,000 euros. When Moreno sees the photograph he asks for verification, fearing that it could be a fake: “Are we sure that this is Chávez. This isn’t somebody in Lima setting us up, right? Jiménez responds: “I don’t think so, but it isn’t coming via the usual channels.”

Earlier, at 11am, photo editor Luis Magán met with Gtres’s sales representative. Gtres has been supplying EL PAÍS since 2009. Montero says that he has a picture of Chávez in hospital, and that the agency has offered it first to El Mundo, but no agreement has been reached yet.

At around 1.30pm, Montero returns with an envelope containing two prints of the photo and shows them to Magán, who believes that it is of Chávez, but wants to know when the picture was taken. Montero says the photograph had been taken a week before, and comes from a trustworthy source.

Magán takes the photo up to Jiménez’s office. “The photo is real, right?” asks the deputy editor. “I think it is Chávez,” replies the photo editor.

Over the course of the afternoon, a number of senior EL PAÍS journalists see the photograph, among them assistant editors Jan Martínez Ahrens, Goyo Rodríguez and José Manuel Romero. “The feeling was that we had a world exclusive on our hands,” says Magán. “The only doubts expressed about the photo are when and where it was taken. But everybody is convinced it’s Chávez.”

Martínez Ahrens meets with Gtres’s sales rep to discuss the photograph. “What he told me about the origin of the photo was vague and unconvincing,” says Martínez Ahrens, who now asks to talk to the agency’s director, Carlos Van Eyck. At 5.30pm the Gtres boss insists the photo is the real thing, but refuses to say who provided the image. After Van Eyck has admitted that it is possible the photograph could be a set-up, Martínez Ahrens briefs Jiménez. Meanwhile, talks continue over the price.

What the agency said about the photo was vague and unconvincing”

Towards 8pm, Jiménez is told that negotiations over the price of the photo have gone well, and that the agency has agreed to sell the image of Chávez for 15,000 euros. “When we agreed the price, we decided to publish it,” says Jiménez, adding that the agency would not provide the name of the person who took the image: “They told us that they didn’t want to publish a name because that would put the source in danger. It was a nurse who was putting her life on the line. Looking back, it is clear that that was where we made our big mistake.”

The question, then, is why did EL PAÍS decide to publish the photo supplied by Gtres Online if the agency wasn’t able to satisfactorily answer the many questions raised by journalists over the course of the afternoon? “We thought that the photograph was good and everything followed on from that,” says Jiménez. “There was no vote, and nobody raised any objections. Nobody told me that they were against publishing it, or that they doubted its authenticity, except for one assistant editor who wasn’t happy about publishing a photograph of a hospitalized patient. We decided to go ahead because it was newsworthy. The Venezuelan government was refusing to provide any information about the health of Chávez. We trusted the agency, even though there were some aspects of the matter that we couldn’t verify. We didn’t do our job properly,” he admits.

Magán, who was first contacted by Gtres and then negotiated a price for the photo with the agency, says that it was a collective decision: “We reached a point at which we had to decide whether to take the risk or not.” Hugo Chávez had not been seen in public since the election campaign last December, and had not attended his inauguration ceremony in January after winning the elections. The extent of his illness has been kept secret.

Moreno continued to tell his team via telephone and videoconferencing that they must verify the authenticity of the photograph. Meanwhile, he met with Moisés Naím, a former Venezuelan cabinet minister, and a columnist at EL PAÍS, and told him about the photograph. “Eventually, they gave me the impression that the agency had verified the picture, that the story is true, and that we were therefore going to go ahead. They did not tell me that there were a lot of doubts remaining, otherwise I would have stopped the whole thing. But as there were still questions to be answered, I asked Vicente to mention them in the photo caption. Not as a precautionary measure, but simply as extra information: I believed it was the most honest thing to do.”

At 3.52am, Marín presses the publish button. The supposed world exclusive begins to circulate

Moreno accepts that it was a mistake to publish the photo with a caption explaining that the paper could not verify its authenticity. “That is the mistake at the center of all this. We believed that we had verification of a photograph that we had not verified.” The photo caption read: “EL PAÍS has not been able to independently verify the circumstances surrounding the taking of this image, nor the exact moment, nor the place. Cuban policy and restrictions on information imposed by the regime there have made this impossible.” The editor accepts that leaving responsibility for verification of the photograph to the agency was a serious mistake. Rushing to publish was the other contributing factor. He adds that keeping the decision-making process between so few people only multiplied the risk.

At 9pm, editing began on the photograph for inclusion in the newspaper’s print edition. It was then seen by the design team, several members of the photography department, the international desk, and was finally uploaded to EL PAÍS’ in-house layout program, Hermes, where it could now be seen by many of the newspaper’s journalists. Half an hour before, Jiménez and the other assistant editors showed the photo to Guillermo Altares, the chief editor of the international desk. “Is this what I think it is? Are you absolutely sure, one hundred percent?” he asked his bosses. “They said that they were sure of what they had,” he says. Altares suggested talking to the newspaper’s stringer in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, Ewald Scharfenberg, but this was decided against, on the grounds that the line might be tapped and that the exclusive would be lost. “I have absolute confidence in Ewald, but not in Venezuela’s telephone system,” says Altares.

Martínez Ahrens did however ring Ewald to warn him that the newspaper was going to publish something very sensitive. “He told me that this was a very delicate matter, and that I should be ready for a government response,” says Scharfenberg. The newspaper’s editorial team did not tell its stringer in Venezuela that it was going to publish a photograph it believed to be of the country’s president, taken without his consent, of him on a life-support machine.

At about the same time, Mokhtar Atitar, the newspaper’s online photography editor, saw the image and immediately began to have doubts, which he expressed to Magán, sitting across the newsroom from him. After returning to his desk, Atitar checked on Google to see whether the photo had already been posted elsewhere. “I didn’t find anything. It was my own idea,” he says. Atitar was looking for photographs, when in fact the image was taken from a video.

At 11pm, Naím bumped into Moreno again in Davos.

—Javier, how’s that photo story going?

—We’re going to publish it.

—Can I tweet this?

—But don’t say that it is Chávez.

Naím then sent the following tweet: “Get ready for an extraordinary, exclusive photo on the EL PAÍS web soon.” A few moments later, Moreno retweeted this message. Scharfenberg saw Naím’s tweet, and wrote to Altares to ask him if he knew anything. “He told me, ‘I can’t tell you anything, sorry’.” The supposed exclusive was now under wraps to avoid any leaks. Later, Scharfenberg sent another message warning about an old photograph that was doing the rounds: a snapshot of Chávez with his brother and father.

At 4am the editor gives the order for a new front page to be designed

Around 3am on the morning of the 24th: 8pm in Mexico City, Bernardo Marín, EL PAÍS bureau chief in the Mexican capital, arrived at the paper’s offices. The first editions of the paper with the photo of Chávez on the cover were now already being distributed in a number of cities throughout Latin America. The social networks were abuzz with comments. Marín called Jiménez to suggest bringing forward the publication online.

The four people in the Mexico City bureau responsible for providing content overnight began to prepare the story. Caught up in their work, they miss several tweets saying that the photo could be a fake.

At 3.52am, Bernardo Marín presses the publish button. The supposed world exclusive begins to circulate on Twitter and Facebook. Two minutes later Marín checks his Twitter account. He sees that there are a number of tweets questioning the authenticity of the photo. “When you have been told by the management of the newspaper that the information is true, it doesn’t even occur to you to think that they could be wrong,” says Marín by phone from Mexico. Inés Santaeulalia, who writes for EL PAÍS from Mexico, calls the bureau to say that growing numbers of people are saying that the photo is not of Chávez. Naím’s Twitter account begins to fill with insults. “There was an explosion of aggressive comments from Chávez supporters. Some suggested that I was involved in the whole thing,” he says.

Marín follows up one of the comments saying that the photo is not Chávez, and discovers a video on the web of a patient hooked up to a life-support machine in an operating theater. It is from a video dated 2008. The night before, Venezuelan television had reported that images from the video were being circulated on the web, and confirmed that the image was not of President Hugo Chávez.

At 4am, Spanish time, Marín called Vicente Jiménez, sending him a screen capture from the video. Eight minutes later, Jiménez calls Javier Moreno, who is in his hotel on the outskirts of the Swiss ski resort. The conversation lasts four minutes, during which time the EL PAÍS editor gives the order for the photograph to be removed from the website, and for a new front page to be designed. In the meantime, distribution of the paper is to be stopped, to prevent it reaching news vendors in Spain.

“I took the decision immediately, without taking into consideration the cost, and without consulting anybody,” says Moreno. Over the next four hours and two minutes, Moreno makes 26 telephone calls as part of the process to get a new front page designed.

At 4.10, Jiménez calls Juan Manuel Albelda, the man responsible for distribution and printing at Pressprint, the company that prints EL PAÍS. Albelda tells him that the paper has already been distributed on some routes. He is unable to prevent the paper being delivered to airlines, trains, hotels and subscribers. In Spain, some 4,100 copies of EL PAÍS with the photo of a man who isn’t Hugo Chávez are put into circulation. “If we had left it until half an hour later, it would have been a very dramatic situation,” says Albelda. In the event, 93 percent of the print run is prevented from being delivered to news vendors. But in Argentina, 70 percent of copies with the photo are distributed; in the Dominican Republican, 90 percent make it to newsstands. In all, 22,635 copies with the offending image are distributed. A new front page is prepared. The cost of reprinting comes to around 125,000 euros. Redistribution adds another 100,000 euros to the cost of the mistake.

It wasn’t a photograph, it was a disgrace” Fernández de Kirchner

“I still can’t believe it: something that for any Venezuelan was obviously a con, made it on to the front cover of EL PAÍS,” says Scharfenberg.

The Venezuelan government reacts immediately, accusing EL PAÍS of being party to a plot organized by the country’s opposition. “Nobody believes that the photo is just some kind of coincidence: the lackeys in this country have their supporters abroad,” tweeted Diosdado Cabello, Venezuelan National Assembly speaker. “Every time somebody in the world, whether it’s EL PAÍS, Bosé, Juanes, Willie Colón, Cochez, or Uribe, attacks the homeland, the opposition turns them into a hero,” reads another statement issued by the Venezuelan government.

The Venezuelan government has since said that it is to take legal action against EL PAÍS. The country’s embassy in Madrid has accused the newspaper of “insulting” Venezuelans. “The publication of that grotesque photograph is nothing less than the confirmation of a systematic campaign by that newspaper and others, taking advantage in a terrible manner of the health of Commander Chávez,” said Information Minister Ernesto Villegas in a statement.

Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner tweeted: “I have seen a photograph on the cover of EL PAÍS. No, it wasn’t a photograph, it was a disgrace.”

The day after publication, EL PAÍS’s management team met with senior members of Gtres Online to discuss what had happened. Gtres accepted that its version of events was not correct. Van Eyck, the agency’s head, explained that as soon as they had learned that the picture was not genuine, it had contacted the person who had provided it. This turned out to be a Venezuelan woman living in Spain, who said she had received the photo on her phone from her sister in Venezuela. The latter said that she had received it from a contact in Cuba. It matters little. The photograph was a fake.

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