Growing media censorship in Venezuela

Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Photographers walk through tear gas while covering anti-government protests in Caracas. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
By Alexandra Theodorakidis Media in Venezuela have long been subjected to censorship and threats. Before President Nicolás Maduro took power in April 2013, the government of Hugo Chavez routinely investigated and imposed sanctions on media outlets that spoke out against them. This was done not only to silence them, but also to encourage other organizations to censor themselves in fear of government reprisals. However, the student-led protests that began in early February 2014 have resulted in even harsher forms of intimidation from the Maduro government. The last several months have seen alarming growth in media censorship in Venezuela as the President has tried to limit access to information about the violence stemming from demonstrations. Since February 12, 2014, more than 40 people have died in the clashes, with hundreds more injured. Many of those attacked include journalists covering the protests. Censorship and insecurity are plaguing Venezuela’s media; more than 100 journalists have left the country over the past few years as a result. The country currently ranks 116th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index. As the protests continue and media censorship grows apace, we take a look at what the potential implications of a state-controlled media could be in Venezuela. Background: Student-led protests have been taking place in Venezuela since early February 2014 in an effort to draw attention to the country’s overwhelming crime problem, record-breaking inflation and shortages of basic food items. Although the number of people killed in the country dropped from 16,000 in 2012 to 11,000 in 2013, the country still has one of the highest crime rates in the region. Many protesters are demanding that Maduro and his government resign, while Maduro has responded by calling the protesters “fascists.” There has been much debate over whether anti-government protesters or national security forces should be held responsible for the deaths that have occurred during demonstrations. What is clear however, is that the Venezuelan government is taking serious measures to block media coverage of the demonstrations. While Maduro claims his government is doing everything in its power to peacefully end the clashes, security agents have forcefully repressed journalists covering them. Since the protests began, more than 180 journalists have been attacked, robbed or arbitrarily detained while reporting on the demonstrations, with national security forces responsible for at least 60 percent of attacks. On February 12, Venezuelan authorities ordered that a Colombian television news station, NTN24, be taken off local airwaves after its frank coverage of anti-government protests, which Maduro called an attempt to “transmit worries of a coup d’état.” The following day in a cadena (a presidential address that all stations are obligated to air), Maduro claimed that the protesters’ objective is “to destroy Venezuela.” He also announced that CNN En Español would be removed from air, revoking the press credentials of its journalists and forcing the CNN team to leave the country. In late February, Twitter users were also temporarily blocked from viewing or uploading images. The social media site is immensely popular in Venezuela, and throughout the protests many Venezuelans have been using Twitter to post updates about what is happening in their region. As Twitter has been a major source of information for many looking for information on the protests, the government’s government attempts to block access to the site demonstrates its clear attempts to control what information its citizens access. In late March, many journalists working for Globovisión, a Venezuelan news outlet once known for its critical view of the government, were fired after the station was sold to a group with closer ties to Maduro. Several others quit in protest of growing censorship at the organization. Madelyn Palmar, one of the journalists who resigned, claims that Globovisión was altering news broadcasts to “avoid airing words such as ‘civil society,’ ‘protests’ and ‘students.’” For more information about major events in Venezuela since the beginning of the student protests, see the timeline below. Having trouble viewing the timeline? Click here. Thank you to IFEX for allowing us to use their timeline. Please note it has been modified and updated from its original version. Implications for Press Freedom: According to an October 2013 report released by Freedom House, 50 per cent of Venezuelan media outlets could be classified as pro-government, while 25 per cent identify more closely with the opposition. Problematic wording in the Venezuelan constitution encourages self-censorship and anonymity, with one law banning content that could “incite or promote hatred” or “foment citizens’ anxiety or alter public order.” Additionally, defamation of the president is punishable by up to 30 months in prison. The government also has the power to block websites it deems a threat to national security. These laws were implemented long before the protests began and it is against this backdrop that censorship of the demonstrations is taking place. Government threats and sanctions against journalists and media outlets have been used to instill a fear of reprisals in their peers and colleagues. Such threats include former Globovisión president Guillermo Zuloaga facing criminal investigation for allegedly disseminating false information and for offending then-president, Hugo Chavez. Newspapers El Nacional and Tal Cual were also censored and fined after they printed graphic images of cadavers piled up in a morgue in order to illustrate the high numbers of people that are murdered in Venezuela. A free press is essential to holding government accountable and creating an environment favourable to sustainable development, something that Venezuela desperately needs. In order for citizens to be accurately informed on matters of public interest, they need to be able to access unbiased information from a wide range of perspectives. By preventing the dissemination of news stories that would speak out against it, the Venezuelan government is ensuring that its citizens are ill-informed about the events happening in their country. According to Marianela Balbi, Executive Director of the Institute of Press and Society (IPYS) in Venezuela, the state of press freedom in the country has substantially deteriorated since Maduro took power in April 2013. “There were always physical assaults against journalists and some media outlets. This year the pattern started to change. Tribunals started being used; the Attorney General’s office and the Supreme Court are being used to present suits against journalists and media,” she said. The protests have drawn attention to the current state of press freedom in Venezuela. But as the protests continue, the government adopts harsher measures to control the media. As Venezuelans demand more freedom from their government, the government is responding by taking away the limited freedoms that citizens have left. Whatever the results of the protests, Venezuela’s relationship with its media has been severely damaged. ________________________________________ Alexandra Theodorakidis is CJFE’s Communications and Publications Assistant

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