Published August 29, 2012
It seemed like a routine story. In March, José Gregorio Briceño, governor of Venezuela’s southern state of Monagas, appeared on national television and complained that federal officials were not addressing claims of contaminated water in his state. An oil pipeline managed by the state-run oil company PDVSA had recently burst in the Guarapiche River, which runs through Monagas. News accounts followed with testimonies from independent experts and families with ill children.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías vowed to act—not to investigate potential water contamination, but to counter the “media terrorism” threatening the country. Federal officials complained of political manipulation and a media conspiracy in an election year; Chávez is up for a third six-year term in October. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz announced a new federal injunction requiring journalists to base reports on water quality on a “truthful technical report backed by a competent institution.” Otherwise, journalists risked “destabilizing” public order, and could incur fines or jail time.
More in this report
• CPJ’s recommendations
• Introduction: Media transformed
• State media target critics
• Globovisión harassed
• Hackers hound press
• Media under seige
• Download the pdf
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“So what happens if a woman comes out of her house with a glass of brown water or a child with diarrhea? We can’t transmit it. And what if the community protests over dirty water? We still can’t transmit it?” said Silvia Alegrett, president of the local journalists’ group Colegio Nacional de Periodistas. Alegrett and other Venezuelan journalists said that while the government cites water quality studies, obtaining copies of such studies can be difficult. “Officials will wave the studies in the air and say, ‘What the press or activists say isn’t true.’ But then we won’t see the reports,” Alegrett said.
The injunction on water reporting is only the latest addition to a minefield of legislative changes and presidential decrees put forth by Chávez’s administration to restrict the independent media since he took office in 1999. To sidestep the potential fines or prison terms, many journalists and publications censor their own coverage.
The administration has also blocked critical coverage, closed broadcasters, sued reporters for defamation, excluded those it deems unfriendly from official events, and harassed—with the help of government allies and state-run media—critical journalists. The result is that key issues—Chávez’s health, rising unemployment, overcrowded prisons, and the condition of Venezuela’s vital state-run energy sector—are not receiving in-depth, investigative coverage at a critical moment for the country, as Chávez grapples not only with cancer but with an unprecedented challenge for his office from Henrique Capriles Radonski, the governor of the state of Miranda.
The gradual dismantling of Venezuela’s more critical and independent press and the building up of a vast state-run media empire is a remarkable reversal of the media landscape prior to Chávez’s rule. Then, major newspapers and television and radio stations were dominated by a private-sector, business-oriented elite determined to shield its audience from leftist and socialist views. When critics accuse Chávez of a media power grab, his loyalists counter that the government effectively democratized the press by wresting control from a powerful oligarchy with its own agenda.
The resulting polarization is reflected in the news coverage leading up to the elections. In February, Venezuela held a primary that resulted in an unexpectedly high turnout and a strong win for Capriles as the opposition coalition candidate, although Chávez still leads most polls. But polls favoring either candidate are questioned, while violence at campaign rallies is often blamed on agents planted by the other side.
As much as the independent press shines its light on Capriles, the vast government-friendly network of television, radio, and print pushes ahead with coverage either negative to Capriles or, at best, superficially informative about his campaign. Meanwhile, nuanced and comprehensive coverage of the Chávez campaign and his party’s proposals is largely absent within the private press. A balanced, probing look at either candidate is hard to find.
“As Chávez has made his presidential power more permanent, we’ve seen more disrespect for the rules of the game,” said Carlos Correa, executive director of Espacio Público, a local free expression group.
Legal and regulatory threats intimidate
Years of legislation that tightened Chávez’s grip on the media are paying off. In 2004, lawmakers loyal to Chávez passed a new broadcast law banning content before 11 p.m. that could be considered too violent or sexual for children or could “incite or promote hatred or intolerance” or “disobedience of the current legal order.” In December 2010, legislators in Chávez’s United Socialist Party broadened this statute and extended it to the Internet. Government officials can now order Internet service providers to restrict websites that violate the controls.
Reporters criticized the legislation as vague, noting that it could apply to subjects ranging from sexually transmitted diseases to Venezuela’s escalating violent street crime. While the laws have yet to land a journalist in jail, the threat of prosecution and fines are enough to make most hesitant to test the government’s tolerance, local journalists said.
In 2010, the legislature granted Chávez power to rule by decree, ostensibly to help flood victims, but the move came just weeks before a fresh slate of opposition politicians were to take their parliamentary seats, pre-empting any plans to limit Chávez’s powers.
One reporter for a daily newspaper in the coastal city of Maracay told CPJ that her editors have closely heeded the harassment of independent television station Globovisión and the closing in 2007 of RCTV, a popular broadcaster and Chávez critic, and that they make decisions accordingly. “Most of the media in Maracay prefer to just publish what official sources say,” and this is demoralizing to local journalists, said the reporter, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal by her editors. For example, newspapers highlighted a government official saying a damaged highway to the Atlantic coast would be fixed in time for an upcoming holiday. Independent photos showed a collapsed bridge, but editors refrained from publishing those or reporting on the road’s decrepit state. “If you write that, it will not be published,” the reporter said. “You give up fighting.” An editor at one of the four dailies in Maracay countered, “That pressure [to go soft on the government] does not exist,” and said any lack of in-depth reporting is a matter of time and resources.
“The threat of lawsuits and insults is working,” said Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the Caracas-based daily El Nacional.
Regulatory obstacles also play a role. In 2009, the telecommunications regulator Conatel, whose members can be freely appointed or removed by Chávez, shut down and seized equipment at more than 30 radio stations, with reasons ranging from administrative technicalities to broadcasts about illegal squatters in the face of a housing shortage. Officials said more stations were on their watch list, but did not specify which ones. “The messenger is punished whether or not the information is true,” said Andrés Cañizalez, a professor and media expert at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. “It’s tough to prove at times. A radio presenter is suddenly off the air, or a station closes, and you later learn that the government had pulled its advertising.”
Meanwhile, public information has become increasingly difficult to access. The list of reporters allowed at official press conferences is shrinking. Reporters from Globovisión, the country’s last remaining critical TV broadcaster, are often excluded. “If you’re not on the list of approved media outlets—and Globovisión is definitely not on that list—then you’re left standing in the hall,” said Lysber Ramos Sol, who heads Globovisión’s investigative reporting team. She said her reporters only learn about official events through colleagues at other outlets.
A complaint often repeated by independent journalists is that when they are allowed to attend press conferences, government officials ridicule them. Amira Muci, an opinion show host on Radio Victoria in Maracay and the secretary-general of the local branch of the Colegio Nacional de Periodistas, said disrespectful treatment is the norm. “When your questions are uncomfortable or when they don’t have answers, they try to embarrass the reporter,” Muci said. “Or they say you are disrupting the revolutionary process. So many journalists give up and become, in effect, government stenographers. They think it is the only way to survive.”
Julio Rafael Chávez Meléndez, a representative of the National Assembly and vice chairman of its Commission on Media and People’s Power, countered that statement, saying, “Why should the government tolerate so-called journalists who are agents of the opposition and have no real desire to inform the public [and] are bent on serving their own agendas? Why should President Chávez stand for their constant ridicule? Don’t we have a right as a government to stop irresponsible coverage intent on upending Venezuela?”
In February, limitations were set on journalists’ access to the floor of parliament during debates. Once allowed to view proceedings from the parliament gallery, now they must follow on television monitors in the halls outside. The live audio of this transmission is prone to sudden silence, however, with an onscreen explanation that the session is private.
Violence and crime are touchy topics
Crime is an especially sensitive subject. Recent polls found that more than 80 percent of Venezuelans nationwide list crime as a top worry. However, law enforcement officials are slow to publish homicide statistics, with the most recent figures dating to 2010. The head of Venezuela’s police force recently told state media that the murder rate in Caracas had dropped in 2012, but he did not provide specific homicide figures—instead, he cited the number of arrests on murder charges. Often, reporters publish their own data based on police reports or compilations by non-governmental groups such as the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, which says there are about 60 murders per year per 100,000 Venezuelans—one of the world’s highest rates.
The newspaper reporter in Maracay said crime statistics that used to receive prominent display in her paper are downplayed, with most such news published in the community section, where local residents write to denounce problems.
Journalists have also been hampered by court rulings to limit publication of photos showing death or violence. In August 2010, the privately owned El Nacional published a photograph showing an overwhelmed Caracas morgue, with naked bodies piled on the tables and floor. A court then issued a temporary injunction banning the newspaper from printing images that contain “blood, guns, alarming messages, or physical aggression that could alter the psychological and moral well-being of children and adolescents.” In response, El Nacional ran the word “Censored” in a blank space on its front page. In a show of solidarity, the independent newspaper Tal Cual reprinted the photograph and incurred a similar court ruling. Injunctions on both papers have since been lifted.
Teodoro Petkoff, editor of Tal Cual, a former Communist guerrilla and later a government minister, said the incident was just another attempt by the government to control the media. “We are not sensationalistic,” Petkoff said. “We print what we see as important, and right now in Venezuela, we have a serious problem with escalating crime.”
El Nacional’s Otero, who said threats of lawsuits are a permanent fixture at his newspaper, insists that while he does not engage in self-censorship, his reporters will need to be careful with the new restrictions on the issue of water contamination.
At Globovisión, reporters now use terms like “not appropriate for drinking” instead of “contaminated.” “We are saying the same thing with other words. Obviously, this constitutes a certain degree of self-censorship,” said Ricardo Antela, Globovisión’s lead lawyer.
Correa of Espacio Público does not expect much progress on the issue. When his group requested water quality test results for Caracas last year, the environmental ministry responded curtly, saying water in Caracas “is drinkable according to parameters established by the World Health Organization.” A review of the environmental ministry’s website, where reporters are directed for information, shows data only through 2009. The lack of information forces media outlets to rely heavily on pundits and speculation. As a result, the credibility of journalists is suffering. “You can’t believe the state-run media because they might not be telling you the full story,” said Elides Rojas, managing editor of the daily El Universal. “But then you also can’t believe the private media because their views can be so biased, too. In the end, nobody is fully informed.”
Ties to Chávez, rather than laws, offer protection
Eleazar Díaz Rangel, the editor of Últimas Noticias, the highest-circulation daily in Venezuela, strongly disagrees with complaints about press freedom. “I always ask for people to show me what can’t be published in Venezuela, and I never get examples,” he said. “Just look at my paper,” he said, flipping through a recent edition of Últimas Noticias, which featured a rally led by opposition candidate Capriles, news of teacher-led protests against unpaid salaries, and updates on Chávez’s cancer treatment. An opinion piece by a local professor argued for the end to Chávez’s rule.
Yet Últimas Noticias is also stacked with government advertising—income that other leading dailies such as El Universal and El Nacional lost long ago. Díaz Rangel’s longtime, cozy relationship with Chávez largely explains the paper’s cushy position. Díaz Rangel has authored books about Chávez that were published by Venezuela’s Ministry of Culture. He is considered a public advocate for views that Chávez endorses. Critics say Díaz Rangel is part of a pro-government media elite, members of which are allowed scope for a certain amount of criticism and then upheld as examples of press freedom.
Another member of this group is Mario Silva, host of “La Hojilla” (The Razor), a state-run nightly television show that largely consists of Silva at his desk with a sheaf of press clippings from papers such as El Nacional (which Silva nicknames “El Nazional”). The camera zooms in on bylines and columnists’ photos circled in yellow highlighter. In one episode, Silva held up an article that included complaints about the government’s housing program for low-income citizens and asked, “Why do these reporters have such tremendous hate for our country?” During Silva’s monologues, wall-size photographs of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara—the heroes of Chávez’s socialist revolution—are projected in the background.
“The rules are clear,” said Alegrett of the journalist association. “There are the untouchables and the rest of us.” For journalists willing to challenge rulings and investigations in court, confidence in a fair trial is low. Chávez appointed the majority of Supreme Court justices, who in turn have increasing influence over lower-level judicial appointments. In a case that United Nations special rapporteurs say breached judicial independence, María Lourdes Afiuni Mora, a judge in Caracas, was arrested in 2009 minutes after allowing the release on bail of a businessman and Chávez opponent whose detention she declared arbitrary. The next day, Chávez appeared on state television and called for “toughness” against Afiuni. Within days, she was charged with crimes including corruption and abuse of authority. She was imprisoned for more than a year awaiting trial, and remains under house arrest.
The Afiuni case served as a warning to journalists hoping that the courts might enforce their press freedom rights, said Carlos Ayala Corao, a constitutional lawyer in Caracas and the former president of the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). “They cannot expect a judge to base her decision on the facts at hand—she must consider how the presidency will view the rulings. Go the wrong way, and it’s not just risking dismissal, but jail.”
Some journalists have chosen to take their concerns abroad. In March, a group of reporters and press freedom groups, including Espacio Público, detailed the Chávez government’s use of the judicial system to curtail press freedom at a hearing of the IACHR in Washington, the human rights monitoring body of the Organization of the American States. The hearing coincided with the IACHR annual report, which highlighted allegations of human rights abuses in Venezuela. After the visit, Correo del Orinoco, a government-backed paper, published an article citing only Germán Saltrón, Venezuela’s representative to the IACHR, who accused the non-governmental organizations of preparing to “justify whatever invasion or act of violence to prevent the president from continuing to govern” after the October elections. In July, Chávez announced plans to withdraw Venezuela from the IACHR, its sister court, and the American Convention on Human Rights, claiming the commission was biased.
Meanwhile, Julio Chávez, who pushed forward the 2010 law allowing the president to rule by decree, will continue to promote legislation favoring the administration. He recently won funding for a new “alternative and united” network of state-controlled community radio and TV stations that, he hopes, will become a leading news source. New journalists will be trained and certified at a state-run school and will be obliged to transmit “accurate information.”
“I believe in freedom of expression, but I also don’t think that means there can’t be oversight over information. For years, the private sector had a monopoly on our media, and I’m happy to see that finally change,” Julio Chávez said.
The change, however, has been the pushing of the pendulum from one partisan extreme to another, critics say. “The government is becoming an expert in propaganda,” said Rojas, managing editor of El Universal. “It’s very good at controlling the message.”
During an election year, this means a lack of meaningful reporting on the airwaves and in newspapers, leaving voters ill-informed. But the media landscape is likely to be Hugo Chávez’s legacy well beyond the election.
Monica Campbell is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist and former CPJ consultant.