“The nearer we get to the elections, the more the media risks coming under attack,” warned Miguel Henrique Otero, publisher of daily newspaper El Nacional, in a meeting with a WAN-IFRA delegation in Caracas on 4 June.
During Chávez’ 14-year period in power, his government has elaborated a sophisticated and aggressive model to control independent media. Through physical attacks against media professionals, judicial harassment of media companies and journalists, restrictive legislation, unequal attribution of official advertising and a large state-media apparatus that is used to discredit and intimidate the media that does not fall under its auspices, the Venezuelan government has managed to effectively silence the most influential critical voices while maintaining an appearance of media pluralism.
The private channel Globovisión, known for its criticism of Chávez's government, was issued with a $2.18 million fine in October 2011 by the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) for having stirred public “anxiety”, hatred and intolerance through its coverage in June 2011 of the deadly prison riots in El Rodeo penitentiary. Two out of the three different methods of appeal that it has launched have been rejected by the Supreme Court of Justice, and it is feared that the channel may be forcably closed during the electoral campaign.
TV stations with the highest ratings were taken off the air and many were forced to comply with the government line. 32 radio stations have been closed down along with one national (RCTV) and two regional TV channels, while opposition newspapers have been increasingly suffocated by both the government’s unbalanced allocation of public advertising and a general decline in advertising revenue, from the private sector, which has shrunk considerably over the past 13 years.
This model has been so effective that many populist leftist governments have replicated and applied similar methods to their own national contexts, adopting a similar attitude of intolerance towards dissent: Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.
But as elections approach, many in Venezuela fear the grip might tighten yet further. “Attacks against journalists peak during election years,” explained Marianela Balbi, executive director of Press and Society Institute of Venezuela (IPYS), a local media watchdog. “This election is the most important one since Chavez’ arrival to power, and therefore we fear the highest peak ever recorded”.
The increasing electoral tension is already translating into an increase in attacks against the media. A team of journalists from daily newspaper El Universal received an anonymous threat on 1 June demanding they stop investigating conditions in Venezuelan prisons. Their reporting was initiated by a two-week-long riot in April by prisoners in La Planta jail in Caracas, which resulted in the death of nine people. Journalists María Isoliett Iglesias, Deivis Ramírez, Tomás Ramírez González and Luis García filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office demanding protection, which was granted by the Venezuelan Attorney General's Office.
Elides J. Rojas, editor-in-chief of daily El Universal, explains that “threats, added to physical attacks, promote self-censorship, which is part of the government’s deliberate strategy of media control. Through verbal attacks in state media by the President, he succeeds in polarising the audience and destroying the credibility of independent media. If necessary, the closure of a media outlet can be achieved.”
Caracas-based El Universal is one of Venezuela’s most important national dailies, and a staunch critic of Chávez’ government. But such attacks are felt way beyond the capital, and “the situation for newspapers in the provinces is critical,” warns Marianela Balbi. The most shocking state of affairs appears to be in the state of Barinas, whose governor is none other than Adán Chávez, Hugo Chávez’ brother. The Barinas government has systematically intimidated and harassed radio, TV and written press that it does not control.
The case of daily paper La Prensa reveals the extent of these attacks. On 21 May, La Prensa columnists Jesús González Cazorla and Omar Arévalo did not appear in that day’s edition. The pair, regularly denounces irregularities and corruption by government officials. The decision not to publish the two opinion pieces came after regional government representatives met with the son of the newspaper owner, in the absence of the daily’s director, Alberto Santeliz, known for his independence from the government line. On 23 May, an editorial signed by the newspaper’s publisher, Rúbico Ramírez Gonzalez, announced a change in the editorial line of the newspaper, criticizing the newspaper’s previous stance which had been independent from the government. The National College of Journalists, CPN, issued a statement on 24 May, denouncing systematic attacks against the press in Barinas dating back to January and stating that “governor Adán Chávez Frías leads a systematic policy of annihilation of freedom of expression, particularly against journalists not affiliated or close to the government and its party (…) Sadly, Barinas has become the Venezuelan state with the most attacks on freedom of expression.”
The pattern of events in Barinas is similar to what the press has confronted over the past 14 years: a sophisticated mechanism used to silence critical voices. “It is a mistake to define this regime as a dictatorship,” explained Teodoro Petkoff, director of opposition daily Tal Cual. “It is more complex: this regime is a strange hybrid that alternates between dictatorial and democratic elements. There is no pre-publication censorship, but the government manages to effectively shut down critical voices and create a climate that promotes self-censorship, specially in the provinces.”
WAN-IFRA’s visit, which took place from 4 to 6 June, revealed that a polarised and weakened independent media is facing increasing political tension ahead of the 7 October Presidential election. Renewed threats, physical attacks, judicial and administrative harassment against regional and national media seem to announce the beginning of a period of violence, intimidation and self-censorship.
“We are deeply concerned to learn that self-censorship and violence are on the rise ahead of the elections”, said Larry Kilman, deputy-CEO of WAN-IFRA. “Venezuelan authorities at both national and state levels must guarantee that both state and independent media can cover the upcoming electoral campaign freely, without fear of reprisal.”
WAN-IFRA, which represents 18,000 newspapers, 15,000 websites and 3,000 media companies in more than 120 countries, has recently expressed its growing concern over similar government offensives against independent media in a number of Latin American countries. The global press organisation visited Ecuador six-months ago, and published a highly critical report on increasing government harassment of the independent press in the Andean country. In December 2011, it expressed its opposition to a move by the Argentinean government to control Papel Prensa, the main newsprint manufacturer in the country. In the past five months, WAN-IFRA has actively opposed the initiatives led by the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan governments to weaken the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organisation of American States and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. As the Venezuelan presidential election nears, WAN-IFRA will continue to work actively to inform the international community of the realities faced by media professionals in this critical and increasingly dangerous period for freedom of expression.