BRIDGETOWN, Barbados -- In one of a number of in-depth reviews of major press freedom developments in the past six months in each of the countries of the Americas, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) said, while the obvious signs of deteriorating democracy were already cause for concern (especially after Venezuela withdrew from the inter-American human rights system and the president was empowered to pass laws by decree, with no public input or parliamentary debate), the press and independent journalists in Venezuela are now in their most dire moment, with unprecedented levels of institutional and social violence.
The protests that began on February 12 have left a toll of 39 people shot dead by bullets or pellets fired from point-blank range, as well as more than 460 injured, according to the public prosecutor’s office. Included among the dead and injured are 59 victims of torture and 1,919 detainees, as identified by the Venezuelan Criminal Forum. Most of the detainees, almost all of whom are young people, are subject to preventive judicial measures for cases of terrorism, i.e., they do not enjoy full freedom.
According to the National Association of Journalists and the National Union of Press Workers, 105 journalists were detained, threatened, beaten, or injured. Some journalists’ equipment was seized or their photographs deleted, mainly by police officers, members of the military, or so-called “people’s collectives” (groups of armed civilians) at the service of the government.
The protests have been repressed by armed popular militias, which were established to defend the revolution as state policy and, as of 2005, have been incorporated as the fifth branch of the armed forces. These are the groups that since 2012 have been vandalizing the offices of media outlets and assaulting journalists.
Part of this state policy is aimed at silencing the domestic and foreign media. President Nicolás Maduro has ordered a Colombian television news channel, NTN24, off the air; expelled CNN correspondent Patricia Janiot; and ordered the closure of countless websites and Twitter accounts on the grounds that they were harmful to the revolution.
The speaker of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, brought a complaint on grounds of defamation against executives of TalCual -- Teodoro Petkoff, Manuel Puyana, Francisco Layrisse and Juan Antonio Golía -- and against columnist Carlos Genatios. Judge Bárbara Gabriela César Siero of the 29th Preliminary Court of Caracas accepted the complaint and ordered that the defendants be barred from leaving the country and that they appear before the court once a week.
The case stems from an article in which Genatios quotes Cabello as saying, at an October 2012 press conference, “If you don’t like a lack of security, leave.”
The Venezuelan Supreme Court, in an unappealable verdict handed down after a 24-hour trial, removed two popularly elected mayors affiliated with the opposition and ordered them jailed. An opposition legislator went to the Organization of American States (OAS) to speak freely and call attention to the situation in Venezuela, to which the OAS responded by barring the media from the proceeding. Upon her return to Caracas, her status as an elected member of the national legislature was denied without a trial, and she was barred from entering Parliament on orders of Diosdado Cabello, speaker of the National Assembly.
Peaceful demonstrations began before February 12, including one led by media workers in Barquisimeto, San Cristóbal, and Caracas due to the threat against their places of work. The national government ceased to provide foreign currency to the independent press for the purchase of newsprint. This stands in stark contrast to media outlets that are dependent on the state: an office within a ministry was established to make large-scale purchases of newsprint and resell it to whomever it sees fit. Nineteen national and regional newspapers are at immediate risk.
The following newspapers temporarily or permanently ceased to circulate: Caribe (Nueva Esparta), La Hora (Nueva Esparta), Versión Final (Zulia), Los Llanos (Barinas), Diario de Sucre (Sucre), Antorcha de El Tigre (Anzoátegui), El Sol de Maturín (Monagas), El Expreso (Bolívar), and El Guayanés (Bolívar). The following newspapers had difficulties maintaining circulation due to a lack of newsprint: El Oriental (Monagas), La Región (west-central Venezuela), El Regional (Zulia), La Prensa de Monagas (Monagas), and El Correo del Caroní (Bolívar).
A number of newspapers, meanwhile, have cut back on their number of pages and editions to survive in the short term. These include El Nacional (nationwide), El Impulso (Lara), El Caribazo (Nueva Esparta), Los Llanos (Anzoátegui), and La Prensa (Anzoátegui), the latter two of which discontinued their Sunday editions.
There are two reasons for this. One is the consolidation of the government’s absolute control over communications for ideological and propagandistic purposes, and the government’s threats have imposed neutrality or self-censorship on some private media outlets. Those that refuse to be silenced are forced into bankruptcy or out of business.
Local television and radio channels currently provide very little or no news coverage of political activities of the democratic opposition, and they remain silent on acts of repression against people exercising their right to protest. Some journalists have resigned or been fired, e.g., at Globovisión, where some photographs were censored in the states of Zulia and Lara, or at Últimas Noticias, whose ownership status remains under a confidentiality agreement but is managed by people in government, and whose director of research, Tamoa Calzadilla, resigned after her work was censored and she refused to go along with the depiction of opposition protests as criminal acts without proof.
The other factor fueling the growing protests is the diminishing availability of foreign currency in an oil country that has squandered more than $999 billion in the past 15 years.
The government’s cash reserves are at low levels, with an economy that has come increasingly under state control through confiscations and expropriations. Inflation is over 56 percent -- one of the highest rates in the world -- and the lack of foreign currency has resulted in an estimated 40-percent shortfall in food, medicine, and spare parts. In response, the government has introduced a ration card. Rationing was tried in previous months with fuel sales in border states. The estimated official exchange rate, previously at 6.50 bolivars to the US dollar, has jumped to 55 bolivars.
The printed press has had problems obtaining newsprint since August 2013, and the government’s refusal to authorize transfers of funds to pay suppliers (with delays of up to eight months in some cases) has brought the flow of supplies to a standstill.
Newsprint is not produced in Venezuela, and as of late 2012 the government no longer considers it a priority item. Anyone interested in purchasing newsprint abroad must obtain a “nonproduction certificate” from the Ministry of Light Industry and Commerce, which requires approvals from various government agencies, a process that can be delayed at the discretion of the person in charge. The next step is to apply to the Center for Foreign Trade (CENCOEX), formerly the Foreign Currency Administration Commission, for an import permit. This paperwork for obtaining prior permission can take some five to eight weeks. Finally, after the product is imported, all documents related to customs, taxation, and military inspections must be submitted to CENCOEX to show that the product was imported, and a request must be submitted to the Central Bank of Venezuela to authorize the transfer of payment to the supplier. Some time ago, this process was taking an average of 120 days, but now the process for requesting newsprint can take more than 180 days for some, and over a year for others.
At least 20 newspapers have cut back on their pages or editions as a way of stretching their stock of newsprint. Several will not be able to survive beyond one or two months.
This period also saw two developments signaling solidarity with Venezuelan newspapers:
At the initiative of the National Newspaper Association (ANDIARIOS), a website was created for invited media outlets in Venezuela to post news items and photographs for the free use of dozens of newspapers throughout Latin America. Meanwhile, some Colombian newspapers have offered to ship newsprint to their Venezuelan counterparts.