Wrestling With the Regime: Independent Media in Venezuela

This is part one of a two-part series

In this two-part essay, public policy expert Lorenzo Dávalos delves into the complicated relationship between media and government in Venezuela. This first installment digs into Chavez and later Maduro's campaign against independent and critical media, aiming to demonize dissenting voices in the country. Part two moves further into the grounding of this campaign and its direction toward a media hegemony in the country.

 

During the award ceremony of the 2015 Ortega y Gasset Journalism Prizes, Peruvian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa stated: "journalism is an adventure and, often, a dangerous one for those who love and defend freedom." The quote is taken from his closing speech, which was a tribute to Teodoro Petkoff, editor and director of Tal Cual, an independent Venezuelan newspaper critical of the regime, who had been awarded the 2015 Ortega y Gasset Journalism Prize. Petkoff had to watch the award ceremony from his desktop computer in his office because the Venezuelan government did not allow him to attend the event in Madrid. He had been banned from leaving the country. In Venezuela, Petkoff is not the only independent critical editor, journalist, op-ed writer, media owner who has been harassed by the current regime. But Tal Cual, and Petkoff's work there over 15 years, have been a sad example of the way the regime criminalizes and thwarts the practice of journalism in Venezuela.  

Every authoritarian regime dislikes the existence of independent critical media because they have the capability of collecting and publishing credible and updated information on three kinds of acts to which authoritarian regimes are frequently prone: corruption, violations of human rights, and violent repression of dissidents. The more the regime remains in power, the better the control it develops over the members of the media that survive the tactics and strategies it implements to obliterate or submit them. 

In Venezuela, the current regime, which has been classified as a competitive authoritarianism, does not represent an exception to this pattern. Since its birth in December 1999, when Hugo Chávez was elected Constitutional President of Venezuela, the regime has shown an extreme willingness to control (tame, submit, weaken) independent critical media. Although Hugo Chávez and his allies made early statements on the need to change moral values and culture, and not only institutions and politics, they had never stated they needed hegemony in the communications sector. 

In 2007, however, Andrés Izarra, then director of Telesur and former Minister of Communication, told journalist Laura Weffer: "For the new strategic outlook proposed, the struggle in the ideological field has to do with a battle of ideas...we must develop a new plan, and we propose it to be towards the communicational and informational hegemony of the state. Build hegemony in the Gramscian sense." This statement was the first time the regime made publicly explicit its plan regarding media in Venezuela. 

Credit: La Patilla

Independent Media Under Siege

From 1999, when Hugo Chávez began his first term as the elected president of Venezuela, through 2015, as Nicolás Maduro started his second year as president, independent media outlets have suffered a continuous, persistent, and increasing harassment that has thwarted their ability to effectively practice journalism.

Nearly all the textbook strategies aimed at impairing, undermining, obstructing, thwarting, and obliterating every independent media outlet have been implemented by the current regime. One of the most simple and common of those strategies has been direct condemnation by the president or other high level officials. They might state, for example, that one or more independent media are exhibiting conspiratorial behavior, or simply that mentioned media are aligned with the opposition; therefore, the news they publish is biased and does not provide an impartial view. Sometimes these mentions are implicitly associated with the expectation of a legal action. Days or weeks after that mention, an action would likely be taken against those media singled out in the speech. The official discourse has frequently been focused on constructing the media as internal enemies.

The first and most politically costly media intervention by the regime occurred when the Venezuelan government ended the concession1 of Radio Caracas Televisión, a Venezuelan cable television network that had been founded in 1953. On May 27, 2007, RCTV was forced to shut down its operations at midnight. The concession was ended after allegations that RCTV had been involved in the 2002 coup that briefly overthrew the government. Although the network repeatedly denied those allegations, the Supreme Court declared that Conatel (the National Council for Telecommunications), had the right to end the concession. 

The Supreme Court also authorized the Government to take over the equipment, studios, and the master control. All these assets would be used by TVES, a newly constituted public TV channel that would broadcast only programs openly supportive of the regime. With this decision, many leading political opinion programs were made unavailable to the segment of the public who only had access to the open broadcasting system. From then on, RCTV could only be viewed over the cable or the Internet. 

The filing of lawsuits—generally based on questionable arguments—is another strategy used by the regime that eventually resulted in disproportionately high fines. Usually, the fines snowball until the operation of the affected media outlet is made financially and managerially unfeasible and its owners are forced to either sell or shut down. Marianela Balbi, director of Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), told journalists that, according to a recent IPYS report, "at least 25 media outlets were sold to new owners during the last five years." Balbi also said that "after the media were sold, the editorial lines did change. More official information was included, research journalism departments were closed, op-ed writers were dismissed, and criticism in published contents was reduced to a minimum. All these categories were replaced by the publishing of banalities and a lot more of official information.”

Censorship has been a consequence of the systematic acquisition of independent media. According to the IPYS Report, "in 2014, at least 39 incidents against freedom of expression—interferences committed by pro-regime owners or directors of media seeking a change in the contents produced by journalists—led to internal censorship, layoffs, and resignations." In 2013, 17 similar cases were reported. This evidence shows a marked increase in the harassment perpetrated by new media owners, which have imposed serious limitations to the freedom of expression in Venezuela. 
 
Globovisión is an example of the harassment pattern described above. It used to be a private and independent 24-hour news TV channel whose coverage was strongly critical of the government. In October 2011, Conatel imposed a fine of $2.1 million that was later ratified by the Supreme Court. "The channel was accused of condoning crime in a live coverage of a prison crisis that took place in June 2011 at a prison near Caracas, in which, according to Conatel, it broadcasted false statements.” The fine made the operations of the channel financially nonviable and, on March 11, 2014, the public was informed Globovisión had been sold to a group of investors who were pro regime. After the operation took place, the editorial line of the channel changed and the journalists who were anchors of the more critical programs were fired in a matter days. 

Tal CalTal Cual, which used to be a daily newspaper, is another independent and critical media outlet that has been harassed throughout the past 16 years. The disproportionate number and degree of the sanctions it has received from the government are emblematic of the pattern followed by the regime to harass critical members of the media. Since its founding in 1999, the newspaper has had to face seven lawsuits, each with consequences worse than the preceding. The fact that it was printed on the premises of Cadena Capriles, one of the largest and most popular newspaper and magazine groups in Venezuela, complicated the situation. On June 3, 2014, Cadena Capriles itself was sold to an economic group that is an ally of the regime. As expected, the new owners informed Tal Cual that they would stop printing the newspaper. 

Tal Cual did manage to find another printer, but they eventually had to stop printing the newspaper and went online because the press had run out of paper. The shortage in this essential input to print newspapers seems to be a strategy and not an accident. According to the NGO Espacio Público, between August 2013 and January 2014, at least nine regional newspapers had to close because of paper shortage: El Sol de Maturín, Antorcha, Caribe, La Hora, Versión Final, Los Llanos, Diario de Sucre, El Guayanés, and El Expreso.

The government has also used other less structured practices to thwart the operations of independent media and minimize their criticism. Common practices are: the increase in the number of inspections by public officials to audit the compliance of a media with labor regulations, deterring private companies from advertising in critical media, threatening journalists into self-censorship, among others. According to the IPYS Report (2014), "at least 26 aggravating declarations and seven slander campaigns by government authorities were registered and promoted in the media that is in agreement with the national government to smear the names of journalists and the directors of local and international media and threaten them."  According to the same report, "of a total of 225 surveyed journalists 38 percent declared to have been threatened by the government and that these threats implied constraints to their right to inform." 

A consequence of the government harassment of traditional media has been the proliferation of digital news endeavors, promoted by experienced journalists, who aim at providing citizens with an objective and in depth view of the critical situation the country is undergoing in the economic, political, social and moral realms. This is a new process and it is too early to appraise its feasibility. Other digital tools that still remain accessible to Venezuelan citizens who are seeking independent information, are social network platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

At the end of the day, as IPYS Director Marianela Balbi wrote, "the variety of enforcement actions have made of Venezuela a deformed society where opacity prevails, and where the autonomy of institutions has been compromised, even that of those responsible for scrutinizing the government." One consequence of this situation, where information is under siege, is the proliferation of rumors. Mariana Bacalao, a journalist and opposition activist has put forward the thesis that in a situation where official impartial information on the surrounding reality is prevented from naturally being disseminated to the population, rumors proliferate, spread and flow faster than in transparent societies with well-informed citizens. 

 

This is part one of a two-part series. 

  • 1. A concession is a permit granted to each media by the telecommunications sector regulatory agency in Venezuela, to broadcast in a specific frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum

Lorenzo Dávalos is a public policy consultant and editor based in Caracas, Venezuela. He holds a Bachelor's in biology from Universidad Simón Bolívar and an MBA from IESA. He is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics. Lorenzo also worked as researcher and consultant for organizations and strategic planning.