‘Censorship was something intrinsic to Chavismo from day one,’ says book about the last 20 years of repression in Venezuela

Control of public speech was, from the beginning, a characteristic of the new model of government that was established in Venezuela with Hugo Chávez in 1999, said Venezuelan researcher and columnist Andrés Cañizález.

20 years of censorship in Venezuela

"Chavismo, from the beginning, was preparing the hijacking of public space in Venezuela," the author said in an interview with the Knight Center.

Cañizález, communicator and doctor of political science, is the author of the book “20 años de censura en Venezuela (1999-2018)” (20 years of censorship in Venezuela (1999-2018)) which was presented in Caracas at the end of November at the Book Fair organized by Andrés Bello Catholic University, the institution where he is a senior researcher. During the presentation, Venezuelan historian Tomás Straka said the book is "a kind of great crónica of censorship in Venezuela under Chavismo," according to a press release.

“I thought about the book as a document that at some point could help us reconstruct the country's history. Then, each year, starting in 1999, I chose two or three emblematic cases of censorship and build a small story about what happened,” the author explained. He also included a timely chronology of various cases of censorship that he hopes will be useful to students and researchers.

One of the emblematic cases that Cañizález highlights in his book, as the first point of inflection of the censorship that Chavismo exercised on the media, is the closure of Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), in 2007, after 53 years on air. It was the first time in the history of Latin America, Cañizález said, that a government stopped the concession to one of the great traditional media outlets. "That had a very high cost for Chavismo," but it also implied a lesson, he said.

The months in advance with which the closure of RCTV was announced allowed, the author said, for the media, journalists, universities, students and social organizations to organize themselves in a series of activities against the closure, in addition to numerous social demonstrations. From there, in Cañizález's opinion, the government's censorship methods against the media were more arbitrary and untimely.

A piece of evidence that they learned from this incident, and which the author cites in his book, was “el radiocidio,” which refers to the simultaneous closure, in July 2009, of 32 radio stations and two local television channels in the country. "That came without warning." "Quite simply, at midnight, officials with the military and Conatel (National Telecommunications Commission) arrived at the 34 stations, and arbitrarily without time for those affected to prepare or appeal the measure, they seized the transmitters," Cañizales said.

With the closure of RCTV, according to the author, Chavismo learned that a censorship measure must be executed immediately, it cannot be announced in advance.

Another of Chávez's methods of censorship, this time more indirect, Cañizález said, was to pressure the media owners until they were put up for sale to be bought by entrepreneurs linked to the regime. The emblematic case of this type of censorship, according to the author, is the closure and purchase of Globovisión in 2013, a news channel that was also very critical of the government.

"To those who were owners, persecution through taxing and the justice system was carried out, until they had to leave the country and, in a desperate act, they had to sell the media outlet," he said. The sale of that media outlet “caused a 180-degree transformation in the editorial line of Globovisión. "Then, without closing it, the government managed to bend the editorial line," he explained.

Chávez personally managed to polarize society in many aspects and the mass media was one of the main targets, according to the author. In June 2001, in his speech for Journalist's Day in Venezuela, Chávez said that the media and journalists were the historical adversaries of his political project, Cañizález said.

Portrait of Andrés Cañizález. (Courtesy)

As of 2013, Cañizález points out in his book, another modality of indirect censorship of the media began with the disappearance of the written press in Venezuela. The state monopoly on the import of newspaper was strengthened and the progressive blockade of the supply of printing supplies to newspapers and magazines with national and regional coverage began.

According to the book, more than 60 newspapers have stopped circulating due to the paper crisis, including independent newspaper El Nacional, which ended its print edition at the end of 2018 after 75 years in circulation.

Additionally, the television news offerings in Venezuela are no longer informative, the author said. “People look for information on social networks, mostly, but not the entire population has access to social networks. There are important initiatives in digital media but those digital media are not, I think, managing to speak with the general public, to the mass public.”

Despite the fact that a large part of the population wants a change of government model, according to the author, there are many factors that favor President Nicolás Maduro will remain in power (2014-to date). This has to do with the censorship that prevails in Venezuela, with the disinformation, the blocking of informative sites and, among other things, with the absence of national informational references, which means that Venezuelans are left with little information, that is often partial or fragmented, he emphasized.

Inheriting the model that Chávez built, Cañizález said, Maduro has tools to control the media through legal, tax and administrative ways and also through direct use of police or military forces.

The intention of the book, the author concluded, is to understand the complexity of the history of censorship in Venezuela, "which is not limited to some specific cases, but there is a whole sea in the background."

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