By Ignacio Pérez (*) and Katherine Pennacchio
If there is one industry that has been affected by Venezuela's social, economic and political crisis, it has been the publishing industry. Nearly 75% of bookstores in Venezuela have closed due to hyperinflation, migration and the serious paper shortage crisis that the country experienced a few years ago and from which it has not yet recovered, according to the newspaper El País.
For this reason, on Nov. 30, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) awarded the International Freedom to Publish 2022/ Jeri Laber Award to Caracas-based Editorial Dahbar for demonstrating “courage and fortitude in defending freedom of expression."
The few remaining publishing houses in Venezuela must also face new laws against so-called hate speech, threats from organized crime, harassment of authors and various forms of government pressure.
“Editorial Dahbar has exhibited tremendous courage and commitment in continuing to publish, even as the social and political environments in Venezuela have deteriorated, causing many others to flee the country,” said Terry Adams, chair of the AAP Freedom to Publish Committee and digital and paperback publisher at Little, Brown, during the award announcement.
The founder of Editorial Dahbar, Sergio Dahbar, publicly expressed his gratitude for the recognition and considers it “an encouragement to continue defending those who are silenced, who have no voice to express their ideas." LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) spoke with Dahbar about his career and the challenges faced by the journalism and publishing industry in Venezuela.
Sergio Dahbar is a journalist and worked at El Nacional, one of the main newspapers in Caracas, for almost two decades. There he started as an intern in the literary section and worked his way up to the position of deputy director.
After feeling that it was time to switch back over to the literary side again, Dahbar left the director’s position and founded El Librero in 2006, a monthly literary magazine, free to the public.
Dahbar saw, as a journalist, the arrival to power and the departure, due to death, of President Hugo Chávez. He witnessed the criminalization of journalism during the 13 years of Chávez's mandate.
“He started to satanize the practice of journalism,” Dahbar said. This was especially obvious during the weekly talk show entitled "Aló Presidente" in which he discussed issues of the day, legislated live and condemned the media.
“Chavez would talk and that same day one of his supporters would attack a journalist,” said Dahbar. “You became a target of the government, and you couldn’t be very objective.”
And although the current Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, does not have a weekly program where he openly attacks journalists. He has followed the same line of attacking the press as his predecessor.
El Librero closed in 2014, when Maduro was already in power, due to the difficulties of access to paper that left many Venezuelan print media adrift.
This is not the only obstacle that the Venezuelan newspaper industry has faced in recent years under Maduro's presidency. In addition to the paper crisis, advertising has fallen as well as the purchasing power of buyers.
The government only helps economically if they are willing to broadcast their official messages for free. Meanwhile it closes radio stations on a massive scale.
“We live in a state of war, and that makes it really difficult to do journalism,” said Dahbar. “This next generation of journalists is in the line of fire, working…They are digging in with their nails which I feel is important.”
Dahbar now focuses entirely on Editorial Dahbar. The independent publishing company places an emphasis on journalistic work, whether that be essays, journalistic reporting, or political memoirs.
The company has now printed 150 books as of the beginning of November. They also host book clubs where the authors themselves come to have discussions about the book with the club. Helping the community is a large part of the group's mission. Their site upholds their values of representing journalism for the sake of understanding the social issues that plague Venezuela.
“I value well-written journalism, literary journalism. It finds its nature and form in the literary world without having to be literature. It has the mission of narrative. We are an editorial that is being more and more influenced by journalistic work,” said Dahbar. We believe in a journalism that has a literary ambition. Journalism that isn’t excited about telling a story for one day in one article but in ten chapters with a history and a wealth of information. This comes from my passion for journalism and data and stories.”
*This story was produced as an assignment for the class “Reporting Latin America,” at the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and Media.
Ignacio Perez was born in Houston, Texas to Venezuelan parents. He studies Journalism and is pursuing a minor in Business.