Journalism groups accuse Venezuelan govt. of implementing "policy of opacity" regarding Chávez's health

By Alejandro Martínez

After more than 40 days since the President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez traveled to Cuba for surgery, a photograph began to spread through social networks on Wednesday, which showed Chávez walking with someone's help. However, the Venezuelan government has not confirmed when the picture was taken and many are wondering how recent the photo is.

Later that day, Spanish daily El País sent to print -- on the front page of its Jan. 24 edition -- a picture that supposedly showed Chávez on an operating table but that turned out to be fake. Upon learning about the mistake, the newspaper froze the distribution of that edition, produced a new one and apologized with its readers.

The issues surrounding the two photographs illustrate the intense speculation that the lack of specific details regarding Chávez's current condition has generated in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Venezuela's state media has been broadcasting a video titled "I Am Chávez", which shows archive images of a healthier Chávez with his sympathizers. Last week, the government also opened a legal process against TV network Globovisión for broadcasting a series of brief video segments on the Venezuelan Constitution and what it states regarding the absence of the president-elect to his inauguration ceremony.

For some journalists and analysts, the lack of details regarding Chávez's health, the state media's videos and the recent pressures on opposition media suggest that the Venezuelan government is seeking greater control over the flow of information and to promote an image of stability at a critical time for the chavista administration.

On Dec. 11, Chávez had surgery in Havana, Cuba in an attempt to stave off the spread of cancer on his pelvis. Before the photo circulating on social networks, Chávez had not been seen or heard since the operation.

As a result, Chávez -- who was re-elected for a fourth term in October last year -- was unable to attend to the presidential inauguration ceremony, which the Venezuelan Constitution states should take place on Jan. 10, after the elections. His absence triggered a debate over Chávez's ability to continue leading the country, with the opposition calling for the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, to become interim president.

The Venezuelan government has shared some details regarding Chávez's health, including the duration of the operation and mentions about a respiratory infection and bleeding that occurred after surgery. In a recent interview, vice president Nicolás Maduro said Chávez was in his best moment after the operation.


State TV network VTV's chronology of Chávez's health.

Chávez “specifically asked us [...] to always keep the people informed, always with the truth, no matter how harsh it may be in any given case," Maduro said in a Jan. 2 interview. "We tell our people, our brothers around the world, that we will be informing them, that they should trust the information that we will be giving at every moment."

However, the topic of Chávez's health was notably absent during last year's elections. Moreover, the general public still doesn't know what type of cancer Chávez has, and the chavista administration is facing more and more questions regarding Chávez's current condition.

In a statement last week calling for detailed information about Chávez's health, the Alliance for Freedom of Expression -- a group composed by several journalism groups in Venezuela -- accused the country's authorities of exercising a “policy of opacity, of control, of secrecy and lack of transparency."

“Alleging veracity and objectivity, [the government] has controlled and held on to the country's most desired and needed information," the group said. "The lack of such vital information, which has been replaced by a process of deification and totemization of President Hugo Chávez, has impeded an open debate."

Carlos Correa, executive director of Espacio Público, a freedom of expression non-profit in Venezuela, said in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas that plenty of information filters regularly from the Venezuelan government through informal sources and insiders but, in recent months, fewer persons seem to have had access to the president, and control over information regarding his health has tightened.

"I do think there is a general policy of hardening measures, especially the ones regarding information," he said. "Given the lack of access to information, it would seem they don't want there to be a debate in Venezuela because of its implications."

Moisés Arévalo, an editor at NotiZulia, a news website in the state of Zulia, told the Knight Center that the government regularly uses state media and official communications to radicalize their supporters. Chávez's poor health has led to a "much more intense radicalization from what we had seen before," he said, in which the government's promoting the themes of "a president who's fighting for his life and the need to support him."

At the same time, the government has responded with sanctions and public attacks against media outlets raising questions about Chávez's ability to fulfill his presidential duties in his current condition.

On Jan. 9, the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) opened a legal process against TV network


One of Globovisión's videos on the Venezuelan Constitution's Article 231, regarding the presidential inauguration ceremony.

Globovisión, after publishing its video segments on the Venezuelan Constitution. According to Conatel, Globovisión attempted to "manipulate and cause anxiety" among the population.

Arévalo added that Globovisión recently received a public reprimand from Venezuela's minister of communications, Ernesto Villegas, for referring to Maduro as interim president, when Chávez is officially still at the helm of the country.

The sanction against Globovisión and the government's aggressive discrediting of the opposition has also generated a certain degree of self-censorship, Arévalo said.

"You can't even talk that much (about Chávez's health) because you're immediately tagged as an attacker, or as someone who wishes him ill," he said.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.