Twenty years ago, journalists could not have imagined the present situation for media in Venezuela, according to Luz Mely Reyes, director and co-founder of digital site Efecto Cocuyo.
Yet, back in 2000, there were signs of what was to come. That was the beginning of harassment of broadcast media and the closure of public information sources, along with aggression towards journalists and media owners from former President Hugo Chávez.
“We always believed that it was a kind of confrontation, a natural, normal confrontation between a very charismatic leader and the media,” Reyes said. “I think we have to do a self-critical exercise because 20 years ago we didn’t have very strong media...we didn’t have a very strong democracy.” Still, she said, they didn’t believe what would inevitably happen was possible.
In the years that followed, the country saw the shutdown of RCTV, closure of 32 radio stations, digital attacks against websites, acquisition of print media, shortages of printing materials, journalist layoffs and more.
During a presentation at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) on Nov. 1, Reyes explained the recent history and present situation of media in Venezuela as part of the event, “Media and Democracy in Times of Digital Cholera and Polarization in Latin America.” The conference was hosted by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections.
The site she founded, Efecto Cocuyo, was born in 2016 during what she calls a “digital media spring,” which saw the emergence of independent, digital native sites, many spearheaded by journalists who had left traditional media. Today, those sites are the sources of independent information in a country where independent print media has largely been eradicated.
“We are creating the new media system in Venezuela,” Reyes told moderator and UT Austin Professor Joseph Straubhaar. That’s a “very, very demanding job” and involves taking advantage of changes in the media industry and experimenting with what the future of media will look like.
Since 2015, Venezuela has experienced a severe crisis that has led to 4.5 million refugees leaving the country, according to the UN, and many independent journalists are part of that large number. Those that remain have become targets of the government, including the blocking of websites.
Efecto Cocuyo has found other ways to bring information to where the people are (both inside and outside the country), using WhatsApp, social media and the video streaming service Periscope.
“I have a show on Periscope and people look for the information there, especially people who are overseas and they have relatives in Venezuela, and they share the information,” Reyes explained. “I throw the ball to the outside and the ball is coming to us. I think we have to look for some strategies.”
The team has also used a unique method to reach and learn from its own readers: “guayoyos,” or coffee breaks.
“I say that being a journalist is being with the people. I believe that and my colleagues believe that. So we did in Venezuela coffee with some users of Efecto Cocuyo asking about how we can improve journalism,” Reyes said. “Because I think that we have to be self-critical. Journalists sometimes believe that we are like a hero. So, now we have to go with the people.”
Now they are having migrants that are living in other parts of Latin America to improve immigration coverage. So far, it has held “guayoyos” with migrants in São Paulo, Brazil and Medellín, Colombia. From those encounters, for example, they got the idea for a newsletter in Spanish that would help migrants understand immigration policies in the region.
Regarding the journalistic guild in the country, Reyes said there is a unity among independent journalists because of the threats and other aggressions they face.
“If we are not united, we couldn’t do the things we needed to do, and we knew that,” Reyes said.
Reyes offered three keys she has learned in the past two decades.
The first is to produce “more and better journalism.” The second, “polarization is a trap.” And the third, Reyes emphasized that “being a journalist is being with the people.”
“If we tell the story that is important to the people and we are looking at what is happening to the people, I think we can show what is happening in any society, no matter what side the people are on,” Reyes said. “If people are dying, you have to tell, no matter if people support [Nicolás] Maduro, Chávez, Donald Trump or whoever.”