This December marks 25 years since Hugo Chávez was elected to his first presidential term in Venezuela, marking the beginning of an era that resulted in authoritarianism, a humanitarian crisis, and the erosion of the rule of law. During this period, which is still ongoing under the regime of Nicolás Maduro, journalists were censored and persecuted, the vast majority of newspapers closed their doors, official media became hegemonic, and government accountability practically ceased to exist.
A balance of this period, a diagnosis of the current situation, and accounts of bravery and survival of independent journalism were the theme of the panel "Venezuela: Journalism after 25 years of Chavismo." It was held on April 16 at the 16th Ibero-American Digital Journalism Colloquium, at the University of Texas at Austin, the day after the conclusion of the 24th ISOJ. The panel brought together four Venezuelan journalists who remain active amid a repressive context, whose experiences shed light on the interdependence of the relationship between freedom of expression and democracy.
The four panelists are part of the Alianza Rebelde Investiga (ARI), a coalition between the Venezuelan news outlets Runrun.es, TalCual, and El Pitazo for the joint production of feature stories. The speakers were Luis Ernesto Blanco, editorial director of Runrun.es, and editor of El Nius; Ahiana Figueroa, coordinator of economics and investigative reporting at TalCual; Javier Melero, co-founder and head of marketing at El Pitazo, and investigative journalist and ARI coordinator Ronna Rísquez, moderated by Latam Journalism Review (LJR) editor Liliana Valenzuela.
Blanco opened the debate, representing Runrun.es, a native Venezuelan digital news outlet that has existed since 2010. "In these 25 years, the regime has chosen the media as a rival and as part of the polarization. In this period, we can make a diagnosis and a balance of the dissection of this corpse," he said in opening statements.
In his speech, Blanco highlighted three obstacles to the practice of journalism in Venezuela today: The lack of transparency and access to information, which produces "scenarios akin to science fiction" when trying to obtain public documents; barriers to the distribution of communication by conventional means, such as broadcast signals, an area considered a "devastated terrain"; and thirdly, difficulty in obtaining funding.
On this last point, he denounced a kind of suffocation, with government demands that make work unviable, with the prospect of things worsening. “It is becoming more and more restricted. The latest thing on the horizon is a law on access to international cooperation that further limits the possibility of accessing [financing sources]," he said, in reference to a bill condemned by the UN.
Representing TalCual, a traditional left-wing weekly critical of the government that, since 2017, has existed only in digital form, Figueroa talked about "different actions that Chavismo has carried out against the media during the last two decades."
The first point he wanted to emphasize was Chavez's aggressive rhetoric after ascending to power, which made work a risky activity. "In Venezuela, there came a time when no journalist wanted to go out on the street showing their press credentials."
The second aspect of the persecution that Figueroa highlighted was judicial harassment. "For example, the government used administrative actions. It carried out a constant inspection through tax authorities to all the media, in order to look for any small detail, any document that was not in hand,” she said. If there was, for example, overdue tax, this meant the news outlet would be closed for several days.
The last point that Figueroa highlighted was the monopolization of newsprint by the Venezuelan State beginning in 2013, which led to delays in the delivery of materials and allowed the government to deny supplies to publications. “Many print media, especially in the interior of the country, closed their doors. Several of them had to go digital, and others closed for good.”
Rísquez, who, in addition to being the coordinator of ARI, has just released a book on organized crime in Venezuela, emphasized the domination that the government now exercises over most of the media.
"The government began to buy and own all the media, to control all the media. It bought the traditional print media, [and] it closed an impressive number of radio stations," she said.
This has led to a proliferation of news deserts, regions where there is no longer an independent press. “In fact, there are states in Venezuela where we speak of a news desert. There is no radio broadcasting, there are no newspapers, there is no media of any kind. There is no way for citizens to access information,” she said.
In addition to this factor, Rísquez mentioned judicial persecution and criminalization against journalists. She highlighted the Law Against Hate, a regulation passed in 2017 that gives great powers to the State to persecute political opponents of the government. She also cited the law that seeks to limit international donations, which could make the work of many news outlets unfeasible.
Finally, Rísquez drew a comparison with the persecution of journalists in Nicaragua, the topic of the previous panel of the Colloquium:
“Not too many journalists have been detained, but, yes, journalists who have been detained in Venezuela. There are journalists who have had to go into exile. For example, the case of some colleagues of Armando.info who had to leave the country after publishing an investigation that has now justly been confirmed," she said.
The last one to speak was Melero, the cofounder of El Pitazo, a website founded in 2014 to cover the interior of the country that has suffered several blockades since 2018, and is blocked now. Melero began by distinguishing changes over the past two and a half decades. "Obviously, during 25 years of Chavismo, the things we are doing now and the things we have to fight against and deal with are slightly different," he said.
One of the current challenges, according to him, is the population's lack of interest in politics, a result of day-to-day difficulties that end up consuming a lot of energy, and of a hopelessness with the possibility of change.
"Politics stopped being in the web metrics in the top spots. Suddenly it started to drop in the interests of the audience. It reached a point where it simply disappeared from the list of the most viewed topics. And in fact, every time we publish something out of a sense of duty and editorial policy that has to do with politics, it is not read."
This comes in a primary election year for the opposition, on the eve of an election year. "We have to think about editorial strategies in order to engage people."
Another point the journalist emphasized had to do with financial stifling. It’s such a threatening environment that it discourages advertisers from paying to display their products. "Brands and advertisers are afraid to show themselves, to advertise in the media. This creates a complicated panorama in terms of sustainability,” he said.
The question and answer part was brief, due to the number of speakers. The question, asked by moderator Valenzuela, was whether the debaters felt there was a decrease in international interest in the country.
"After so much time, it seems that this degree of attack, of siege, has been normalized to a certain extent. I wonder if you have noticed there is less interest in the situation in Venezuela, or less support," Valenzuela said.
In this regard, three debaters responded, and all said that, yes, there is less attention on the country, although its problems continue. Rísquez replied that "we definitely notice less support, but there’s still censorship, there’s still persecution, there’s still harassment."
Blanco, on the other hand, stated that "Venezuela has not changed at all. We’re still working in the same terrible conditions as we were 15 or 10 years ago."
Figueroa, from TalCual, finished off by saying: “Frontal attacks of Maduro's government against the media have decreased. Perhaps that’s why many may think the harassment of the press has decreased. But, well, at any moment, they can use any made-up excuse to sue any news outlet or any specific journalist."