Venezuelan Elections: journalists face challenges such as censorship and lack of access to information

Covering parliamentary elections occuring on Dec. 6 in Venezuela has become a major challenge for national and international journalists.

Allegations of censorship, lack of access to public information, excessive rumors, fear of an Internet blackout, violence against reporters and confiscation of equipment are part of the environment in which journalists are working while covering the 6D, as this day has become known in social networks.

These elections have captured the world's attention because of increasing political tension. The apparent electoral advantage of the opposition for the first time in 16 years of 'Chavismo', the recent murder of an opposition party leader in the middle of an electoral event, reports of attacks by opposition leaders, and the reluctance of the authorities to accept international observers, are some of the causes.

Organizations such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) have spoken about the climate of violence that reigns in this electoral process, a climate that definitely affects media coverage.

"[Covering the elections] represents an additional challenge for several reasons. Journalism in today's Venezuela happens in the midst of an information blackout on all traditional media (newspapers, radio and television) which are dominated by the Chavez government, "said Omar Lugo, director of the Venezuelan  news portal El Estímulo, in conversation with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

"In recent times, access to sources, data and official figures has worsened. Independent media have few pages and a limited distribution. It is very difficult to know with reasonable approximation what actually happens in the rest of the states and cities; sources fear giving information, especially over the phone; physical security is a constant risk especially in politically sensitive areas; and the government imposes constraints to extend accreditation to national and international journalists,” Lugo said.

Luz Mely Reyes, director of news portal Efecto Cocuyo, agrees.

"There has never been censorship of traditional media like there is now,” she said in an interview with the Knight Center. It is for this reason that she sees it as an additional challenge for journalists working this Sunday, Dec. 6.

Because of the problems in traditional media, said Luz-Mely Reyes, social networks and digital media have taken the lead in efforts to report on the pre-election process and are prepared for election day.

It is no wonder then that one of the main concerns among reporters is the possibility of an 'Internet blackout' as allegedly occurred during protests in 2014 and in the 2013 elections.

"In recent days there have been problems with the Internet. We do not know if it's because there is greater demand and bandwidth here is minimal. But we are afraid a blackout will happen, as occurred for an hour in 2013, "said Reyes. "We are preparing for that."

In addition to technological strategies, local media have created strategic alliances to ensure that the information can be published on different platforms.

"Those who understand that they must tell this story from several points of view, beyond political polarization, and using all available tools are most successful in these elections and everything that comes up," Lugo said. "So there have been special collaborative initiatives to unite efforts between portals, journalists' groups, businesses, media and institutions in order to support each other and provide the best coverage."

For example, Efecto Cocuyo allied with diario 2001, the portals Analítica and El Estímulo, newspapers from the interior of the country and a local television channel in Caracas, Reyes said.

Other known alliances were formed by the news portals TalCual, Runrun.es, Crónica Uno, El Pitazo and Poderopedia, and the NGO Transparencia Venezuela.

This alliance was formed last June 28 in the framework of the primaries of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV for its acronym in Spanish) and has since been maintained. For 6D, more than 100 journalists in 23 different cities will jointly report, according to IPYS Venezuela.

In line with this innovation, some media platforms are using crowdsourcing to monitor the electoral process and offer citizens a tool to denounce irregularities.

International press and complaints of censorship

Local journalists are not the only ones facing difficult situations. On Dec. 1, The Press and Society Institute (IPYS for its acronym in Spanish) Venezuela reported on a letter of commitment that the Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information (Minci for its acronym in Spanish) would force foreign correspondents to sign as a prerequisite for covering the elections.

According to IPYS, the document notes that the accreditation given to the journalist by the authorities of the country would be revoked in case of breach of this commitment. These commitments range from "exercising an honest and balanced journalism as set out in the Code of Ethics of the Venezuelan journalist" to "always respect the democratic and peaceful process that you will cover in Venezuela.”

IPYS Venezuela noted that this measure is not covered by the procedures established by Minci to accredit foreign journalists according to an April 2004 resolution.

To this is added the number of complaints from foreign correspondents who have had their work equipment seized upon entering Venezuela.

For more information, please see the original version of this story in Spanish.

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.