Venezuelan journalists denounce media censorship at OAS hearing

By Jonathon David Orta

In a hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), a group of Venezuelan journalists, union members, and local NGOs have firmly denounced ongoing censorship of the press in Venezuela.

The meeting came as the most recent demonstration of discontent among media workers in the county. Before IACHR experts, a representation from the National Union of Media Workers (SNTP), the NGO Espacio Público, the Human Rights Center at the Catholic University of Andres Bello, and the Institute of Press and Society (IPYS) argued that the state of Venezuela has continuously violated the right to freedom of expression and limited access to information.

The SNTP used the occasion to present a report to the IACHR, detailing threats made to at least 20 press workers by President Nicolas Maduro, the president of the national assembly, Diosdado Cabello, as well as Foreign Minster Elias Jaua, among others, according to a report by PoliticomReal. These direct threats, the group emphasized, have affected the stability of the industry.

Gloria Salazar, a representative of the NGO Espácio Público, referred to violations of freedom of expression in Venezuela, noting that 2014 has already had the highest number of incidents recorded in the past 20 years in Venezuela.

In addition to the report, the delegation cited a number of factors in Venezuela that they believe have hindered the functioning of a free press in the country, including the government sale of media outlets, a crippling shortage of printing materials, and direct censorship of traditional media, among others.

The selling of state communication assets, according to Marco Ruiz, the General Secretary of the SNTP, paired with the ongoing print shortage, has caused at least 289 media workers from Globovisión, Grupo Últimas Notícias, and El Universal were fired or forced to resign.

Ruiz stated that “the loss of jobs has had a direct impact on access to information and the free expression of the press.”

“All of the reported cases have in common that they are the result of persecution and harassment for political, not professional reasons. They are targeting ideas,” he added. “We are seeing the official hegemony of the media and, with this, the death of socially responsible journalism.”

The delegates also emphasized that the chronic newspaper shortage across Venezuela has led to “at least a dozen newspapers and magazines to go out of print, either temporarily or permanently,” causing an additional 94 workers to leave the daily El Impulso and 42 workers left El Nacional in 2014.

The group also argued that the newspaper shortage has led to “at least a dozen newspapers and magazines [to stop] printing, either temporarily or permanently” causing 94 workers for the daily El Impulso and 42 workers for El Nacional to leave in 2014.

Across the country, Reporters Without Borders have documented at least 40 news and magazine publications affected by the paper shortage. In a Sept. 2014 statement, the Institute for Press and Society of Venezuela (IPYS) released a list of publications that have reported newsprint shortage along with shortages of ink, film, and printing plates.

One of the main factors contributing to this paper shortage, according to Juan Manuel Carmona, quoted by the Knight Center, is the 16-step process that media outlets must use in order to request dollars required to buy foreign-sourced newsprint. Currently, domestic production of newsprint does not cover press demands.

In a country where many citizens lack access to internet services or a computer and where TV and radio stations are strictly regulated, restrictions being placed on print media are impeding the growth of a free and democratic society.

As a result of these restrictions, Venezuela has seen an unprecedented migration online by journalists who are critical of the government. Former Globovisión CEO and journalist Alberto Ravell founded one of the most popular news website in Venezuela, La Patilla, after “the channel abandoned its critical editorial line” in a 2013 company, according to the Knight Center.

Currently the news site is the “biggest web-only news operation in the country” according to an exclusive Knight Center interview with Venezuelan journalist Luis Carlos Díaz. Smaller publications such as ProdavinciConfirmadoContrapunto, and El Estimulo have also gained reputation as online news media platforms.

Even so, it would appear that censoring of Venezuelan media is not limited to traditional outlets, nor outlets based in Venezuela.

Infobae, an Argentine online news organization regularly accessed by users in Venezuela, was recently blocked from Venezuelan net space. On Oct. 10, after the group published the photos of a murdered congressman, Venezuela state media regulator CONATEL blocked access to the site. The occasion marked the second time the government had blocked the site.

In an attempt to regain access to the country’s readership, Infobae created another website that, only two weeks later, was also shut down. The news organization has pledged to “to continue creating alternative online platforms…to reach internet users in Venezuela” according to the International Press Institute.

International Press Institute Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi has condemned the, “new efforts by the Venezuelan Government to silence a publication that offers a broad range of news reports to people in the country.”

The country’s decision to “block Infobae’s website appears neither to serve any legitimate interest nor to be necessary to protect such interest,” she added, urging Venezuela “to respect freedom of expression and to end restrictive measures that impede journalists from carrying out their work,” according to the International Press Institute.

At the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights hearing, SNTP Secretary General Ruiz underlined the need for immediate action.

“The facts and the testimonies are evidence of the precariousness of employment in this sector … now that some of the most important publications in Venezuela have changed hands, we have fewer spaces for criticism or for public debate on issues of national interest,” Ruiz told the commissioners at the 153rd Session.

In an August report, Reporters Without Borders has registered more than 500 violations of the right to information since 2013. The Reporters Without Borders press freedom index currently ranks Venezuela 116th out of 180 countries.

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.