Venezuelan journalists sue state newsprint distribution company for alleged discrimination in El Carabobeño case

By Yenibel Ruiz

The director of Complejo Editorial Alfredo Maneiro (CEAM for its initials in Spanish), the Venezuelan state enterprise in charge of selling newsprint to print media outlets in the country, was sued for what the complainants said is the discriminatory allocation of newsprint paper that caused newspaper El Carabobeño newspaper to end its print edition, according to information from the NGO Espacio Público.

After 82 years of reporting on the central region of Venezuela, El Carabobeño ended its print circulation on March 17 because of a shortage of newsprint. Before making this decision, the newspaper reduced the number of pages it published on various occassions.

The lawsuit against Hugo Cabezas, presented on March 31 before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (TSJ by its initials in Spanish), was interposed by the National College of Journalists (CNP by its initials in Spanish), Espacio Público, the Media Workers’ Union, the NGO Expresión Libre, and representatives of civil society from the state of Carabobo.

El Carabobeño has been the victim of a set of discriminatory acts by the Executive office in the sale, distribution and delivery of raw materials (paper reels), since, as will be observed, other media outlets that have pro-government tendencies have promptly received the necessary paper to operate normally, which, because it affects all of Venezuelan society’s right to free, extensive and plural information, reveals the existence of an action concerning diffuse rights and interests of imminent public order,” says part of the lawsuit published by Espacio Público.

The document also added that the only available alternative in the country for the purchase of newsprint paper in 2013 was through the CEAM and that, with this in mind, El Carabobeño attempted to contact the entity starting in August of that year. However, they were unable to contact the CEAM until three months later, in November 2013. According to the lawsuit, the newspaper, which uses 300 reels of paper a month, received shipments of 150, 48, 44, and 72 reels; although it is not clear when these were received.

After these deliveries, they never again received shipments of paper reels despite the many attempts to contact the CEAM, the lawsuit added.

Carlos Correa, executive director of Espacio Público stated that “one of the things that the tribunal must do is investigate and clarify the criteria that the Complejo Editorial Alfredo Maneiro used to distribute paper.”

Meanwhile, Tinedo Guía, president of the CNP, said that “by not delivering paper to print media outlets, the Maneiro Corporation violates the right of Venezuelans to be informed,” according to El Impulso.

What we demand today is that they sell us paper, not a gift,” said Carolina González, editor-in-chief of El Carabobeño, according to the CNP website.

According to the document, the lawsuit also demands that the Constitutional Chamber order an injunction requesting that the CEAM re-establish “immediately the delivery of the necessary paper, or at least in stages, so as to ensure the circulation and free flow of information of the print edition of El Carabobeño.”

Similarly, the lawsuit includes a request that the Chamber declare these events as violations to freedom of speech and the right to information which are part of the country’s Constitution “to the detriment of Venezuelan society as a whole, which has been illegitimately deprived of a democratic, alternative, and non-aligned window into government to express and funnel citizen demands, in addition to losing one more option to read about the news in their country, from a non-official perspective,” according to the website of Espacio Público.

Meanwhile, as a result of the shortage of paper that is affecting different media outlets in the country, media workers protested on March 30 against censorship and “the communication barrier imposed by the government,” the newspaper El Nacional reported. The protest was accompanied on Twitter with the hashtag #PeriodismoSinCensura (Journalism Without Censorship) which people used to share photos of the protests “in support of freedom of speech” in different parts of the country, El Nacional added.

The newsprint crisis in Venezuela has become a freedom of speech issue. The Institute of Press and Society (IPYS by its initials in Spanish) Venezuela said, regarding the end of the print edition of El Carabobeño on March 17, “that the negative responses to proposals to import and sell newsprint, which keep at least eight print media outlets out of circulation in the country, violate citizens’ rights to be informed and to make use of media outlets to publicly channel their demands.”

In January 2016, the 86 newspapers that make up the Venezuelan Regional Newspaper Chamber declared themselves to be in a “state of emergency” after learning that there is no paper to continue their operations, according to reports by the Venezuelan newspaper La Nación.

Starting in 2013, the national government centralized the sourcing of paper through the CEAM and eliminated the purchase of inputs through importing companies and newspapers themselves, according to the news site Efecto Cocuyo. [Read about the crisis of newsprint paper in Venezuela.]

This was precisely the issue about which Correa from Espacio Público spoke before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on April 4. During the audience, he asserted that “there is a state monopoly” in the distribution of newsprint, a situation which has led to the closure of several news outlets. This year, for example, six closures have been documented, according to Correa who participated in the hearing on the “General Situation of Human Rights in Venezuela” as part of the 157 Period of Sessions of the IACHR.

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.