Saying that journalism is amidst a deep metamorphosis worldwide is stating the obvious. But in Venezuela, there’s a deeper transition taking place under the weight of political repression. The ways that media and citizens are searching for and sharing information are changing at an accelerated process in Venezuela, triggered by the direct censorship or self-censorship.
Just as calcium carbide is used to speed up the ripening of plantains—a widespread practice in Zulia State (in western Venezuela)—authoritarianism in Venezuela journalism is leading to a swift reinvention of Venezuelan journalism and the ways in which citizens connect.
Between 2013 and July 2018, 50 print media organizations in Venezuela closed their paper-based editions, and a handful morphed into weekly publications, taking a quick step toward an online-only platform. According to research conducted by Medianálisis, the state monopoly on newsprint put a full stop to an important number of traditional print media, including flagship newspapers in the country.
The new digital media and the Internet-based platforms of mainstream media in Venezuela are taking a gamble under adverse circumstances. This was one of the central topics we discussed at a forum we organized in late 2017, “Journalism in Transition,” through our NGO Medianálisis. These journalistic startups and new business models have taken on the task of generating content for a population in need of accurate, impartial information in the midst of serious connectivity difficulties and government efforts and policies to close sources of independent information.
A recent illustrative example was the government decision to remove CNN en Español from pay TV systems in February 2017. It was not an isolated case, but it demonstrated a case in which the government was willing not just to shut down local media but shut out international media as well. It also demonstrated the government’s modus operandi in media policy: The National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) acts not only as a technical body but also as a political commissary of sorts to censor content. No prior administrative proceedings are necessary; the government simply issues an order to remove the source media and the order is immediately enforced.
Another form of censorship on international media occurred in August 2018, when CONATEL ordered DirectTV not to transmit an exposé on the economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.
The role of CONATEL is also self-evident when it comes to radio stations. According to a report from Venezuela’s Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (Press and Society Institute—IPYS), in 2017, the government shut down several dozen radio broadcasters, most of them with news and opinion shows. CONATEL is opaque on its procedures to grant or deny licenses for use of the radio-electric spectrum, even under the law. The Organic Telecommunications Act does not require CONATEL to explain the reasons for turning down or cancelling licenses.
In a review of 2017, the NGO Espacio Público (Public Space) gathered documentation of 708 cases amounting to 1,002 complaints of freedom of expression and information rights violations. The number of compaints are the highest since 2002, the year when Espacio Público started conducting its monitoring.
The 708 cases in which the government violated the right to free speech mostly involve the use of physical violence, intimidation, and attacks not only on workers of the media, but also citizens who sought to record the events taking placeuO. If these figures are not alarming in themselves, the year 2017 closed with the end of broadcasting activities of eight television channels and 54 radio stations, while 17 print media organizations stopped circulating due to lack of newsprint, six of them indefinitely.
The response from Venezuelan journalism has been to reinvent itself. At least two dozen new digital media organizations have sprung up in Venezuela, with an independent, often investigative agenda. They’ve already made an impact with their work.
Around ten Venezuelan journalists have received major international awards between 2015 and 2018, reflecting not only the international media community’s growing awareness of the situation in Venezuela but also the quality of Venezuelan journalism and its commitment to freedom of expression and information.
Venezuelan journalism is undergoing a maturing process catalyzed by the “carbide-ripening” of restrictive decisions taking place in the country. The response to the restrictive policies of Nicolás Maduro’s government has been the creation of new media on the web, joint ventures with international networks, and investigative works focusing on corruption. It may be the wave of the future.