Journalism Awards Reflect Venezuela’s Disfigured Media Context

David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

Journalism awards always reflect and refract the professional and political cleavages of their context. However the ironies of Venezuela’s journalism awards in 2014 could hardly be more revealing. Three non-governmental awards have recognized an investigative team that no longer exists. Several awards from pro-governmental organizations have recognized government officials who are not journalists.

Last week the former investigative unit of the newspaper Últimas Noticias received one of the Gabriel García Márquez awards given by the Colombian based Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano for their investigative piece on the violence that occurred during the February 12 protests in downtown Caracas. Their analysis showed members of Venezuelan security forces using live rounds that day, challenging the government’s version that the dead and injured were the responsibility of the opposition.

The jury said the team had “confronted attempted censure by the management of the newspaper who tried to silence the results of the investigation. But most of the staff [of the newspaper] stood firm and forced publication of the results.”

The investigative team of Tamoa Calzadilla, Laura Weffer, César Batiz, and Juan Carlos Solórzano have all since then resigned from the newspaper alleging censorship by the managementÚltimas Noticias actually published the news of the award on its webpage and even re-published the original investigative piece. Calzadilla suggested that Ultimas Noticias should be ashamed “because none of the people who were in that investigative unit are there today.”

It is only the most recent of several awards the report has received. The vigorously opposition Venezuelan chapter of Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela (IPYS) granted its top prize to the investigative reporting unit of Últimas Noticias for its February 12 piece. It also received the Maria Moors Cabot Award for excellence in journalism in Latin America from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.

While these awards were given to an investigative team that no longer exists, several journalism awards given by pro-government organizations have gone to people who are not journalists.

In June the Movimiento Periodismo Necesario announced that the winner of its “Aníbal Nazoa” award for distinguished journalism would be the current Minister for Interior, Peace and Justice, Miguel Rodríguez Torres. Rodriguez Torres is not a journalist, however the organization based its decision on the fact that he had kept “Venezuelans informed in a timely and truthful manner about the real situation of the violent events of the past months.”

In the awarding ceremony Rosa Caldera, member of Periodismo Necesario, said: “on a daily basis he [Rodríguez Torres] has provided Venezuela with information by which the truth has been revealed. We believe that he has [successfully] refuted the versions of Venezuela as being in total chaos…Rodríguez Torres has also been able to unmask national and foreign coup leaders who have conspired against the peace of the country. He has therefore neutralized a coup d’état against President Nicolás Maduro.”

The President of the independent collegiate organization Colegio Nacional de PeriodistasTinedo Guía, criticized the granting of the award to an acting minister as a “distortion and manipulation of journalism as a profession.”

“We are worried that organizations with links to the government, such Periodismo Necesario, give out awards to people that are not journalists or do not exercise a profession related to media, such as in the case of Minister Rodriguez Torres,” said Tinedo Guía. He also emphasized that Rodríguez Torres is a governmental source of information and therefore “could never act as an independent journalist.”

In January, President Nicolas Maduro received the 2014 Municipal Award for Alternative and Community Media Fabricio Ojeda, granted by the Libertador Municipality of Caracas, headed by Chavista mayor Jorge Rodríguez. The jury specially valued the fact that Maduro had “spread the legacy of our Eternal Comandante, Hugo Chávez, not only in Spanish, but also in English, French and Arabic.” Last year the Venezuelan Presidency launched twitter accounts in those languages.

Precedent for recognizing government officials for contributions to journalism was set in June 2013 when the National Journalism Award was granted posthumously to Hugo Chávez. The jury declared: “We have decided to grant the extraordinary prize to Comandante Hugo Chávez Frías, because he gave the oppressed of the world their self-expression back in his role as social communicator.”

While not all of 2014’s journalism awards follow this pattern, most of the others reflect the broader context of political polarization.

IPYS’ second place award was granted to Adriana Rivera and Fabiola Zerpa of the investigative unit of the El Nacional newspaper for their piece “Oil machinery gets out the vote,” showing the use of state oil company resources to get out the vote on behalf of Socialist Party candidates.

In June, the National Journalism Awards were announced, almost all of which went to pro-government journalists. The top Simon Bolivar Award for Journalism was given to the editor of Últimas Noticias, Eleazar Díaz Rangel, for his “contribution to a truthful, ethical, balanced, and combative journalism.” Díaz Rangel has long been considered pro-government but professional. However, it was his decision to censor the Weffer report that led to Calzadilla’s resignation

In the “digital investigative reporting” category the National Award for Journalism prize went to Orlando Rangel for his series of articles USA Manual for Overthrowing Governments. The series published by the official Agencia Venezolana de Noticias, graphically explains an alleged broad conspiracy by the CIA, Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Foundation, and the Venezuelan opposition, to topple the Maduro government through a “soft coup.”