David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
The last minute removal of an article in Ultimas Noticias last weekend has generated a new round of controversy in Venezuelan media conglomerate Cadena Capriles. A press release from journalists association Colegio Nacional de Periodistas (CNP) recounts that the head of Ultimas Noticias’s investigative reporting unit, Tamoa Calzadilla quit her post in protest over censorship of the piece. (The unpublished article, already formatted can be read here.)
“They don’t need a person like me, they need a political operator,” declared Calzadilla, adding that editor Eleazar Díaz Rangel’s arguments for stopping the publication had been “political.” Fellow journalists at the Cadena Capriles (owner of Últimas Noticias, economics newspaper El Mundo, and sports paper Líder) staged a protest form their desks, continuing to work but putting up signs that read “Journalism First.”
Últimas Noticias is Venezuela’s largest daily newspaper. Its Director, Eleazar Díaz Rangel has generally supported the government from his personal column. But the newspaper has remained independent and often critical. The report published on its web page on February 13, showing police officers of the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia (SEBIN) firing against protestors the day before, was perhaps the most important piece of investigative journalism done during this protest cycle. This report was based on analysis of cell phone videos and was put together precisely by the investigative unit headed by Calzadilla.
Insiders suggest that this report generated discontent in the government and led to pressure on Cadena Capriles from the Ministry of Communications. At the end of February the president of Cadena Capriles abruptly resigned and was replaced by David de Lima. De Lima is a former governor and an open ally of the government.
In his first meeting with Cadena Capriles journalists De Lima reportedly said “coup plans will not be on the front page.” The reference was to protest actions which the government portrays as coup attempts.
Indeed the phrase “Journalism First” came from the statements made by ex-Vice-president for media of Cadena Carpiles, Nathalie Alvaray, upon quitting her post on March 7. She alleged political pressures by the new President, David de Lima.
On October 24 last year, Cadena Capriles was sold to a media firm called Latam Media Holdings said to belong to Hanson Asset Management. Since the sale there have been rumors that the firms were fronts for a pro-government business group.
Already in November, the director of El Mundo, Omar Lugo was fired after President Maduro publicly criticized the front page of the daily. The November 17 headline read: “Price Reductions Also Hit the Central Bank Reserves.” The phrase was a play on the price reductions Maduro was forcing local electronic shops to make ahead of last year’s regional elections. The headline is no longer available in the web page archive of El Mundo.
The cut article from Ultimas Noticias, entitled “Behind the Guarimba” was written by Laura Weffer, one of Venezuela’s most respected investigative journalists. Weffer moved to Ultimas Noticias a couple of years ago precisely for the opportunity to strengthen their investigative journalism unit. To write the article she spent several nights in the Plaza Altamira, interviewing both the protesters and National Guard as they clashed.
The article provides a nuanced look at both sides, emphasizing their similarities. It points out that both the protesters and National Guardsmen are barely out of their teens, suggests that the protesters are not all middle class, and that the soldiers are not all pro-government.
But it also contradicted some of the government’s statements regarding the protests. Weffer quotes the opinion of one of the protesters about the claims made by Interior Minister Rodríguez Torres that they are each receiving Bs. 5,000 (about $500 at the official exchange rate) for protesting in Altamira: “Do you think that if that was true I wouldn’t already have bought a gas mask?” Another protester explained his motivations to Weffer: “I have been here since February 15 [protesting] because of my son. He is one year old and I can’t find any milk or diapers.”
Perhaps worse, Weffer ends her piece with a quote from a National Guardsman who expresses a sympathy with the protesters: “My mother, in Zulia, has to suffer the same lines to buy a bottle of cooking oil that these kids have to suffer. I think they are right, but sometimes they go overboard.”
Venezuelan media scholar Carolina Acosta-Alzuru says it is instructive that this moderate piece was pulled, rather than the searing opinion pieces published daily in the media. “Weffer’s piece humanizes two groups that have been rivals in the streets and presents them as closer to each other than we think. This isn’t a message the government wants Venezuelans to hear right now.”