Under Pressure, Venezuela Further Restricts Freedom of Expression

image

                         Newspaper kiosk in Caracas © Rodrigo Romero

On Saturday, April 8, the Venezuelan chapter of Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) reported that three digital television stations were being blocked, presumably for their coverage of the current round of protests. Attempts to access the web television pages of VPI TV, Vivo Play, and Capitolio TV were being blocked by all five of Venezuela’s internet service providers.

This, of course, is only the most recent case of censorship. In February CNN en Español was taken off of the air following the airing of “Passports in the Shadows,” a CNN investigation which alleged that Venezuelan government officials were  carrying out a passport fraud scheme through the Venezuelan Embassy in Iraq that involved individuals from the Middle East (including alleged terrorists, an assertion which has been contested on this blog). The Maduro government took the channel off the air claiming it aired content that harms the peace and stability of the country.

The move did not come without warning. “CNN, get out of Venezuela! Far away from us! Venezuelan issues will be resolved by Venezuelans!”, said President Nicolás Maduro in his Sunday television program on February 12. He also accused CNN en Español of producing “fake news” to promote intervention in Venezuela. “President Donald Trump, open your eyes, open your ears, and don’t let yourself be led through a path of mistakes and failures. They are cornering and pushing you to a field of total confrontation,” he insisted.

Meanwhile, the Director of the National Telecommunications Commission of Venezuela (Conatel), Andrés Eloy Méndez, mentioned in an interview on Venezuela’s state television channel that CNN en Español had become “a weapon of violent provocation in the country, and of religious and political hatred.” According to Méndez, the expulsion was based on Article 33 of the Social Responsibility in Radio and Television Law, which contains language meant to limit the promotion of violence “in a systematic and constant way during daily programming, through information presented clearly and perceptibly, with contents that presumably include direct aggressions against peace and democratic stability.”

The move recalled February 2014, when President Maduro ordered the suspension of the Colombian channel NTN24 for broadcasting scenes of violent protests, claiming that the channel was streaming content that damaged the peace and stability of the country.

The censorship of CNN en Español was met with international condemnation. “The Venezuelan government, in an authoritarian manner, attacked the freedom of expression, democracy, and right to information of the Venezuelan people,” said Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, in a video published on his personal Twitter. International media and web portals in Mexico, France, Germany, Peru, Argentina, England and the United Estates protested the Conatel measure.

Other Cases

Venezuela’s Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Díaz, requested on January 26 of this year that a Caracas tribunal block the  website Dólar Today, saying, “a petition was submitted to the United States, but there has been no reply from U.S. authorities.” In August 2016, a report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) found that the website Dólar Today distorted the Venezuelan foreign currency exchange market by publishing black market dollar exchange rates, which contributes to “more volatility, uncertainty, and unfounded expectations of the Bolivar’s depreciation in comparison to the U.S. dollar.”

On February 9, NGO Espacio Público reported that Maduradas.com, an online editorial channel critical of the current administration had been partially blocked. Their social media pages have high numbers of followers, and they receive between 45 and 80 million monthly visits.

Another case of alleged censorship was the reported March 6 suspension of the radio program “A Media Mañana,” which aired on an FM radio channel in Sucre state. According to announcer and producer José Eduardo Rodríguez, his show was taken off the air following an interview he gave MUD lawmaker Robert Alcalá, who criticized allegedly irregular expenses in Sucre associated with the construction of statues of the late President Chavez and the country’s food situation.

On March 10 Roberto Rock, the president of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) Committee on Freedom of Press and Information, publicly highlighted the case of the independent news site El Pitazo, which reported multiple cyber attacks and DDOS attempts on its portal.

Harrassment of Journalists

In February two journalists from Notiminuto were investigating the corruption case involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, and were intimidated by a counterintelligence officer who deleted their coverage of in the official raid of Odebrecht headquarters  in Venezuela.

Something similar occurred when two Brazilian journalists, Leandro Stoliar and Gilzon Sousa, were detained and removed from the country after travelling to Maracaibo to report on the abandonment of the Cacique Nigale Bridge project. They were accused of were reporting without receiving official permission.

Yet another instance of reported censorship of the press in Venezuela is the case of Patricio Nunes, a journalist from Chile’s Channel 13, who arrived on March 22 in Venezuela to conduct a series of reports on the political and social situation. He was deported the following day after being detained while filming lines at a supermarket.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), since August 2016 more than 20 journalists and media workers have either been expelled from Venezuela or denied entry upon arrival at the Caracas international airport. While the government has claimed that these are due to visa problems and a lack of proper authorization, the press freedom group disputes this. According to Emmanuel Colombié, director of the organization’s Latin America Office, “RSF cannot believe that the numerous expulsions are due to mere oversights in the documentation of foreign journalists.”

In addition to Patricio Nunes, similar experiences have been reported by Colombian correspondents César Moreno (Caracol Radio) and Dora Glotman (Caracol TV); Americans John Otis (NPR) and Jim Wyss (Miami Herald); and Peruvian journalists Ricardo Burgos, Armando Muñoz, Leonidas Chávez and Ricardo Venegas of Televisa, among others.

State Paper Monopoly

Between August 2013 and December 2016, at least 50 print media outlets in 16 states reported difficulties in accessing newspaper paper and other necessary printing supplies like ink, film, and photographic plates, due to obstacles on acquiring and importing raw materials.

The paper crisis that started in 2013 has persistently forced historically notable Venezuelan newspapers to shutter their printing presses, including El Carabobeño, El Impulso, Diario La Costa, Diario Sucre, Periódico de Occidente, Diario El Siglo, Correo del Caroní, and Diario Católico del Táchira. Other newspapers reduced page counts, like Diario la Nación, and some reduced the frequency of printed editions, like Nuevo País and Diario los Andes, which switched to a weekly schedule.

In December 2016, El Nacional, El Universal, El Nuevo País y Revista Z, La Verdad de Monagas, El Sol de Maturín, El Oriental, La Prensa de Monagas and El Periódico de Monagas, La Verdad, and Qué Pasa, saved paper by suspending their publication for a month, and others for four days.

Between August 2013 and December 2016, the Institute for Press and Society (IPYS Venezuela) kept track of the news organizations affected by the paper crisis around the country.

The situation began in August 2012, when the Ministry of Planning and Finance issued a resolution that changed import priorities on lists of basic goods, reducing the need for newspaper rolls.

In 2013, the government created the Alfredo Maneiro Editorial Complex, which became the only company through which newspapers could purchase printing supplies with preferential dollars from the Banco Central de Venezuela (BCV).

Watchdog Reports

According to statistics from the organization Espacio Público, 2016 saw the second-highest (after 2014) number of reported incidents involving a violation of freedom of expression. At 366 instances, this is nearly one per day. “44% (119) of the violations against freedom of expression occurred during public protests, particularly political protests surrounding the recall referendum process,” the organization wrote.

This January, the Venezuelan government was accused of violating  freedom of expression 26 times, according to the reports by the National Press Workers Union (SNTP). The harassment of journalists, radio station closings, and the lack of paper for printed newspapers are among these 26 cases.

In February the SNTP reported that Venezuela saw 24 attacks on freedom of expression, including the case of CNN en Español. “These attacks affected 33 press workers (journalists, cameramen and graphic reporters) and 10 media outlets, the transmissions of which were partially or totally interrupted.”

There was another wave of reported attacks on freedom of expression during the protests that emerged in response to the March 30 Supreme Court ruling that stripped the National Assembly of its authority to approve joint ventures in the state-managed oil industry. The Venezuela Press and Society Institute (IPYS) found evidence of “25 restrictions on coverage of issues in the public interest” during the resulting marches.

Venezuela’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations

At Venezuela’s March 16 UPR in Geneva, the issue of press freedom was a recurring issue raised by Venezuelan civil society organizations. Coming out of the UPR, the government agreed to accept six recommendations related to improving conditions for journalists and the right to freedom of expression, committing to taking steps to prevent attacks against journalists and provide for the free exercise of their profession.

Representatives from IPYS asserted that between 2012 and 2015, the country saw 2030 violations of freedom of expression. In 2016, there were 763 such violations, and 86 complaints have been registered so far in 2017. According to IPYS, most of the violations are committed by the Executive Branch.

Other organizations took issue with Venezuela’s commitment to implementing acting upon agreed-to recommendations. Amnesty International, for instance, issued a statement claiming that, “Although Venezuela accepted most of the recommendations on freedom of expression, recent events demonstrate that in practice the exercise of this right continues to be a challenge.”