Violent protests in Venezuela against President Nicolás Maduro’s government have left at least 25 people dead over the past month. Journalists covering the mayhem in the streets have been little safer than those taking part in the demonstrations. The country’s National Union of Press Workers reported at least 120 attacks on journalists during the unrest. The complaints included physical assault, detentions and seizure of equipment.
However, conflicts between the government and the media are not new in Venezuela. In 2002, the country’s private media played a large role in fomenting discontent during a coup which resulted in then-President Hugo Chavez briefly surrendering power.
Independent television channels, largely owned by wealthy Venezuelans who aimed to benefit from a regime change, regularly played commercials encouraging citizens to take to the streets to join protests, according to Le Monde Diplomatique, a French newspaper. Newspapers such as El Universal, El Nacional, and Tal Cual and television stations including Venevisión, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) and Globovisión ran stories with little effort to hide their support for the coup.
Chavez, of course, recovered power. But since then both he and his leftist successor Maduro sought to exert greater control over Venezuela’s media. “The Venezuelan government, for about 10 years, has pursued a strategy of achieving dominance over local media, with emphasis on intimidating community media,” said Harold Trinkunas, director of the Brookings Institute’s Latin American Initiative, in an interview with Global Journalist.
The government’s state-run television channels, Venezolana de Televisión and TVes give the state’s version of the news. “The Venezuelan government has been trying to establish a communications hegemony,” said Gustavo Hernandez, a Venezuelan journalist who writes for the blog Caracas Chronicles, in an interview. “They want to have complete control of the media’s presentation of events.”
Since few people other than the government’s most devout supporters watch state television, says Hernandez, the government has also pressured private outlets to censor themselves. The 2004 Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, passed under the auspices of keeping media safe for children, allows the government communications authority, CONATEL, to impose burdensome fines on media companies broadcasting stories that don’t meet state standards.
“It’s the most unbelievably vague mass of legislation,” Hernandez said.
The government has used the law’s imprecision to its advantage. Invoking the laws in 2007, CONATEL was able to block television station RCTV—which had played a major role in the 2002 coup coverage—from renewing its broadcast license.
CONATEL also imposed burdensome fines on television channel Globovisión, which had refused to broadcast coverage of pro-Chavez demonstrations during the 2002 coup. In April 2013, Globovisión’s owners, under pressure from the government, were forced to sell to Juan Domingo Cordero, a wealthy friend of the government, according to Huffington Post.
In January, hundreds of journalists took to the streets to protest shortages of newsprint that led to the closure of a dozen newspapers. The shortage came from an inability to obtain dollars needed to import newsprint, according to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. Many other papers have slashed their page counts, said Hernandez.
When the student protests began last month, censorship and repression of foreign broadcasters and new media intensified. NTN24, a Colombian news channel that broadcasts in Venezuela, was taken off the air Feb. 12 after covering the student protests.
On Feb. 14, a Venezuelan official accused CNN journalists of provoking violence at the protests. On Feb. 20, the government suspended the work permits for seven foreign journalists, including two CNN Español reporters, and ordered the journalists out of the country.
The next day President Maduro reversed that decision and announced the journalists could stay if they stop what he called biased, anti-government reporting. Maduro also accused ABC, Fox News and other American outlets of promoting government opposition in Venezuela.
Citizen journalism online came under attack as well. On Feb. 14, a Twitter spokesman told the Associated Press that the Venezuelan government had blocked images from being posted on the service. CONATEL’s director responded by tweeting that cyberattacks on the Venezuelan government had led to the blocking of some online services.
CONATEL’s interest in blocking social media sites appears to be growing. On March 12, Venezuelan journalist Alfredo Meza of Spain’s El Pais newspaper tweeted that CONATEL officials had met with Internet providers about restricting access to certain sites, including YouTube and Twitter.
View tweets on Venezuela’s proposed censorship measures
And the government’s efforts to quash reporting haven’t all been bureaucratic. Many of the journalists detained covering the protests were held for days by the security forces and had their equipment confiscated.
“Opposition views are not allowed into the state-media system,” Hernandez said. “Anything that isn’t Chavista is treated as traitorous... like the enemy.”