As Venezuelan authorities ramp up restrictions on the country’s media, the walls are closing in on journalists and film makers.
Last month US President, Donald Trump, used his address to UN delegates to attack Venezuela’s socialist government. Venezuela’s President, Nicholas Maduro has come under increasing pressure from governments and NGOs across the globe to deal with the country’s worsening economic crisis and respond to allegations of human rights abuses.
At the same time media freedom in Venezuela is a subject of increasing concern.
Problematic relationships between the government and the media in Venezuela existed prior to Maduro’s administration. In 2006, previous President, Hugo Chavez, imposed restrictions on press regulation and ownership which limited the latitude with which media outlets could report on political events and prohibited criticism of public officials.
Over the last few years press freedom has been eroded further. As inflation rockets, Venezuelan’s face severe food shortages, and many flee the country, the government has attempted to throttle its critics.
“President Maduro does his utmost to silence independent media outlets,” says Reporters Without Borders.
“Under Chavez censorship undoubtedly existed, but we did not face the threat of physical violence we do today,” said one Venezuelan fixer who did not wish to be named.
Media independence is guaranteed under Article 57 of Venezuelan law; however, this has not been respected in practice. Harassment of journalists, restrictive broadcasting laws and closure of media outlets are widespread.
In November 2017 regulations came into force criminalising vocal opposition on television, radio and even social media. The ‘Law Against Hatred’ prohibits speech which “promotes fascism, intolerance or hate”, while also compelling outlets to broadcast state messages for 30 minutes each week.
Humanitarian organisations across the world have voiced concern over such regulations.
“The government has expanded and abused its power to regulate media and has worked aggressively to reduce the number of dissenting media outlets,” states Human Rights Watch.
In February this year, The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) today published the report “Democratic Institutions, the Rule of Law and Human Rights in Venezuela.”
The report condemned the state of affairs, revealing restrictions to freedom of expression through media censorship attacks on journalists and criminalization of dissident
“The government rewards and punishes media for according or defying its editorial line,” the IACHR testified.
Last year the National Media Workers Union (SNTP) reported that their members witnessed 498 instances of harassment by state authorities over news articles, up by 26.5% since 2016.
Indeed, in 2016, three regional newspapers in Barinas State were prohibited by a court order from publishing reports about possible corruption charges against Governor Adán Chávez, while editor of the influential newspaper Correo del Caroní, Natera Febres, was sentenced to four years in prison for defamation.
“There situation in Venezuela makes it extremely difficult for journalists to operate,” says Venezuelan fixer and film producer, Daniel Cáceres. Indeed, Caceres has been forced to flee the country following his politically motivated arrest for his reporting in Venezuela.
Caceres was detained when filming military exercises, which he states he had been authorised to do so by military officials. Nevertheless, he was informed by interrogators that only pro-government media could cover such activity.
“I was detained illegally, and my colleagues and friends have suffered similar treatment,” says Caceres.
Foreign journalists have also faced harassment. In August 2016, six foreign journalists were denied entry to Venezuela when attempting to cover demonstrations calling for an end to Maduro’s presidency, while four Peruvian journalists were barred from covering further protests.
In a similar event in last month, two British journalists and an Argentine were detained by the Venezuelan military on Friday at the border with Colombia.
“Foreign journalists find it incredibly hard to report here, accessing the country on a press visa involves a long, bureaucratic process, which more often than not ends unsuccessfully.” said our anonymous journalist.
“Many of my clients have to enter on a tourist visa, which is dangerous if they are discovered,” he added.
Absence of autonomous regulation has undermined independent broadcast. Venezuela’s main regulatory body, The National Commission of Telecommunications (CONATEL), a theoretically autonomous institution, has faced repeated accusations of suppressing dissenting political opinion.
Many outlets have fallen foul of the country’s regulators. The IACHR’s report reveals several instances where CONATEL has been involved in forced closure of television and radio channels. In 1998, independent channels accounted for 88% of television broadcast, by 2014, this had plummeted to less than 50%. Last year alone 70 television, radio and newspaper outlets were forcibly closed.
“Television channels and other important media of national scope have been bought by ghost buyers, which nobody knows, but the interesting thing is that they have changed their editorial line in favour of the government,” says, Caceres.
“Nothing on TV is like it used to be,” agrees Venezuelan fixer and Journalist, Ana Vanessa Herrero.
“Local media outlets, particularly those owned by the government do not report on the spiralling economy or the food crisis.”
With little access to official information, journalists find themselves with limited options.
“We are cut off from official information, for example homicide statistics have not be published since 2005,” said our anonymous fixer.
Social media is now one of the only remaining platforms for the media to communicate news. Indeed, social media use has risen rapidly over the last few years, rising from 44 percent to 62 percent between 2014 and 2016.
Yet, even social media comment can face reprisal from the government.
“Just last week my colleague was detained while travelling to America, just for tweeting about a legal case,” says Caceres.
The media is steadily running out of options.
Can the international community intervene?
Action against Maduro was ramped up last month as five Latin American countries and Canada referred Venezuela to the ICC a range of human right violation charges. International action against the Venezuelan administration could prove critical in forging a channel for media autonomy.
The ICC was created in 2002 to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in areas where perpetrators might not otherwise face justice. The court has 123 state parties that recognize its jurisdiction.
However, America’s reluctance to work with the ICC threatens to undermine any investigation into activities conducted by the Venezuelan regime.
In Donald Trump’s address to the UN Summit in September, the president hit out at Maduro’s administration, denouncing his leadership and declaring the US would be taking action against the socialist administration.
“Today, we are announcing additional sanctions against the repressive regime, targeting Maduro’s inner circle and close advisors,” he said.
Indeed, Trump also called on other members of the United Nations to work with America in putting pressure on Venezuela.
Yet, in the same address the president rejected the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“As far as America is concerned, the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority,” he declared.
Thus, while Trump talked tough on Venezuela, he did not provide support to the international body with the ability to curtail Mr Maduro’s activity.
“It takes the rug from under the whole effort to investigate Maduro and his mafia,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas’ division of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group.
International criticism appears to be adding to Maduro’s desperation to stem opposition and ever more restrictions on the country’s media.
Caceres believes press freedom in Venezuela has been eroded further since Trump arrived in the White House.
“Criticism from Trump is making Maduro more concerned than ever with preserving his position, legitimising arrests on grounds of state security,” he says.
At present, the situation shows little sign of improvement. Maduro has agreed to meet president Trump, yet the terms of any meeting are yet to be agreed. Meanwhile, the press and media continue to watch their back.
“I want to go back, but I do not think it’s possible at the moment,” reflects Caceres.
“Every day there are more cases of people illegally detained by intelligence police forces, without due process of law. I could only return once there is a new government and there is a change in all these institutions.”
“A change of regime is definitely the first thing required,” agreed our anonymous fixer.
“Journalism is my passion, but I have a wife and young daughter, if my work begins to place them in danger I will have to consider stopping or leaving the country.”