Busting the myth of freedom of speech in Venezuela

amanpour-part-1-00010613-horizontal-galleryFACT: On March 7th 2014, CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour interviewed Nicolás Maduro in Miraflores Palace. One of the questions she asked the President was whether the press was welcome to do its work in Venezuela, to which Maduro answered: “Here in Venezuela you have all the freedom to come and go, to broadcast to the world more and more (sic) the truth of what happens in Venezuela.” Days later, after the first month of protests in Venezuela on March 13th, Maduro recalled, “there are no opinion crimes here. Here we have freedom of expression. Let us defend freedom of expression.”

CONTEXT: Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Similarly, article 58 of Venezuela’s Constitution establishes that “everyone has the right to timely, truthful, impartial information without censorship, as well as the right to reply and to demand a correction when they see themselves directly affected by inexact or defamatory information.”

The coverage that Venezuelan mass media has given to protests in the country has raised doubts and criticism. TV has shown few of the marches, barricades, repression or statements of opposition leaders and students. On the other hand, government-related rallies and the statements of government figures have received broad coverage, and not only in the system of public media. In order to be informed about what is happening in the country, Venezuelans increasingly depend on word-of mouth-communication and on social networks. Maduro himself said in a press conference held on March 14, 2014 that “Twitter is now the leader… they [the opposition] depend on Twitter”.

DEBUNKING THE ARGUMENTS:

By 2013, Reporters Without Borders ranked Venezuela 117th out of 179 countries in terms of freedom of the press. The ranking takes into consideration

  • the pluralism of the opinions that appear in mass media,
  • the independence of mass media,
  • self-censorship and the context in which journalists work;
  • the legislative structure and the transparency of the institutions that affect the news and information production; and
  • the infrastructure for news and information production.

Let´s review some of these topics in detail.

Control over Mass Media. According to an interview given by the Venezuelan Ambassador to Germany on February 25, 2014, “80% of Venezuelan TV stations belong to the private sector” and, according to Nicolás Maduro himself, “the people have been ignored by the mass media belonging to the national and international “bourgeoisie”.

The number of mass media on its own cannot be considered an indicator of the level of information control. For example, while 14 mass media (6 of them TV stations) are ascribed to the government network Sibci, in 2013 it was estimated that 13 TV stations, 107 public radio stations and 20 newspapers – many of them privately owned – identified themselves as “government inclined or balanced”.

This certainly has to do with pressure. In addition to the closing of RCTV in 2007, according to figures of the Colegio Nacional de Periodistas (CNP), between August 1, 2009 and August 1, 2010, the central government closed 34 radio stations, 2 regional TV stations, 6 cable TV stations and 2 newspapers, increasing the relative impact of public mass media. By July, 2013, the number of different mass media that had been closed reached 45.

Another critical situation comes from the lack of paper supply for newspapers. At the beginning of March of this year, Cencoex had not distributed the foreign exchange owed to the private newspapers, which made it impossible for 80 newspapers to import the paper they needed. The debt with Diario El Nacional amounts to US$ 3.8 million. Already by March 7, 2014, this debt had stopped the printing presses of 13 newspapers and those newspapers that have been able to continue operating have had to limit their number of pages.

Taking all this into account, it comes as no surprise that in 2012 the Carter Center stated that ”the panorama of the Venezuelan mass media has changed drastically in the last decade  [2002-2012], going from a clear predominance of private TV stations, radio stations and newspapers (mostly politically opposed to Chavez’ government) to the evident growth of state-owned mass media, that currently includes five TV stations and several important radio stations, all of which promote the program and ideology of the government”.

In the transmissions of the ever increasing public and pro-government mass media, among which  the recent inauguration of the military TV station TV FANB stands out- the opposition officials have no voice, because they supposedly support a coup d’état.

Furthermore, private mass media practice self-censorship in order to protect their signal, as in the case of Globovisión, after its sale in May 2013. Any mass media that decides to continue to transmit information or opinions that could be “uncomfortable” for the central government will have to face possible consequences, as is the case of  NTN24, international TV station removed from the airwaves in Venezuela when  Nicolás Maduro  accused the station of  transmitting the “anxiety” of the possibility of a coup d’état. The harassment against CNN has also been evident: on February 20, 2013, Nicolás Maduro on Cadena de Radio y TV (mandatory national broadcast in every national radio and TV station) stated that the administrative procedure to throw CNN En Español out of the country would begin if CNN did not change its editorial position regarding the manifestations in the country.

It is important to mention that central government blockings of web pages, Twitter contents, and Internet and telephone services in the state of Táchira have been reported. Even though the central government insists that in Venezuela there is no internet control and that Twitter accounts can only be blocked by the service provider, it is reported that those are the intentions of the central government. Although by 2012 the country had been removed from the list of countries under surveillance due to internet control, Reporters Without Borders reactivated the alarms about Venezuela.

About Censorship and Freedom of Speech Violations. Between 2002 and 2013, the NGO Espacio Público reported 418 censorship cases, reaching a record of 77 cases in 2013. If other violations to freedom of speech are included, the number of comes up to 2,011 between 2002 and 2011 and to 542 between 2012 and 2013.

During the 2014 protests, the situation has turned for the worst: between February 12 and March 12, Espacio Público registered 162 violations of freedom of speech. In the case of the journalists covering the protests SNTP registered 126 aggressions against them: 23 detentions, 53 harassment cases, 24 injuries, 1 hit by a bullet and 25 robberies.

A case that stands-out is that of the Italian Francesca Comissari, who was wrongfully detained by the Guardia Nacional Bolivariana –GNB- (National Guard) on February 28, 2014, in Altamira, and afterwards was released in the midst of rumors of possible extradition. Her work gear –which disappeared during her detention- was being sold in online. It should be said that attacks to journalists have come from both government officials and protesters.

About Cadenas. Article 192 of the Venezuelan Telecommunications Law authorizes the President to order TV and radio stations to broadcast his messages simultaneously. Additionally, and as a consequence of the splitting of the screens during the April 11, 2002 protests, the current Law of Responsibility in Radio and TV –better known as Ley Resorte– forbids interfering with the messages and addresses of the State.

Between 1999 and 2012, President Chávez ordered Cadenas on around 2,500 occasions, accumulating over 1,700 hours of transmission. This comes out to about 70 consecutive days, and 200 working days (8 hours per day). During those 14 years, the “chained” broadcasts averaged 20 minutes per day.

These Cadenas de Radio y TV were a very useful communication tool during Chávez’s administration, but they have been enhanced during Maduro’s current term in office . In 2013, Radio and TV were “chained” for 169 hours, the 2nd year with more controlled transmissions over the last 15 years, right behind 2008 (173 hours). Furthermore, in January and February 2014 alone radio and TV were “chained” for 47 hours; and during the first 2 weeks of continuous nationwide protests (February 12 to February 26, 2014), Maduro ordered 26 hours of Cadenas de Radio y TV, averaging 105 minutes per day.

About Freedom of Opinion. [The original version of this section was presented for the first time in “Busting the myth of democracy in Venezuela”] The central government often argues that everyone in Venezuela can freely express opinions against the central government. But in fact, those who express dissent must face the consequences.

For example, those who signed to support a Recall Referendum against Hugo Chavez in 2004, were included in the list known as “Tascón” or “Maisanta”, and consequently were fired from public offices, blocked from job opportunities related to the public sector and benefits from social programs were denied to them.  Political discrimination from the central government has continued, including threats made to workers from the oil sector by Rafael Ramirez in 2006 or to employees of the Ministry of Housing by Ricardo Molina in 2013. There have also been allegations of threats to voters during elections, and as a matter of fact, this was one of the reasons behind the challenge of the results from the 2013 presidential elections.

Even those who, from the ranks of chavismo, have criticized the central government have had to assume some costs. Among others, Nicmer Evans, a pro-government political scientist, had his TV and radio shows cancelled after criticizing some of the decisions stemming from Maduro’s administration. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples that show how expressing favorable opinions and loyalty to chavismo’s project seems to be rewarded, and even more, those in positions of power face little chances of facing judicial actions against them: corruption allegations are dropped, running over a protester is established as an “accident”, or the calling to a “withering counterattack” is not considered as incitement to violence even if the result is several wounded and dead.

During the weeks of nationwide protests, journalist Alexander Zapata of VTV y de David De Matteis of Globovisión were both laid off because they issued negative opinions regarding the central government via Twitter. In particular, Zapata criticized the performance of the Venezuelan Institute of Social Security (IVSS for its acronym in Spanish), while De Matteis criticized Nicolás Maduro. It is also worth recalling that many journalists decided to leave Globovision because of the the so-called “news blackout” of the events of February 12, 2014. Moreover, since the sale of Globovision in May 2013, several journalists were laid-off. For example, Diana Carolina Ruiz was let go because she opened the noon edition of the news by wishing Venezuelans ‘a prosperous, productive, and well-stocked year.

Political Campaigns. A report by the Carter Center regarding the presidential campaign for the election dated October 12, 2012, says that “the State’s mass media tended to make invisible the opposition coalition candidate or to transmit unfavorable information, while the coverage given to Chavez included only positive information”.  Although the rating of public mass media is relatively small (5.4%), during election week it increased to 24%, reaching second place in voter’s preference”.

In the presidential campaign of April 2013, the Comando Simón Bolívar (opposition campaign group) presented 222 accusations related to violations of campaign norms by the central government. These accusations included: the use of public resources to finance advertising and events, the use of children in the campaign, and a significant lack of balance in the information transmitted through public mass media.

For example, between April 2 and April 10, 2013, state-owned VTV transmitted approximately 6 hours of Henrique Capriles Radonski’s participation while it transmitted Nicolás Maduro’s for more than 65 hours. This last statement is corroborated by the Carter Center: “a strong imbalance in the coverage of the activities of the main candidates was evident, especially in public mass media, where the coverage given to the president-candidate was overwhelmingly positive (…) the VTV spaces were dedicated “nearly full time” to the promotion of the official candidate, scarcely mentioning any of the other candidates”. It also states that “Globovisión was significantly biased towards the opposition’s candidate… [and the TV station] justified the imbalance in its coverage as a response to the predominance of the official candidate in the national system of public media”.

Official Statistics. Article 143 of the Venezuelan Constitution states that citizens have the right to be informed. The government does not comply with this mandate.

An example of the lack of transparency is the delay of the Centrla Bank’s publishing of official statistics, particularly in the last year. The norms that regulate the Consumer Price National Index (INPC for its acronym in Spanish) establish that it should be published within the first 10 days of each month.

Since 2008, when the CPNI began to be calculated, its publishing has been delayed five times – all of them in 2013 and 2014: January 2013, published on the 11th;  April 2013, published on the 15th, a day after the presidential elections; December 2013,published on the 30th; February 2014, published on the 11th and March 2014, published on the 14th.  At the same time, on March 15, 2014 the Central Bank had still not published the President’s 2013 years’ end message.  Since 1999, the press release of the Presidential message had never appeared later than December 30th of the respective year and the message latest publishing date had been on January 12th, as it happened in 2009.

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The current reality seems to indicate that mass media is allowed to freely transmit information, as long as that information is favorable to the government. In other words, Venezuelans are able to express themselves and share their opinions as long as they are willing to pay the price that an opinion against the government can entail. Nicolás Maduro’s statements about “freedom” of speech are clearly misleading.

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