Venezuela has a mania for celebrating professions. We have a Hair Stylists’ Day and a Political Scientists’ Day and a Secretaries’ Day and everything in between. It’s easy to roll your eyes at these, and to see today’s Día del Periodista celebration as just the Nth corny non-holiday. But this year, my profession’s special day comes amid what may be its gravest crisis ever.
Day after day, media workers are facing a shocking proliferation of aggressions as we try to cover the most consequential protests in living memory. Meanwhile radio and TV stations are routinely shut down for refusing the path of self-censorship. So pardon us if Día del Periodista feels a little more momentous than usual this year. These are just not normal times.
Journalism is becoming an extreme sport here. Foreign journos face all kinds of obstacles including getting banned from the country as well as getting their broadcast signals taken off the air. It’s bad enough that simply being on the receiving end of public insults and ridicule barely seems worth mentioning anymore: it’s the new normal.
Our Day of the Journalist has its roots —like everything else here— in Simón Bolívar. On this day in 1818 he founded “El Correo del Orinoco” back in 1818. The original circulated for just four years, and needless to say the government has already hijacked its name, which has nothing to do with what the Libertador was attempting to achieve.
They threw me to the ground, smashed my phone, pulled my hair, kicked me. Later, a female soldier told me I was under arrest because she felt like it.
Far from following in the Libertador’s footsteps, today’s government has sought to quash down on freedom of the press through intimidation, persecution, and, more and more, straight-up physical assaults.
On March 31st, she was savagely attacked by several members of the National Guard near the building of the Supreme Court (TSJ) where she was supposed to cover an official press conference. Part of the incident was caught on tape, which soon went viral.
“That morning,” Ms. González tells me “the situation was tense between the protesting students and the National Guard. I was supposed to cover a press conference of the Foreign Minister at the Supreme Tribunal [TSJ]. I saw how the GNB allowed a group of armed civilians (who called themselves colectivos) to break up the demonstration. I preferred to stay in the TSJ building because I didn’t have any protective gear on me. As I was calling my radio station, the aggression took place. The video only shows the second of three beatings. They threw me to the ground, smashed my phone, pulled my hair, kicked me. Later, a female GN told me I was under arrest because she felt like it.”
Or take freelance photojournalist Roman Camacho, who was shot at close range by a tear gas canister launched by the GNB while covering the protests in Caracas on April 10th. His tibia —the main thigh bone— was fractured and he had to keep bed rest for the next several weeks.
“Well, at the time of the incident, the first thing I felt was pain, obviously. After being thrown to the ground and noticing that I couldn’t use my leg, I realized that I had a fracture. What I felt at the moment of being given emergency care and then when I was diagnosed was an unbelievable feeling of frustration and impotence, to the point that I started crying. I really didn’t know how much I loved my career and covering the streets until the moment that I was told that I needed 12 weeks of bedrest.”
To add insult to injury, the state propaganda “news channel” Telesur tried to use footage of the incident on Twitter to blame opposition protesters for violence against reporters.
Both González and Camacho agree that the situation has become worse in recent months and they blame it on a State policy of considering journalists “the enemy.” “Before, [the security forces] just told us to stay away or simply to stop covering something. Now, we’re at the level of being threatened, of having our equipment stolen, of being harassed and even chased.” says Camacho.
I really didn’t know how much I loved my career and covering the streets until the moment that I was told that I needed 12 weeks of rest.
“Journalists’ work is difficult now because we’re a target. The authorities who should protect us now go after us; we’ve become the enemy.” González told us.
Adding to that is the larger issue of growing censorship and the pressure of self-censorship. “Self-censorship is a bigger enemy of the journalist than this government. Wherever it comes from, self-censorship is the worst thing we can do as journalists. We must keep our ethics and principles first.” says Camacho.
González has personally seen the effect of censorship in her line of work and tries to explain it:
“I think some people don’t understand what censorship really means. It’s an extreme situation, like having a gun pointed at your head and the media is the person threatening to shoot if you do or don’t t do something.”
When the issue of the government’s communicational hegemony comes up, they both reject it in both its model and content. “The State-controlled media outlets are nothing more than government propaganda machines…” comments Camacho “…Its programming content is out-of-date and always looking to be State propaganda first. It simply doesn’t work.”
For González, the hegemony’s failure isn’t about its ratings, but about its overall lack of credibility.
“[The government] always has the possibility of taking over radio and TV broadcasting through the cadenas, but that has such low ratings. People now prefer to get their news from social media to the more traditional media like a TV newscast.”
Staying silent is not an option, especially for those of us involved in the information battle.
A key aspect of today’s situation is how social media has now become the main source of coverage for the Venezuelan crisis. No wonder the government wants to control that too.
Elyangelica concurs with this argument: “Thanks to social media, the government’s efforts to censor us are wasted. Despite limitations like having the slowest Internet in the region, that doesn’t stop things from coming out, from being revealed. People find out the truth thanks to a video or a tweet.”
Camacho thinks digital media outlets really harm the hegemony’s plans: “As [the State] hasn’t managed to control all alternative and digital outlets, it’s a huge frustration for them.”
But the challenge is still uphill for Venezuelan journalists and both Camacho and González are very aware of this.
Roman Camacho, for his part, thinks “we’re at a crucial moment when we are put to the test everyday.”
González goes further, using war metaphors to describe her job: “Staying silent is not an option, especially for those of us involved in the information battle: replying, demonstrating, looking for tips, investigating. It’s a rough moment, after all, we’re human and we feel fear.”
Thanks to social media, the government’s efforts to censor us are wasted.
Today, as we take a tiny moment to honor our profession, our job is even more crucial than ever, keeping our people informed amid the maelstrom state-sponsored violence and misinformation. As Eyangelica puts it: “This is our moment, it’s up to us to do our best and to do as much as we can.”
The country needs us.