Photo: Clifton Ross
I was going to be five minutes late for Anatoly Kurmanaev’s talk in any case, but with construction underway and my unfamiliarity with the Stanford University campus, I arrived well into his talk, feeling like a flustered lab rat that had just been put through a maze with way too many switchbacks and dead ends on the way to its destination. As I took my seat in the back of the room, the Russian journalist was describing the grim reality of Venezuela that Caracas Chronicles readers — and, I’m sure, a majority of the small audience — already know far too well.
The Stanford Venezuelan Students Association (VENSA) had invited Kurmanaev to talk about “Journalism in Venezuela,” but he only broached the topic in the last few minutes of his presentation, spending most of the hour describing the social collapse of the country.
Unfortunately, like the state of the economy, politics, the environment, indigenous people and the living conditions of the average Venezuelan, the state of Venezuelan journalism is dire, and getting worse.
In 2013 — the last year I visited the country, and the year that Kurmanaev arrived —, there were, in his words, “still pockets of independent media” in Venezuela. While much of the media had been taken over by Chávez (as in the famous case of RCTV, back in 2007), and many “community” media and media activists had been given “becas” and other enticements to work for the government, there was still a fairly active struggle against chavismo’s hunger for hegemony.
But when Maduro took power, he evidently decided to end any space for opposing viewpoints. The government, through various front organizations and businesses, began buying up media or, in the case of newspapers, denying them newsprint. It also resorted to threatening reporters, editors and publishers with prison time for “defamation”, and it was happy to go beyond threats: there was, among others, the case of David Natera Febres, editor of Correo del Caroní, sentenced to four years in 2016 for supposedly violating anti-defamation laws.
Maduro’s government has quit passing out visas to “unfriendly” outlets. Kurmanaev estimates that some 60-70% of foreign reporters have left the country and haven’t been replaced.
As a result of the destruction of the independent press, many reporters have gone digital and, according to Kurmanaev, “a lot of people continue to do good reporting” that way, even if it’s a route that is rarely funded. These reporters have also been under attack: using paramilitaries, military, police and loyalists to beat, rob and deliver the bloody remains of reporters to the custody of the SEBIN and other organs of repression, Maduro’s government continues to show no mercy to the press that doesn’t approach its throne on bended knees. And then there’s the infamous “Anti-Hate” law, clearly designed to ensnare all critics of the regime. Like journalists.
As for the international press, represented by reporters like Anatoly, the government has implemented a different strategy than buying, bribing, bullying or burying it in prison: Maduro’s government has quit passing out visas to “unfriendly” outlets. Kurmanaev estimates that some 60-70% of foreign reporters have left the country and haven’t been replaced.
The struggle of independent (that is, opposition) media in Venezuela has to be seen in the even more dismal international context. In the liberal democratic West, more than 90% of the media is owned by five corporations. The challenge to these hegemons of “democracy” are various state entities of, generally speaking, two varieties. The first are liberal democratic state media, which include BBC, Deutsche Welle and others that try, and often succeed, in doing honest reporting with minimal propaganda thrown in. But a second variety includes media of authoritarian, anti-liberal, communist or populist governments: Iran’s PressTV, China’s CCTV, Russia’s RT and, of course, Venezuela’s Telesur. I know, I know, Telesur isn’t “owned” by Venezuela, it’s an internationalist project of South American governments. But really, deep down, it remains solidly chavista. That’s what Argentinian Minister of Communications, Herman Lombardi, was effectively referring to after Argentina sold off its 20% stake in Telesur. He said Argentina, while co-owner of the station, “was prohibited from sharing our view” and added that “there was no pluralism at Telesur.”
Those reporters in the shrinking pockets of independent media that Anatoly referred to, like their counterparts internationally, work in the fissures between these competing media hegemons, and face the constant temptation to defect to a side where they could actually make a living. It’s not so easy for a Venezuelan stringer to get picked up by the New York Times, for a number of reasons, and even if s/he did, there would always be the added danger of being targeted as “enemy” media in Venezuela, piled on top of just being a journalist in opposition to the government. On the other hand, Western journalists have found it quite easy, and convenient to defect over to the authoritarians, as it’s evident from the number of U.S. journalists like Ed Schultz, Thom Hartmann, Chris Hedges and others now working at RT television network, part of Putin’s project to undermine liberal democracy in the West.
And, of course, populist authoritarians are experts at turning liberalism against itself. Look no further than Hugo Chávez. As Anatoly said, “he benefited from amnesty after spending only two years in prison for giving orders that killed dozens of people (in the ‘92 coup attempt). He was able to run (for president) because of a free press that gave him all sorts of coverage; because of courts that habilitated him and treated him fairly. And he understood that if he wanted to stay in power, these things couldn’t continue anymore. So he used the tools of liberal democracy to come to power, and once in power, he destroyed them.”
Media outlets like Telesur and Venezuelan state media don’t actually do any real reporting. They’re just given a script and told, ‘read this.’ That’s not reporting; it’s propaganda.”
Chávez unleashed forces that continue to undermine and endanger liberal democracy the world over. Anatoly said that “technology which was touted a couple of decades ago as a liberator and a tool of democracy, is actually being used against democracy by non-liberal regimes and the opponents of liberal democracy. And what’s happened in Venezuela has been the obliteration of the country’s social core. It hasn’t been caused by any war, or any ethnic strife or any external factor, but just completely by an incompetent, corrupt authoritarianism and here are (the results of) the dangers of the illiberal order. Today there are no ifs or buts about who destroyed Venezuela: the State controls everything and has all the power, and it’s not possible to spin the situation any other way.”
In an interview I did with Anatoly after his talk, I mentioned the problem of media concentration in the hands of half a dozen transnational corporations. I pointed out that Telesur has been seen by many on the left as an attempt to break that domination.
“Media concentration and media interests are real issues that I don’t want to brush aside, but again, in the case of Venezuela, I wouldn’t say they’re relevant because there is no counter-narrative to report on. People are, broadly speaking, eating less and less, and people are dying from preventable diseases (with no access to medicine), and there’s no real counter-narrative to report.”
“[As for ‘economic sabotage’] there’s absolutely zero evidence that it’s happening on anything like a systematic basis to make it an issue. And outlets like Telesur and Venezuelan state media, that are portrayed as voices of real truth or a counter-balance to western media interests, don’t actually do any real reporting. They don’t go out in the streets and find out what’s happening. They’re just given a script and told, ‘read this.’ That’s not reporting; it’s propaganda.”
I asked Anatoly if RT and other Russian state media outlets are picking up the Telesur feeds as the basis for their reports, and he said yes, but that even Russian media, which he describes as “a docile, propagandistic media apparatus,” “realizes that the whole economic sabotage and war theories are so ridiculous that… well, you won’t even see that on Russian TV.”