Intimidating the Venezuelan Press

The violent attack against several press workers at the Simón Bolívar International Airport last week is the clearest example of the overwhelming official pressure to force out any unflattering media coverage

Photo: Rayner Peña
Photo: Rayner Peña.

During the tumultuous return of Juan Guaidó through the Simón Bolívar International Airport, several reporters and their camera crews were injured by an angry mob, with complete leniency from the authorities. As some ended up getting medical assistance and even hospitalized, the multiple accounts from those involved have raised concerns about the dangers that independent Venezuelan press will face in 2020.

While all access to the airport was blocked, internal security let a group of people in. This group was allegedly protesting against the recent U.S. sanctions on state airline Conviasa, nothing but a ploy led by Vargas State officials to openly attack Guaidó, those welcoming him and the press corps. The raw violence meant to show “popular outrage”.

The brutality of the images immediately brought memories of old times when the so called “Bolivarian Circles” acted with similar impunity in the early 2000s. Náyades Perez, a PSUV local chief in Catia La Mar, Vargas State, has now become infamous in the same way the late chavista harasser Lina Ron was.

I thought for a moment that I was going to be killed right there.”

I thought for a moment that I was going to be killed right there,” Maikel Yriarte, reporter of TV Venezuela, described to Efecto Cocuyo. “I was wondering ‘Where’s my crew? Where’s my crew that doesn’t take me away?’ I was with my camera but he was trying to save me and took three men out, but they beat him up worse than me.” 

“Individuals attacked us just because we work for a media outlet,” Yriarte’s coworker Michelet Castellanos added, while receiving attention in a Caracas clinic. “That was the only mistake we made. We were ambushed. We were chased, surrounded, beaten up, insulted.”

This incident, along with the similar scenes of repression in the National Assembly last month, are signals of the growing hostility from the hegemony against those who cover news in a way that doesn’t suit their needs, and there’s evidence corroborating the normalization of this violence in the last year. The new 2019 report by local NGO Espacio Público not only shows a big increase in free speech violations in comparison to the previous year, it also shows how this was the second-worst year in their 18 years of records, only surpassed by 2017.

This was the second-worst year in their 18 years of records, only surpassed by 2017.

The report mentions multiple cases of journalists being stopped or obstructed when they’re trying to work, being detained for hours by security forces or harassed by public officials who blocked them from doing coverage on public premises like hospitals. At the same time, the effects of the digital crackdown and the consequences of the national blackout took a toll on many outlets.

The hegemony is also relying on non-violent methods of coercion, like bribes: journalist Mónica Salazar, secretary general of the Journalists’ Guild (CNP) in Sucre State, decried how she was offered money in exchange for supporting deputy Luis Parra, who has tried to impose himself as the National Assembly’s speaker since January 5th. The CNP-Caracas chapter later confirmed in a written statement that she wasn’t the only one.

Such circumstances have caused many Venezuelan journalists to join the diaspora looking for better opportunities, but such path has its own set of problems, as a two-part report published by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and written by Silvina Acosta presents:

“There are few Venezuelan professional journalists who continue to practice their profession abroad, according to representatives of organizations supporting migrant Venezuelan reporters such as the Association of Venezuelan Journalists Abroad (APEVEX), and Venezuelan Press.

“More than half of those affiliated with these trade associations work in other sectors of their recipient countries. ‘I know many journalists who are not practicing in the United States, and in other countries such as Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Chile,’ Sonia Osorio, president of APEVEX, told the Knight Center.”

The hegemony is also relying on non-violent methods of coercion, like bribes.

That hasn’t stopped others from creating new media outlets outside of Venezuela. In Santiago, there’s even a free monthly paper for the Venezuelan community called “El Vinotinto,” with a digital counterpart up and running.

Even if the crisis in the Venezuelan press has its own set of quirks, it doesn’t feel isolated from what’s happening in the rest of Latin America, where attacks from both Left and Right are becoming commonplace. From AMLO in Mexico to Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, verbal abuses against the media are common, creating an atmosphere that tolerates persecution, censorship and even killing reporters.

The events of last week have made me feel uneasy about my colleagues’ situation, I offer them  my full solidarity. May they be able to do their job safely and freely.