Even in a Pandemic, Pressures Against the Press Continue

Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said that press workers would be allowed to work during the social quarantine, yet some reporters and outlets found out that pledge isn't being kept.

PETARE, CARACAS, MIRANDA, VENEZUELA - 2020/03/18: A police officer is seen using a megaphone alerting people about the coronavirus and telling them to go home. After 3 days of quarantine decreed by the government of President Nicolas Maduro, so far the figure of 36 people confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 remains. Results are expected from more than 120 samples that have been sent by the hygiene institute. Security agencies continue to close businesses and try to keep people in their homes to prevent the virus from spreading further. (Photo by Roman Camacho/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Photo: Bloomberg, retrieved.

As with most of the world, Venezuelans caught up with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic in the last few days. All of a sudden, we’ve been restricted to our homes, wearing facemasks have become mandatory and going to the streets (unless it’s for groceries or an emergency) is just wishful thinking.

On March 16th, while announcing the set of restrictions to be applied during the period of “social quarantine,” Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino indicated that there would be “free transit to those involved in food, transportation, media and public services… without restrictions by showing their identifications.”

But the next day, several reporters found out that such instructions were not followed at all, according to El Pitazo’s Daisy Galaviz (frequent collaborator for Caracas Chronicles). Officers of different security forces in Caracas didn’t abide by Padrino’s orders and either took credentials away or tore them apart, forced journalists to erase pictures or simply sent them back home and denied their chance to keep working.

Like fellow NGO Espacio Publico in its own annual report weeks earlier, IPYS noticed a serious increase in press intimidation cases.

Before the current pandemic, journalists in Venezuela already struggled with constant obstacles to do their job properly. Recently, the 2019 report by NGO IPYS Venezuela titled “Voces en el paredón,” made it clear by tagging last year as “the worst for the exercise of journalism in Venezuela.” Like fellow NGO Espacio Publico in its own annual report weeks earlier, IPYS noticed a serious increase in press intimidation cases.

And to make things worse, some local authorities are openly harassing media outlets and reporters: just last week, Delta Amacuro Governor Lizeta Hernandez threatened El Pitazo’s correspondent Melquiades Avila while Falcon Governor Victor Clark attacked Coro’s newspaper La Mañana.

Because of these new restrictions, the Maduro administration is making sure their version of events is the one that sticks: While Nicolas Maduro and other political officials offer daily statements on the status of coronavirus in Venezuela, the hegemony is making sure that Juan Guaido doesn’t have a role in providing news about this pandemic: After the National Assembly put up a website dedicated to the COVID-19, CANTV is quite busy blocking it.

But the particular circumstances of our health system didn’t escape the attention of major media outlets like The Guardian or the Washington Post, which published reports this week about how we’re in a very vulnerable position in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Maduro reacted furiously to a WaPo editorial on the matter, calling it “garbage.” He now joins other world leaders who unfortunately chose to make the media a scapegoat for their own failings during this crisis.

Witnessing this pandemic unfold has been a shock to many, including myself. Adapting to the swift shifts in our routines comes with its own frustrations, which add to the ones we already have to endure in here. But that shouldn’t be a sign of discouragement. Now, we must bear them and stay focused on the main goal: getting through this, together. Please stay safe in your homes, dear readers.