Photo: El Nacional

A Flank Attack Upon the Press

New tactics and coordinated actions are the battle cry of a renewed offensive against free media in Venezuela

On December 18th, during the closing ceremony of the National Constituent Assembly, Nicolás Maduro laid down the most critical objectives of his “revolution” for 2021 and beyond. First, the economy; second, something we hadn’t heard about in a while: the “communicational war.”

“The second biggest challenge from 2021 and beyond is to win the communicational war, a war for the truth. We have to win it in every block, with every family, in all the communities. In social media, in the streets, in the walls. We have to win it!”

This wasn’t exactly breaking news for the Venezuelan press corps. After all, Chávez closed the very mainstream TV station RCTV, denied printing paper for El Nacional, and held radio stations hostage by freezing their concession renewal processes. Maduro followed suit, attacking the press and blocking news websites and cable channels, while security forces detained journalists on assignment either in protest cycles (2014, 2017) or in a pandemic

Some methods are, however, brand new.

A New Spearhead

In the morning of January 6th, TV station Globovisión posted an article from a relatively unknown website, Contexto Diario (ranked 5,273 in Venezuela, according to Alexa), accusing the very popular news site Efecto Cocuyo of accepting “a million dollars” from UK’s Westminster Foundation, “to undermine and destabilize Venezuela.” It was journal El Universal who followed up with the accusation, and only then official media joined in. The attacks on dissident media were led not by state-owned websites or TV, but by those outlets bought by government-affiliated personalities in the past seven years.

“This is actually not that new,” explains NGO Espacio Público’s director, Carlos Correa, to Caracas Chronicles, “what we hadn’t seen before is this level of coordination. The attack on Efecto Cocuyo was crafted and coordinated from those media outlets to State media, to government officials.”

What we hadn’t seen before is this level of coordination. The attack on Efecto Cocuyo was crafted and coordinated from those media outlets to State media, to government officials.

Medianalisis‘ Academic Director, Mariela Torrealba, explains further: “The use of pro-government media in campaigns against independent media outlets in recent times only confirms the co-optation strategy that the government has been developing for seven years (…) seeking the credibility that the official media lacks.”

The accusations against Efecto Cocuyo, taken from a Daily Maverick report, were manipulated upon review. Efecto Cocuyo, along with several other foundations and organizations, did receive donations from the Westminster Foundation according to declassified documents, but not in the amount reported. Three days after the report was published, human rights activist Rafael Uzcátegui revealed that chavismo’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), also received a donation from the Westminster Foundation. 

This, in turn, made PROVEA, the NGO led by Uzcátegui, the target of a new harassment campaign.

A Pincer Movement Against VPI

Another brand-new procedure against the media was shown on January 8th, in the raid of the headquarters of internet news channel Venezolanos por la Información (VPI). A group of GNB officers secured the place, opening the door for Seniat (taxes, imports) and Conatel (telecommunications) officers to seize VPI’s equipment and shut down operations from its Caracas bureau. 

“This is also new,” says Correa. “In the case of VPI, the focus is on platforms not associated with the radioelectric spectrum, instead more focused on outlets like YouTube.” Seniat officers also asked for every single receipt of every single piece of equipment in the offices. VPI responded by saying they were an international media outlet based in Miami, Florida, before shutting down its Caracas operations “for the time being.”

The move against VPI sets a precedent against a YouTube-based operation. The closest seen before was the foray on Venepress, in December of 2019. Today, Venepress’s website is still operating in a limited capacity, but the YouTube channel (with almost 27,000 subscribers) has been dormant since the raid.

Cracking Down on TalCual

While VPI’s offices were under siege, TalCual’s website (top 40 in News and Media in the country, according to SimilarWeb) was under a Denial of Service (DDoS) attack that froze it for several hours. Managing Editor Víctor Amaya explained to Caracas Chronicles that TalCual was “off the air for a few minutes, but our team was able to put a static front page. Our CMS (Content Manager Service) was off for several hours.” It was later reported that over 35,000 simultaneous requests were logged from a server in Switzerland. The following Tuesday, the attack was repeated, this time in a smaller force (over 10,000 requests) and from a CANTV server in Venezuela.

Although we have an important digital spring in the media, we know that connectivity is restricted to urban areas, mainly in the capital.

For TalCual’s Executive Editor, Xabier Coscojuela, the parliamentary elections of December 6th were all chavismo needed to renew its attacks on the press. “The ‘triumph’ of December 6th  emboldened them. They want to bring under control or eliminate any NGO and media that they consider may threaten their endgame. The raid and robbery of VPI’s equipment, the attacks on Efecto Cocuyo, Caraota Digital, and El Pitazo for allegedly receiving funding from the British government, and the cyberattack against TalCual, are examples of what they mean.”

Coscojuela’s words remind us of what Chávez set as a goal: communicational hegemony. The term, coined back in 2008 by then Communications Minister Andrés Izarra, was used to empower the government efforts in a time of closing of TV and radio stations, so the only voice heard was from Chávez himself. Almost 15 years later, Mariela Torrealba thinks we’re way past that point and into an even more dangerous territory: 

“The media ecosystem has been shrunken, practically destroyed. Although we have an important digital spring in the media, we know that connectivity is restricted to urban areas, mainly in the capital (Caracas). There are huge restrictions with electricity and connectivity in the provinces.”

“Chavismo took up most of the spaces with its media and with the co-optation of other media, while also dramatically reducing outlets for deliberation and public dialogue.”

The risks of trying to open new ways for the people to debate, adds Carlos Correa, “is that the costs of using those spaces or trying to open new ones are considerably heavier.”

What does that mean for Venezuelans? Torrealba concludes:

“The country is uninformed and misinformed.”