Venezuela is in the midst of one of the modern world’s worst economic crises. Few can afford to remain in a country characterized by hyperinflation and severe food and fuel shortages. As of May, at least 5.1 million Venezuelans, more than 10 percent of the country’s population, have emigrated.
This plummeting of general living standards, further accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, represents just one major roadblock for the Venezuelan press. Journalists are often unable to report due to obstacles like gasoline scarcity, which prevents them from reaching relevant sites.
The country is also facing a newspaper scarcity. With the Maduro administration’s indefatigable censoring and stigmatization of the press, it is no surprise that the number of print newspapers operating within Venezuela is less than a third of what it was seven years ago.
Mariengracia Chirinos, investigative reporter for the Prodavinci newsite, told IPI that while in 2013 there were 116 print newspapers, there are currently only 22. “This means that only about 6 percent of the Venezuelan population has access to newspapers. The vast majority receive their news through interpersonal means, face-to-face discussions, which is quite worrisome, or digital platforms”, she said.
But even digital platforms are affected by the overall economic situation. Chirinos explained that “given the very slow internet speed, of around 3.90 megabits per second, electricity rationing, and power outages, it is very difficult for digital media companies to work in such conditions”.
Besides economic impediments, the incumbent government has taken measures to further impede citizens from accessing digital news platforms.
According to the VE Sin Filtro (Venezuela without Filter) project, over the past year the state-owned principal internet provider, CANTV, has blocked portals publishing information about the COVID-19 pandemic. It also blocked the Punto de Corte news site after it published a report highlighting CANTV’s “inhumane working conditions”. In January, CANTV also temporarily blocked Youtube, Wikipedia, Twitter, and Instagram.
Chirinos told IPI that “the manner in which Maduro’s government blocks websites is very complex because it is done strategically, at certain times during the day or only in specific geographical zones or during different time periods, therefore effectively limiting the press’ reach”.
The media restrictions go beyond access blocks, however. Daniela Alvarado Mejia from the Press and Society Institute (IPYS) told IPI: “We recorded 43 arbitrary detentions in this time and as of August 30, there have been over 275 recorded freedom of speech violations.”
“One must also take into account that such violations occur in a context of worsening blackouts and failing telecommunication services, which further constrains journalism in the country”, she added.
DETENTIONS AND THE LAW AGAINST HATRED
One of the most noteworthy arbitrary detentions of journalists to occur during the pandemic was that of Darvinson Rojas, who was arrested following a tweet he published on March 20, which presented COVID-19 infection rates higher than those published by government sources.
“He was arrested 3 days later by 15 agents of the Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales (FAES) without a warrant”, Mejia said. She also pointed out that Rojas was assigned a defence attorney by the Public Ministry, even though the reporter had already chosen a different attorney to defend his case.
“No relatives of the defendant were notified of this hearing, although they were present at the court-house throughout the day”, she said. Rojas was charged with “instigating hate”.
In July, Nícmer Evans, a journalist and director of the Punto de Corte news site, was detained for more than 90 hours following a tweet in which he referred to politicians infected with COVID-19. He was also charged with “promoting hate”, a crime under Article 20 of the “Law against Hatred”.
Venezuela’s “Law Against Hatred” has led to the arrests of not only Evans and Rojas but also of students, fire-fighters, and transport-workers in 2020 alone.
Like similar national laws that criminalize hate speech, such as the Penal Code’s Article 285, the Law Against Hatred prohibits the propagation of messages inciting violence, intolerance, or discrimination. Unlike other laws, however, the Law Against Hatred provides for up to 20 years in prison and was imposed by the Constituent National Assembly, which was established unconstitutionally in 2017. Moreover, the law nowhere defines what is meant by war propaganda or inciting of discrimination, violence, or of hatred, therefore expanding its potential to be abused.
Mejia confirmed that the “the law was imposed illegally” and has since been used as an “instrument against anyone with a dissident opinion of the government and predominantly to facilitate censorship and self-censorship. It extends the stifling of the independent press to social networks, as well as news-sites and newspapers.”
“This pattern of silencing the media through the use of legal instruments is not new, however,” Mejia pointed out. “IPYS data shows that through the use of the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio, Television, and Electronics, the government has successfully censored over 100 national radio and television stations, infringing on national and international conventions.”
Chirinos noted that as of 2005, the use of penal mechanisms, including charges of defamation or slander, to keep journalists in check has become increasingly popular with the government.
INTIMIDATION AND SELF-CENSORSHIP
This paradigm of legally harassing and punishing independent journalists for their work has led to critical material, especially political topics, being self-censored by journalists who fear ensuing consequences, Chirinos said.
Reprisals for journalistic work in Venezuela have proven fatal in the past. Just last month two journalists were fatally shot by agents of the Special Actions Forces of the Bolivarian National Police of Venezuela (FAES), in the radio station where they worked.
Furthermore, acts of intimidation against journalists are regularly carried out by State Security Forces. “These agents are the ones who most impede informative journalistic coverage, through physical and verbal aggressions, blocking access to key places, or through arbitrary detentions” Mejia said. “As of July 2020, we’ve counted 230 attacks against journalists and media workers, 43 attempts to limit access to public information, and 20 acts of legal or administrative harassment, among others.”
As a result, there are more journalists every day who choose to remain silent on relevant topics, for fear of reprisal.
Mejia concluded: “Faced with the possibility of being followed, detained, and charged with a crime, journalists now prefer to abstain from sharing content that may be used against them and their families”.