Information becoming toughest commodity to get in Venezuela

With their country’s economy in crisis, Venezuelans are facing shortages of just about everything – milk, flour, toilet paper, cooking oil–and information.

The Venezuelan government’s “communications hegemony is silencing the media and journalists,” said Sergio Dahbar, the former editor of the Caracas newspaper El Nacional and an investigative journalist and book publisher.

Dahbar was in Washington the week of October 27, along with his compatriot, Marianela Balbi of the Institute for Press and Society-Venezuela (IPYS in its Spanish initials), to call attention to the rapidly closing space for independent news media in Venezuela. Their visit was timed to coincide with a hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on freedom of expression.

Leading news organizations such as the television broadcaster Globovision and the newspaper El Universal have been sold, without much transparency about who the new owners are. “In Venezuela it is unknown who the proprietors of the media are,” Dahbar said during one of several meetings and discussions during his visit.

Reporters have lost their jobs. Newsprint shortages have caused papers to reduce their page count drastically. Entire areas of coverage have been placed off limits by the governments, and media managers are starting to censor their own reporters by omitting coverage of sensitive subjects.

In a survey of 225 Venezuelan journalists that IPYS-Venezuela conducted earlier this year, 34 percent said that most of the direct censorship comes from  the executive branch of government, 17 percent said the judiciary, and 14 percent pointed to the legislative branch. A large majority of the journalists–79 percent– said they had experienced impediments to access to information by government institutions.

From slide presentation by Marianela Balbi of the Institute for Press and Society-Venezuela.

From slide presentation by Marianela Balbi of the Institute for Press and Society-Venezuela.

Balbi cited the example of a radio station whose niche is traffic coverage, specifically of a main highway that links two parts of the country. If the road is closed by a protest, the station cannot report the cause, as that would be considered political coverage. “What [is it] supposed to report about why the highway is closed?” Balbi asked.

Six Twitter users are currently in jail for their tweets including one who commented on the death of a legislator.

“To inform is to be a terrorist” in the eyes of the Venezuelan government, Dahbar said.

Dahbar is trying to combat government pressure on the media by publishing books, which so far have faced fewer restrictions than news media. But, he pointed out, in a country of 30 million people, a press run of 20,000 books–which would be huge–can’t make much of a difference. And book publishing, too, is facing a paper shortage.

The one bright spot, Dahbar said, is online investigative journalism. But even this is in a precarious position as 90 percent of Venezuela’s Internet traffic passes through a single, state-owned Internet service provider.

A questioner at one of the events asked what foreigners could do to help. While foreign journalists have come to Venezuela to help with training in areas such as data journalism, Dahbar said, Venezuelans will have to solve this for themselves. “We’re not expecting someone to come and save us.”

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