A Study of Press Freedom in Venezuela

In February of 2014, students took to the streets throughout Venezuela to address grievances with their government. The country had one of the highest murder rates globally, a 50 percent inflation rate, and a lack of critical daily supplies such as toilet paper and milk. Two-and-a-half years later, the country has only devolved into humanitarian crisis.

The country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, carries the mantle of his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, within the United Socialist Party. Once one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America due to their vast amounts of oil, the country’s crippling recession has led to calls from the opposition to restore democracy to the nation.

Since the unrest began, there has been a massive decline in journalists’ rights, resulting in Freedom House labeling Venezuela “Not Free.” There have been five journalists killed in Venezuela since 1992, two of whom have been murdered, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL), has gone after private news media with heavy fines as a means to restrict criticism of the government. In February 2014, the director, William Castillo, made coverage of the protests and unrest unlawful. Any organizations who were found covering the events were to be given sanctions.

Press restrictions only worsened in the following days. Maduro himself threatened to ban CNN from the country, saying that their coverage was “war propaganda.”

CONATEL decided to cut the transmissions of NTN24, a spanish-speaking global news network, after it broadcasted video of a student protester being shot and killed by security forces.

“They removed our cable platforms in Venezuela,” said Gustau Alegret, NTN24’s political correspondent based in Washington, D.C. “It was a clear signal of the sense of democracy of the government if you get my irony.”

This censorship of the news media over the past two and a half years has not softened. In March, the last of the independent newspapers, El Carabobeño printed its last print edition, after they finally ran out of printing paper thanks to the country-wide shortage which has been occurring for over three years now. The government was not supportive of the voice that El Carabobeno had within the community, forcing it to now be a online only platform.

The editor of Correo del Caroní, David Natera Febres, was sentenced to four years in Venezuelan prison for criminal defamation after the critical publication’s investigative journalism into a state sponsored mining company.

Most recently, there were planned protests a month ago on September 1st. The opposition planned a march called “Takeover of Caracas.” The goal was to get Maduro to step down by a recall referendum and hold new elections within the new year.

Maduro’s government has since called this movement on September 1st a “coup,” and the Foreign Ministry refers to this opposition as “the anti-democratic opposition and international right.”

On live television at a public event, Maduro responded to the opposition’s protest, mentioning that the recent events in Turkey are nothing compared to what will happen in Venezuela, “Erdoğan will seem like a nursing baby compared to what the Bolivarian revolution will do if the right wing steps over the line with a coup.”

Despite the threats, Venezuelans calling for change took to the streets dressed in white for the peaceful protest. Reports of how many people were in attendance varies. The opposition counted more than a million people, while the government claimed numbers around 30,000.

Opposition leader Maria Corina Machado took to Twitter, illustrating the power the protest had on bringing vocal change. “Today, on the street, we demonstrate a renewed start of our struggle for rights. The #transition is urgent and inevitable,” Machado posted.

Social media was really the only way for foreign news outlets to find out what went on in Venezuela. Ever since this crisis began it has become harder and harder for journalists to hear from Venezuelans, especially the government.

Although NTN24 still has reporters inside Venezuela, the network was still prevented from covering the most recent protests on September 1st. Alegret said that although they are able to report both political perspectives, the opposition and the government, their relationship with Maduro’s administration is still tense.

“They try to ignore us,” Alegret said regarding Venezuelan government officials. “The management of NTN24 is fully committed with journalism and democracy in Venezuela, and we are going to keep working, broadcasting what is going on there.”

Recent reports indicate that the government detained six opposition leaders in connection with the protest last month on charges of conspiracy.

While tensions remain high between the government and their own people, the lack of transparency and communication that is available between the press and the people has led to greater civil unrest.

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