After a very intense electoral campaign, in which attacks against the media and journalists intensified, the presidential elections took place in a civil manner on October 7. With a massive turnout of more than 80% of the electorate, more than fifteen million people voted, reelecting Hugo Chavez Frias by 55% for another six year term from 2013 to 2019. The result was recognized by the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, who achieved 44% of the votes and discarded the possibility of fraud. After the elections, on October 8, President Chávez and Capriles Radonski held a telephone conversation about unity and respect.
What the country is going through as a consequence of the high level of political polarization is a threat to the free practice of journalism. The intolerance reaches extreme levels – the accusations, attacks and the facts demonstrate that.
The intransigence has come to such a point that every week there are reports of mistreatment, attacks, detentions, indignities, insults, seizure of equipment and violations of fundamental rights. According to Carlos Correa, head of the NGO Espacio Público, an organization investigating these kinds of actions, every week reported an average of 4.3 denunciations of violations of freedom of expression.
The president of the National Journalists Guild, Silvia Alegret, reported in May to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) 213 free speech violations.
The kinds of denunciations or patterns of violations recorded by Espacio Público and which coincide with those reported by the National Journalists Guild occurring more often were: Attacks, intimidation and threats.
Several assaults were also reported. Three media outlets in Zulia state in western Venezuela were attacked in the last week of May – the newspaper Qué Pasa, hit by hand grenades, and Catatumbo TV and the newspaper Versión Final had the front of their buildings shot at. No one was injured.
On July 10, a device exploded outside the newspaper La Costa in Carabobo state. On October 5, another device exploded at the building of the newspaper Nuevo Día de Coro in Falcón state.
The Institute of Press and Society (IPYS) said that more than 70% of the aggressions are physical attacks against reporters and their technical equipment.
In a hearing before the IACHR, Marcos Ruiz, secretary general of Venezuela’s National Press Workers Union, said that the largest number of these violations – 28% – are physical attacks, followed by acts of intimidation and censorship; 71% of all the abuses are committed by Venezuelan government officials. Many of them occur during coverage of events unfavorable to the government. “What is worst is that impunity continues to be the rule in these denunciations,” he said.
Faced with the accusations, government representative Luis Brito García has claimed that freedom of expression in Venezuela “is the greatest that exists in any country and if there is censorship and veto these are caused by privately-owned media.”
Media supporting the government have also accused radical sectors of intimidating employees of the National Media System on various occasions.
The spokesman of the NGO Las Misiones sobre Libertad de Prensa” (Press Freedom Missions), Alfredo Bonilla, accused the government of practicing a kind of asphyxia of opposition newspapers through unequal placement of official advertising. Such pressure had become increasingly frequent as the date of presidential elections drew near.
In addition, the airing of certain programs free of charge by all broadcast stations was ordered, something that occurred up to three times a week and has clearly to do with the past electoral context.
Another of the emblematic cases is represented by the payment of a colossal fine of more than nine million bolivars by the privately-owned television channel Globovisión, for having broadcast events that occurred at the El Rodeo prison in June 2011. The fine was changed on June 29 under pressure from the Supreme Court to a new fine of nearly twenty-five million bolivars more for delay in payment.
The channel’s vice president said on that occasion that “we were obliged to pay it because the Supreme Court’s Administrative Political Tribunal, without all the appeals having been finalized, issued a seizure order of almost three times the fine that Conatel had ordered us to pay.”
The National Journalists Guild, on the occasion of celebration on May 3 of World Press Freedom Day, pointed out in a press release the impossibility of accessing public information. This comes about with corruption scandals, the coverage of prison riots, and even in the day-to-day lack of security, keeping the Venezuelan people in a state of uneasiness, because for years now the official figures on murders, robberies, rapes, larceny, and abductions are zero or are said not to exist.
These restrictions are worsened when many of the public institutions fail to respond to requests for information from the media. In the majority of cases official announcements are made, leaving doubts that are never clarified among the rest of the journalists. Only the official media and very few of the privately-owned ones have access to press conferences.
Press freedom continues to be seriously threatened, as was reported to the IACHR by the Venezuelan NGO Espacio Público. “With the Law on Civil Responsibility and the Reform of the Penal Code there began a dynamic that led to the closure of RCTV and 34 stations (32 radio and 2 television); television channels such as Globovisión are besieged with multi-million-dollar fines, and independent journalists and media owners are pursued in the courts, forcing them to go into exile, among them the publisher El Nuevo País and Zeta magazine, Rafael Poleo, his daughter Patricia, and Globovisión president Guillermo Zuloaga.
A ban imposed in August 2010 continues against El Nacional on publication of photos showing violence. A similar action was taken against the newspaper La Prensa de Barinas in December 2011.
The main developments in this period:
On March 29, Conatel shut down broadcast stations located in Miranda state. The government set up mechanisms of control of media in opposition states. Technology was installed for the observation and monitoring of over-the-air signals in Táchira, Lara, Nueva Esparta and Zulia states.
On April 11, a court fined the newspapers La Prensa de Barinas the equivalent of 1% of its 2010 gross revenue for having published photographs that it considered to be a violation of the Organic Law on Child Protection. Other media were not fined despite having published the same photos.
On April 12, a report by the Press and Society Institute said that judges and public prosecutors are those who most attack freedom of expression.
On April 26, Conatel did not approve an application for RCTV to operate, refusing to accept documentation for the television channel to transmit by cable.
On May 1, Globovisión microwave transmissions were removed on the express orders of the prison services minister when they were used to report on a prison riot.
May 9, journalists in Barinas state complained that the governor had ordered the shutdown of two programs aired by Radio Sensacional.
On May 10, the editor of La Prensa newspaper complained of coercion and pressure being applied by the Ombudsman’s Office and Regional Information Office against that media outlet.
That same day, the Public Prosecutor’s Office investigated an attack on the reporting team of Venezolana de Televisión in Barinas. The incident occurred in the town of Pedraza while a political meeting was under way.
On May 14, reporters, photographers and management and labor staff of the newspaper Notitarde staged a protest in demand for respect on the part of sectors supporting the government for the work they had been carrying out in central Venezuela for 35 years.
On May 17, officers of the Caracas police force Policaracas attempted to detain a reporter from the newspaper El Nuevo País.
On May 18, the Democratic Unity Roundtable said that the government is seeking to censor digital media and complained of abuse by CANTV in blocking news websites.
That same day, the Supreme Court overturned a ruling that exonerated El Nacional and ordered the corresponding judge to issue a new ruling.
On May 23, the National Assembly urged political groups that supported the opposition candidacy to observe the rules of participatory democracy and respect the work of journalists of the National Public Media System (Snmp) who cover the campaigns.
On June 3, an El Nacional news photographer was threatened with arrest by Scientific and Criminal Investigative Police (CICP) officers.
On June 4, protection was given to the newsgathering team of El Universal. Reporter María Isolett Iglesias received a note that warned her that people responsible for covering prison matters could be mugged.
On June 29, it was reported that the National Electoral Council would keep an eye on the media. It said no press entity, public or private, radio, television or print, would be able to refuse to disseminate electoral propaganda and would be required to maintain a balance in regard to advertising time and space. Fines range from 5,000 to 7,000 tax unit amounts.
On July 3, the ambassador from Venezuela to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, attacked the private press during a meeting with civil organizations in Tiquipaya, in the center of Bolivia, in the reception area of the 42nd Assembly of the Organization of American States. “The media dictatorship imposes censorship and makes political debate more difficult,” claimed Chaderton in the Bolivian town.
That same day a news photographer with El Nacional was threatened with being arrested by two officers of the investigative police force (CICPC) when he was covering a news story.
On July 10, a reporting team from Televén television channel was shot at from the roof of the Sabaneta National Prison in Zulia state. The action was believed to have been taken because of discontent of the prisoners about information circulating in the country’s news media. Fortunately, no one was injured.
On July 11, Conatel suspended radio station FM de Tucupita in Delta Amacuro and confiscated its equipment. People went to the streets to protest the action and were put down by the National Guard.
On July 30, Globovisión contested a ban on its microwave-transmitted reports to the National Electoral Council, which had ordered suspension of transmission of two such reports produced by the NGO Ciudadanía Activa that are part of the series titled “Ventajismo Electoral” (Electoral Opportunism).
On August 2, the National Electoral Council opened investigations into four media for alleged excesses in election advertising.
On August 11, journalists with Televén television channel complained to the National Journalists Guild that they were attacked by officers of the San Francisco, Zulia state, police force. They were beaten and their photographic equipment was seized when they were covering the eviction of people illegally occupying a piece of land.
On August 15, three reporters and a photographer were detained after covering an oil spill in the town of Freites, Anzoátegui state. Bolivarian Army officers and officials of the Department of Prevention and Control of Losses (PCP) intercepted the journalists’ vehicle and ordered them to go to the nearest police station, where they were held for an hour and a half.
On August 27, El Nuevo País and Zeta magazine received phone calls in which they were threatened with having their buildings set on fire.
On September 2, an Últimas Noticias reporting team was caught in the crossfire of a shootout while covering an election drill in the El Valle neighborhood of Caracas.
On September 12, soldiers verbally and physically attacked two reporters from the newspaper El Impulso in Barquisimeto, Lara state, while they were covering the stoppage of food trucks during an event being held by the opposition governor.
That same day, a group of people wearing “red shirts” beat up an Agence France Presse (AFP) photographer as they were waiting at the airport for the arrival of former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonsky.
On September 13, two alternative journalists with the online media El Quinto Motor (The Fifth Motor) reported on physical and verbal attacks and the seizure a camera, radio receiver, and a microphone while they were waiting for the arrival of the former opposition presidential candidate to a meeting in Cabimas, Zulia state.
On September 18, the technical equipment of Globovisión in Carabaobo state was seized during coverage of a student protest in Viaducto de la Cabrera.
On September 25, the spokesman of Voluntad Popular, Carlos Vecchio, reported that the President had made twenty-seven broadcast addresses in his campaign, totaling more than forty-three hours, that is 2,597 minutes, which signified that he had used that mechanism four times more than in his 2006 campaign.
On October 5, an explosive device was thrown against the headquarters of the newspaper Nuevo Día. Laura Arismendi, editor of the newspaper, reported that no worker was hurt.
On October 8, Argentine journalist Jorge Lanata was detained at Maiquetía airport by members of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), who confiscated his journalistic material and accused him of spying. “They erased all our material,” he declared. The security personnel kept his luggage and the passports belonging to him and Nicolás Wiñazki (a reporter with the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarín) and they were both released and continued their journey to their country, but with delay.