Report to the 70th General Assembly

Santiago, Chile

October 17 – 21, 2014

The situation of deterioration of democracy and its destructive effects on freedom of the press continues to worsen.

In the last six months there have been produced a large number of public protests and demonstrations, in the course of which many citizens, mostly young students and journalists, were arrested, threatened, some tortured and others put on trial. Press workers have had their equipment confiscated, their work restricted or impeded, while others had their photos deleted by police officers or members of the military, or in their defect by so-called "peoples collectives," armed civil groups ideologically identified with the government.

The printed press is facing another serious threat to its survival due to the shortage of newsprint and other essential supplies, a limitation that is causing the gradual shutdown of independent media or reduction of the numbers of pages to an historic low number. The government has denied or held in limbo, for 18 months now, the transfer of foreign exchange to suppliers of newsprint and other goods.

More than 30 print media are suffering the newsprint shortage and at least 12 have temporarily or permanently ceased circulating. The newspaper Tal Cual announced that it will cease publishing on October 22 due to lack of newsprint and suffering all kinds of harassments, including judicial ones. This brings as a consequence the loss of lines of credit and the impossibility of ensuring imports of all kinds, in a country where everything is in short supply, nothing is produced and almost everything that is consumed is imported.

Currently there are three kinds of legal money exchange and a fourth one, the parallel black market or "unnamable" one, given that while it may exist and is a breeding ground for corruption, the government prohibits referring to that fourth kind of foreign exchange, under penalty of being accused of conspiracy. In this regard the governmental discretion at the time of applying its decisions on the grant of the three kinds of foreign exchange mentioned is what has become the norm, so there exists a notorious discrimination of rights.

The government created the Alfredo Maneiro Editorial Corporation (CEAM), a dependency of the Presidency, which is in charge of processing imports of newsprint and then reselling, always at its discretion, the amounts required by the print media.

On August 12 the National Assembly approved an additional credit for CEAM and authorized an investment of almost two million dollars to complete "the construction, adjustment and equipping of the infrastructure" of that editorial body.

The secretary of the National Press Workers Union (SNTP), Marco Ruiz, has declared concerning this that the centralization of imports of newsprint through one sole dependency of the Presidency signifies a means of "institutionalizing government control of the press," meaning that in its hands is the survival or disappearance of the print media.

Ruiz recalled that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has said that the limitations of acquiring newsprint are a violation of freedom of expression and of information.

Miguel Henrique Otero, president and editor of the newspaper El Nacional, has regretted the difficulties that publishers and editors have had to put up with and complained that they are being exposed to "a disqualification" of which it is possible to defend oneself. "They implicate us in assassinations and terrorism in order to sow fear and to delegitimize us," he declares. He also complains of a constant "administrative and economic pressure" as those in power "use the Seniat (a tax collection agency) to examine us and our media." That apart from the lack of security to which "we are subjected in order to get us to leave the country."

For the third time this year the Barquisimeto newspaper El Impulso, in existence for 110 years, was just hours away from halting its circulation due to a lack of newsprint. On the two previous occasions newsprint was provided to prevent that, timely loans being made by the Colombian Newspaper and Media Editors and Publishers Association (Andarios). On the third occasion an "in extremis" negotiation was achieved with the Venezuelan state company Corporación Maneiro.

Between September 2013 and September 2014 several newspapers ceased publishing, among them Diario de Sucre (Sucre state), Antorcha (Anzoátegui state), El Expreso and El Guayanés (Bolívar state), Revista M, Primera Hora, free of charge and belonging to the El Nacional C.A. publishing company (Caracas metropolitan area).

Another four have temporarily suspended their operations – the newspaper Versión Final (Zulia state), De Frente (Barinas) and El Sol de Maturín and the magazine Revista Etcétera, published by the newspaper La Prensa (Monagas).

Also suspended were the supplements Eva's and Chamo's of the newspaper El Siglo (Aragua state) and Papel Literario of El Nacional.

Some 34 newspapers and magazines in 11 states have expressed difficulties in maintaining their operations and have been obliged to reduce the number of pages or cease circulating at weekends.

Among them Correo del Caroní, Bolívar state, does not publish at weekends, Notidiario reduced its pages from 28 to 24 and the weekly San Félix is coming out with only 16 pages. In Aragua El Siglo is published in two sections and El Periodiquito went down from 40 to 24 pages. In Trujillo Los Andes reduced from 32 to 24 pages, in Táchira La Nación dropped from 36 to 16 pages, in Falcón La Mañana reduced from 42 to 32 pages, and Diario Nuevo Día also reduced its pages. In Caracas the publication El Propio and the magazine SIC of the Gumilla Center of the Company of Jesus also has reported difficulties.

In addition to the problems of the printed press journalists are suffering a climate of growing insecurity. As an example one needs to refer to February. Groups of students held protests throughout the country in a peaceful manner. However, they were repelled by soldiers with the use of weapons and banned toxic substances, by police officers belonging to the Interior Ministry and by the above-mentioned armed "collectives." The outcome: 31 people killed and at least 40 documented cases of torture, some of which were denounced to international bodies. More than 2,000 young people were jailed and subjected to legal action. Dozens of them for being locked up lost their respective semesters at the universities.

Lately, as a demonstration of the bursting forth of violence and social tension, there was in evidence a loss of control of the previously mentioned "collectives." Downtown Caracas was the scene of a prolonged and intense armed confrontation between police forces, with helicopters and snipers, against semi-official groups close to the government, resulting in another five deaths and an unknown number of injuries.

In almost all these events the government was not transparent. Security forces have impeded the work of journalists, while the state-owned media and those privately-owned in complicity with the government have kept silent.

To all this one has to add that there continues to be government control of all radio and television frequencies, a trend that now is being extended to social media.

In April there became aware a change in ownership and in the editorial stance of El Universal. The transfer of ownership (despite the fact that the law requires that the identity of shareholders of any company must be of public knowledge) continues without transparency. What is clear is the notorious change in the editorial stance, in the list of article writers and the withdrawal of journalists, especially those that have maintained a critical position in the face of government attacks on freedom of expression. The anchor cartoonist of that newspaper, Rayma Suprani, was fired after she presented a piece referring to the dramatic health crisis.

Self-censorship has shown an unanticipated growth due to the context of violence and criminal law cases, bans on leaving the country, defamation campaigns or the loss of broadcast licenses in the case of radio and television. There have even been court cases with anonymous accusers, called "Patriot Volunteers." This despite the fact that the Attorney General reported that an accuser must be duly identified in such cases.

Shut down were innumerable Web sites and Twitter accounts. The control agencies argued that they had transmitted reports, formed opinions or disseminated news harmful to the revolution. That is enough to brand one responsible as "a traitor to the fatherland." Usual is the "checking" of the personal accounts of the e-mails of journalists and people who have become publicly known. Those private contents are exhibited by official spokespersons through the powerful communication platform, without the possibility of response, a practice that is against the law and violates constitutional rights.

On the national radio and television network on September 18 President Maduro threatened 11 national and international media with initiating legal action for promoting psychological terrorism against the health system regarding an outbreak of illnesses that caused the death of several people. Maduro accused of promoting a psychological war and campaign of disinformation and terrorism the international media BBC Mundo, CNN, Voice of America, Notirápida, El Nuevo Herald and ABC, national media El Carabobeño, El Nacional, El Nuevo País and the Web site La Patilla, and opposition leader María Corina Machado over her messages on Twitter.

The international news channel NTN24 reported that on September 16, without any prior notice, its Web site was blocked inside Venezuela. In February the television signal had been withdrawn from the programming schedule of all the cable operators working in the country on the direct orders of President Maduro.

NTN24 was able to establish that the blockage was initiated inside the network of the state-owned telecommunications company CANTV and was spread to other operators. The government, through telecommunications regulatory agency Conatel, is the only one that can manipulate the infrastructure of connectivity and bring about this kind of censorship.

The grant or renewal of electronic media operating licenses has become a bureaucratic, slow and complex process of numerous requirements, controls and procedures. This has led to the fact that many broadcasters do not have operating permits, while the lack of documentation is used by Conatel as a means of applying pressure.

Radio stations have also been the target of "summary administrative sanctioning procedures" and of criticism of their news content. Administrative action was begun against two opinion programs of the Radio Caracas station Radio RCR-750 AM and they were prohibited from being broadcast.

On August 19 Conatel ordered the shutdown of radio Sensacional FM 94.7 in Barinas for alleged "expiration of the concession." The station, which had been on the air for 22 years, said that it was complying with all its legal and tax responsibilities.