Report to the Midyear Meeting

Panama, Panama

March 6 – 9, 2015

The governmental communication hegemony is an indisputable fact. There remain few independent media for whom it costs to survive amid an institutional, social and economic deterioration.

The work of the press – seriously harming the demands of democratic life – is becoming impossible. Almost non-existent is access to information in the hands of the government, as it is reduced to what is declared without questioning, verification or checking by officials of the regime. Prior censorship, whether through the respective legislation of control of contents in force or the most recent and disgraceful acquisition of social news media until yesterday independent, apparently private and hidden following pacts of confidentiality, subdues editorial stances. Criminalized and subject to being taken to court is every form of dissident social and political expression, whether by journalists, neighborhood leaders, students or politicians. The official evangelistic propaganda captures the key hours of radio and television programming, generates through repeated official or presidential networks an effect of informational blackout.

The few independent media that remain are victims of the adverse economic environment caused by the government of Nicolás Maduro.

In 2014 inflation rose to 65%, making it one of the highest in the world. Added to that is the fall in revenue, a debt of $147 billion, the lack of foreign exchange and the devaluation of the currency by 3.823%.

In a communiqué signed by noted economists it is said that "chronic shortage at the national level and the scarcity of goods and supplies of all kinds along with a contraction of the economy and loss of jobs are part of the serious consequences that Venezuelans are facing since last year." This also affects the written press, radio and television and their sources of work.

In 2014 there were registered 24,890 murders, a rate of 82 violent deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants, the second highest in the world.

Maduro's government indiscriminately suppresses all dissidence of opinion or protest and also sends to prison, along with politicians or opinion-voicers, those who produce some assets. There is the presence of an economic and media war following the queues that Venezuelans line up in at the doors of the markets and pharmacies affected by rationing.

Three former Latin American former presidents declared that they received news of the existence of "tombs" or homes constructed underground at very low temperatures in political police quarters, designed for the torture of prisoners of conscience, protesting students or those jailed for being capitalists.

A part of the opposition made public a document titled Acuerdo Nacional (National Agreement) in which the country and the regime were invited to move towards a different stage that considers in-depth social and institutional corrections. Signing the document, published in the newspaper El Nacional, were political prisoner Leopoldo López, María Corina Machado and Caracas metropolitan mayor Antonio Ledezma.

On February 20 while President Maduro was speaking on the radio and television strongly armed and hooded officials, without having prior investigation or court order, kidnapped Ledezma, who is the most important and popularly elected government authority in the capital. Maduro made the announcement, arguing that the reason he gave the order to the Attorney General's Office against Ledezma was because he had signed and made public the National Agreement for Transition Towards Democracy. He judged it to be an attempt to destabilize his government.

Similarly, Congress Speaker Dosdado Cabello moved to deprive of privilege – as he had done with María Corina Machado – Congressman Julio Andrés Borges, the leading party authority of the opposition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Democratic Union Table).

The censorship of all that, except what runs through social media while servers operate under government control and what the international press say, have been constant. The government seeks to set up a wall of silence under fear and threats, while a Navy officer, who was the Chief of Security of late President Hugo Chávez, accused the authorities of the Executive Branch and Congress of having usurped power and being in collusion with drug traffickers.

Between October and December 2014 there were recorded 42 cases of restriction of freedom of expression. Of these 31.26% were threats and intimidations and 25% acts of censorship. And as regards the victims they are not only journalists but every dissident person, human rights defenders, authors and political activists.

The year 2014 closed with 64 political prisoners, among them 20 students charged with taking part in public protests. The year 2015 opened with 40 people detained for protesting and reporting on a demonstration or being near one. The majority of them were released. Two of the victims were tortured with electricity, NGOs reported.

There are two kinds of censorship of information – prohibition of access to official information imposed by government officials or heads of supposedly independent media, and the recent purchase by anonymous shareholders.

On December 2 the Constitutional Tribunal of the Supreme Court denied the request for access to information by the Ombudsman's office on the state of sexual and reproductive health in the country, requested by the NGO Espacio Público (Public Space) and human rights organizations Provea and Acción Solidaria. The Tribunal declared in regard to another Espacio Público petition that information concerning telecommunications is a state secret.

Cencoez, a government body responsible for provision of foreign exchange, similarly has denied providing information to the media about the availability of this. It denied El Nacional information on the use of foreign exchange between July and October 2014.

In February student demonstrators had their mobile phone and Internet service cut off for many hours. Conatel in December prohibited the Senos Ayuda Civil Association from carrying out a television campaign to give the numbers of people who had died from cancer.

The censorship by the "new" and unknown owners of recently acquired media have in common the reduction of space for denunciations, not reporting on political leaders, and the suspension of columnists, changes in headlines and modifications of news reports.

On January 14 journalists with the El Universal newsroom complained that the newspaper print and online editions were censored following a press conference given by presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, Miranda state governor.

The same thing occurred after the visit of former presidents of Chile, Mexico and Colombia. El Universal reporter Reyes Theis complained of censorship ordered by that newspaper's president, Jesús Abreu Anselmi, of statements made by Andrés Pastrana who said that "the political prisoner status of Leopoldo López was confirmed."

Journalists Roberto Deniz and Carmen Rosa Gómez complained of pressures they had received at El Universal and they resigned.

Radio station FM Center fired reporter Ingrid Bravo Balabú. Its executives argued that she was not giving balanced reports on actions by the opposition.

Other main events in this period:

On February 27 the daly newspaper Tal Cual, headed by Teodoro Petkoff, ceased circulating, turning itself into a weekly, over newsprint problems and pressured by seven lawsuits made against it be people in the regime.

On February 6 the government, through Conatel, decided not to renew the operating license of Radio Infanta 90.9 FM in Barinas, a critic of the regime.

On January 26 the Bolivarian National Police seized the photos of news photographers María Gabriela López and Alex Delgado of El Propio and El Nacional after covering a police operation and threatened them with burning their equipment.

On December 14 the newspaper El Guayanés ceased publishing when its newsprint supplies ran out. Its digital version shut down on January 1 after its operation was declared financially unsustainable.

The program "Actualidad Informativa" (Current News) moderated by journalist Héctor Caldera and aired by 92.7 FM radio in Monagas was taken off theair in the middle of its broadcast.

In December unidentified persons hurled two fragmentary grenades at the offices of the regional newspaper El Siglo in Aragua state.

On November 24 journalists Edison Durán and Abraham Palencia of the newspapers El Impulso and La Prensa, together with Tomás Gaona of Promar Televisión, after covering a prison riot at the Uribana, Lara state, Penitentiary had their equipment seized under the threat of being made to disappear and killed by officers of the Bolivarian National Guard.

In November President Maduro accused Televen of broadcasting a program disrespectful of women and promoting immorality. He labeled journalist Alberto Federico Ravell "garbage, a coward." The Conatel director general accused independent media of being part of an "aggressive army." Cabello accused journalist Laura Weffer of being a conspirator.

The persecution extends to social media. Seven tweeters (Lessy Marcano, Ginette Hernández, Inés Margarita González Árraga, Víctor Andrés Ugas, Danieli Benítez, Leonel Sánchez Camero, Abraham David Muñoz Merchan) have been the object of detention and criminal charges at Cabello's request for expressing disagreeable and strong opinions or publishing photos of the murder of governing party Congressman Robert Serra.

The chair of the Assembly Media Committee, governing party Congresswoman Blanca Eekhout, announced a criminal investigation of Tal Cual for reproducing an article from a U.S. newspaper concerning the Robert Serra murder.

Cabello announced that he would be filing lawsuits against the Spanish newspaper ABC and the local papers El Nacional and Tal Cual and the portal La Patilla for having repeated the statement of a Navy officer, security chief of the late President Hugo Chávez and the same of Cabello, who accused him of being the visible head of Los Soles cartel, alleged drug trafficking organization made up of members of the Venezuelan military.

In February Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez threatened to take legal action against international media for making Venezuela look like a failed state. She accused ABC and its correspondent Ludmila Vinogradoff of manipulating the news.

Since February 10 Cabello has been hosting and moderating a program "Con el mazo dando" (Banging with the gavel) on state television VTV. In that program he derides ethical rules. He enjoys the privilege denied to all journalists of having a constitutional protection of inviolability for his opinions and reports and the protection reserved for all senior officials.

Supported by evident sources of governmental intelligence – spies he identifies in this program under the name of "voluntary patriots" – and without verification as to their trustworthiness he discloses and reports on supposed facts of the private life of each opponent or businessman or journalist who bothers the government. He even publishes illegal recordings in order to discredit those he regards as enemies of the revolution.

In the conclusions of the United Nations Committee Against Torture of November 28 there is declared "deep concern at the reports that speak of public disqualifications ... on the part of the Chairman of the National Assembly, quoting reports by 'voluntary patriots'."

In this context on January 14 Cabello accused journalist Mónica Villamizar of being an American spy.

On February 13 Cabello railed against journalist Mariengracia Chirinos and other human rights activists, accusing them of being the authors of a report about his television program that they would take to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.