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Venezuela’s journalists migrate online to escape government censorship

State secrecy and economic pressure is inspiring a rise in independent digital media outlets

Journalists protesting in Caracas on February 11.
Journalists protesting in Caracas on February 11. C. HERNÁNDEZ (DEMOTIX)

Since the Venezuelan government started imposing censorship and corrupt magnates began buying out traditional media outlets, the country’s journalists have been fleeing to the internet. Over the last year, the global media crisis; the government’s economic and political pressure on the free press; and the acquisition of television stations, radio networks and newspapers by entities with ties to the Chavist regime have led to the rise of new digital media outlets that provide the kind of news the local press and television stations no longer carry.

The government has insisted on hiding information that should have been made public. Hugo Chávez’s illness is the most prominent example of this trend, marking the beginning of the migration of readers from traditional sources to online media. The former president was diagnosed with cancer in June 2011 and died in March 2013. Yet neither Chávez nor his ministers, who were worried about the upcoming elections in October 2012, gave any official account on the type or stage of his cancer, his chances of survival, or who the doctors treating him were.

The journalist Nelson Bocaranda was the first to break the news of Chávez’s illness and the only one who had first-hand knowledge of the treatments and surgeries the president underwent. Bocaranda published the information on his then eight-month-old website Runrun.es. But the government soon piled on the pressure and his radio program was cancelled. Since then his website’s traffic has grown by 20 percent each month. “Every day more and more Venezuelans go to social media platforms and websites to find the news that traditional media do not carry out of fear or because of government censorship or self-censorship,” Bocaranda says. “We are right on top of that information and we have focused on investigation much more than other digital media.”

The hiding of Hugo Chávez’s illness marked the start of the migration from traditional sources to online media

Two of Venezuela’s best investigative journalists, Tamoa Calzadilla y Lisseth Boon, joined Runrun this month. Both worked on the investigative team of Cadena Capriles, the media group that owns the country’s biggest-selling newspaper, Últimas Noticias. In May 2013, a group of anonymous businessmen with ties to the government bought Últimas Noticias and both journalists resigned after the regime began to censor their reports. The last one that was published intact revealed how police officers had shot at a group of students during the first protest on February 12. Two youths who were at the march died of gunshot wounds. The story won first prize for reporting at the annual Institute of Press and Society (IPYS) contest in Venezuela.

When Chávez first took power in 1998, some Venezuelan newspapers were able to evade, with much effort, the economic and political pressure to which radio stations had succumbed. Radio Caracas Televisión and 34 other stations were shut down between 2007 and 2009. A group of businessmen who owe their financial success to the government bought the news network Globovisión – a company that openly criticized the regime. “The critical moment for the Venezuelan press was when dummy companies and unidentified individuals linked to the regime began using front men to buy up media groups and then put them at the service of the government,” Tamoa Calzadilla says.

To make matters worse, the government refuses to give independent media access to US dollars needed to import paper. All currency exchange has been under strict government control since 2003. Consequently newspapers have slashed their number of pages or stopped distribution. “This media crisis has led to an exploration and we don’t know where it will end,” Calzadilla says. “But the answer seems to be in digital media, at least in the short term. It’s clear that the crisis is in the media outlets and not in the craft or in the journalists themselves who are trying to find new ways to reach audiences, to tell the truth and to keep the same commitment they had when they worked on other platforms.”

This new oligarchy that has flourished under the regime and its system of government contracts has become known as the “bolibourgeoisie”  – as in the Bolivarian bourgeoisie – a term coined by journalist and writer Juan Carlos Zapata in January 2014 on Descifrado.com where he published articles on confidential information leaked to him about the economy. “This year we have seen the emergence of businessmen with ties to the Chavist regime and officials joining big companies, and amassing large fortunes – which we saw coming two years ago when we published the first bolibourgeois list,” Zapata says. On June 2, he also founded Konzapata.com where he “publishes what other media do not publish and analyzes power relationships, scrutinizes them.” Within a month, Konzapata.com had covered the case of Jorge Giordani – the former Chávez economic guru who was recently ousted from the Maduro administration – with the help of a network of informants inside and outside of the government. 

Every day more Venezuelans go to the internet to find the news that traditional media do not carry out of fear or censorship”

Having gone live on May 3, Poderopedia investigates links between people, businesses and organizations and has published over 200 briefs and 35 profiles of influential businessmen, politicians and military officers. Founder César Batiz is a three-time winner of the Ipys national prize for investigative journalism. He makes use of the scarce information available via public records, as well as reports from other media sources. “Every day, there is more and more secrecy in Venezuela,” Batiz says. “We don’t have access to sworn declarations of property ownership or taxes, which are public in other countries. For example, the national contractor registry does not have records for all public works and government contracts awarded to private companies.”

The last two generations of Venezuelan journalists came of age under this secretive regime. Information that was once public is no longer available and officials do not have to give explanations.

In June 2010 a group of young journalists began Armando.info with some of the best reporting from the first graduating class of investigative journalism students. The information they published was not covered in the local press. The team reported on the unfair terms in the million-dollar contracts between China and Venezuela to build homes or secretly exploit coltan in the Venezuelan Amazon. Emilia Díaz-Struck, one of the journalists on the team, says the greatest challenge was getting funding to keep publishing these kinds of stories. “One of the challenges these media face is the same one that other platforms around the world face,” she says. “How to create a sustainable business model while retaining independence. That’s the key to developing an independent agenda with longevity.”

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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