The attacks on freedom of speech and mass media date back to Hugo Chávez’s regime, which attempted to dismantle the industry and discredit information that was critical of the government, forcing media outlets to shut down, and persecuting journalists with false accusations. Under Nicolás Maduro’s regime, attacks on press freedom have increased with more intimidation, physical threats, and digital media censorship.
“The first enemy to confront Hugo Chávez was the press,” Patricia Poleo, a Venezuelan journalist exiled in the United States and former associate director of the Venezuelan newspaper El País, told Diálogo. “It was neither the business sector, nor the artistic sector; it was the press that revealed ties between the government and Colombian guerrillas, for example […].”
According to the Venezuelan Press and Society Institute (IPYSve, in Spanish), more than 60 print newspapers have gone out of circulation since 2013, representing three quarters of the country’s newspapers. In 2017 alone, the regime closed 40 radio stations, IPYSve indicated. IPYSve estimates that only about 10 states have a media outlet, and four were left without any print media at all.
In December 2018, the newspaper El Nacional, a pioneering newspaper in Venezuela created in 1943, stopped its print circulation and blamed the regime for restricting the supply of printing paper. Hyperinflation, the economic crisis, and government control have also contributed to the disappearance of media outlets.
“It’s obvious that, like any dictatorship, any dictatorial regime, they [members of the regime] see freedom of information and freedom of the press as two very inconvenient factors, which have to be eliminated at any cost,” Sonia Osorio, president of the Miami-based Association of Venezuelan Journalists Abroad, told Diálogo. “We’ve seen this with more than 50 shut down print media, with the creation of laws to prevent them from buying press paper by denying access to foreign currency.”
IPYSve determined that between January and June 2019, “at least 99 media outlets had been affected about 142 times by power outages, censorship and self-censorship, organized crime, [and the lack of] fuel, and transport.” According to Lisbeth De Cambra, former secretary general of Venezuela’s National College of Journalists, Caracas office (2012-2018), journalists reported 154 attacks in the first months of 2019.
The journalist told Diálogo that in addition to these, “67 press workers were detained illegally, including 37 reporters and journalists, as well as cameramen, technicians, and news anchors, and four photojournalists, among others.”
Harassment, violence, and arbitrary detention prompted Venezuelan journalists to flee the country, Osorio said. “More than 1,000 journalists had to leave Venezuela. Some of our colleagues are being persecuted, threatened with prosecution, so they had to leave the country to save their lives,” she said.
Poleo experienced persecution first-hand. In 2004, her security guard, Germán Delgado, was tortured and murdered and she was charged with the death of a prosecutor. She left the country the following year.
“When I arrived in the United States, I said that this was not about Patricia Poleo; this was a State policy […],” Poleo said. “The charges against me served to intimidate other colleagues, and all this stimulates the self-censorship that has served the government well.”