Recent campaigns of harassment, stigmatization, and repression against the media in Venezuela constitute a clear attack against Venezuelan’s freedom of expression and access to information, which may be part of a broader campaign against civil society in the country, through which the government undermines the work that the media carry out in defense of human rights.
In 2019, after years of economic decay, food and drug shortages; violent political unrest, corruption, and mass emigration led to an inflection point. Juan Guaidó, head of the country’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared President Nicolás Maduro’s government illegitimate and promoted himself as the president.
The United States, along with Colombia, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Paraguay, Canada, and the United Kingdom were all quick to back Guaidó. Cuba, Bolivia, Russia, Turkey, and China, however, continued to support Maduro.
What was important about this, however, was that it further exacerbated the Venezuelan war on the press.
In 2018, Venezuela was placed 143rd out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. But, this is not surprising. Since 2002, when private media outlets backed a coup against President Hugo Chávez (the attempt failed; and Maduro – Chavez’s chosen successor – took office upon his death.) the Venezuelan government has inhibited freedom of speech and of the press.
This includes a 2017 law and new government proposal, criminalizing the promotion of “fascism, intolerance, or hate,” on social media, all of which would further state control of the internet.
Moreover, the government frequently discredits negative reporting as propaganda, invented by hostile world media, pushing counter-narratives that deny the existence of many of the country’s conflicts, crises, and problems.
Because of this, much of Venezuela’s independent press has disappeared. The state has actively shut down media outlets. According to the country’s press institute, the regime closed 40 radio stations in 2017, while the country’s recession has forced many others to close as well. Similarly, a report conducted by Reuters found that, since 2013, three-quarters of the country’s newspapers had been forced to end.
In December of 2019, El Nacional, Venezuela’s last nationally circulated anti-government newspaper, went out of print, blaming the government for restricting the supply of newsprint and ink. This newspaper vowed to continue to publish its reports online, but web-based outlets in Venezuela have long reported in ternet blockages.
As well as the government blocking the media’s attempts to publish news, physical threats targeted to journalists have also intensified. According to Venezuela’s National Press Workers’ Union, the first four months of 2017, brought more than 200 attacks on reporters.
That same summer, civil unrest escalated, and four journalists were detained by state authorities. This violence and harassment have driven many Venezuelan journalists, including Elyangélica González, established radio reporter, to even flee the country. Many journalists like González, left after exposing widespread corruption, in fear of legal threats, however, they continue to report from neighboring countries, such as Colombia.
Although Venezuelan journalists and media outlets have suffered the most, the country has become a hostile environment for foreign reporters as well. In 2017, the government barred a journalist representing The Times newspaper, from re-entering the country after they left to take a vacation. A German freelance journalist was reportedly imprisoned in Venezuela on charges including espionage and rebellion.
Since January 6, 2021, independent media organizations, such as Efecto Cocuyo and El Pitazo have been accused, first by pro-government media and later by Venezuelan authorities—including Maduro himself—of advancing foreign “interference” efforts in exchange for international cooperation.
Similarly, two days later on January 8, a daily newspaper, Panorama, announced on social media that its operations had been closed for five days by the National Integrated Service for the Administration of Customs Duties and Taxes (SENIAT,) on the grounds of “incompliance with formal duties and tax obligations.” The media organization complied with this order to close.
Other media groups faced similar attacks by unknown actors during this time, with many staff experiencing difficulties accessing their own web pages.
As seen, Maduro and his government frequently use public accusations and other forms of harassment to attempt to silence and intimidate those who criticize the government, express ideas contrary to its policies, or denounce human rights violations – all of which undermine the right to freedom of expression.
These patterns of harassment amount to serious attacks against the freedom, integrity, and judicial guarantees of the human rights of journalists and defenders. According to High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, “journalists and human rights defenders, critical of the government, continue to face intimidation and public defamation,” all of which restrict their freedom of expression.
Human rights violations occur in a systematic and widespread manner in Venezuela, and authorities have the responsibility to prevent such harassment, intimidation, and attacks, especially under international law.