EspañolLast week’s murders of Mónica Spear and Henry Thomas Berry have served as an excuse to strengthen President Nicolás Maduro’s attack on private media, directly affecting citizens’ rights to information and freedom of expression.
As soon as news of the murders came out, Maduro and his government accused private media coverage of distorting the case, of making it look like a “death show” to politicize and demoralize Venezuelans. This is not a new ploy. Maduro — like Hugo Chávez before him — insists on accusing independent media, both national and international, of favoring “bourgeois and anarchist” interests, destabilizing the Bolivarian revolution, and lying.
The impact of the murders on local and foreign media was admittedly overwhelming, escalating into a heated debate on social networks. But media is not responsible for the impact and traction of a story. Media outlets and journalists did their jobs, broadcasting the news and voicing their opinions surrounding such a horrendous crime.
Independent media had a duty to report and comment on the outrage the event evoked among Venezuelans — government supporters and opponents alike. Losing a well-known and loved actress such as Spear served as a reminder of the perpetual fear people experience in this country due to insecurity. In 2013 alone, there were over 24,000 deaths, according to a report from the Venezuelan Observatory for Violence.
Maduro’s government has not been able to minimize the ramifications this crime had; nor has it been successful with silencing debates surrounding the lack of an effective government policy to heighten security.
Instead of resolving the insecurity problem, the Venezuelan president has used the media frenzy as an opportunity to strengthen the already existing and overbearing communication strategy. Maduro intends to create a hegemonic communication system and suffocate any remaining independent media — including social media networks and instant messaging programs — thus, totally overpowering freedom of expression.
This strategy has legal backing, thanks to different plans the regime has developed since 2000. The most recent one, Plan for the Homeland 2013-2019, aims to continue building sovereignty and communication democratization. It seeks to utilize private, public, and community media as “instruments to instill Bolivarian values.”
Other main objectives include consolidating regulatory and social accountability of the media; guaranteeing access to convenient and ethical communication; and creating media for homeland defense, with contents that will emphasize patriotic and socialist values. The document also stresses how important it is to generate new opportunities for popular involvement, such as new media, to consolidate “the hegemony and control of political, social, economic, and cultural orientation of the nation.”
Ever since Maduro rose to power, he has been developing a “socialist” communication policy, including the use of various direct and indirect instruments to restrict freedom of expression and information. In 2013, he created the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Country (CESPPA). For many media specialists, however, the center is an obvious violation of freedom.
Professor Marcelino Bisbal, a journalism professor at the Central University of Venezuela, states that it openly and publicly institutes censorship, pointing to Article 3 of the center’s statute. This article establishes that “CESPPA will request, organize, integrate, and evaluate all information relevant to the Nation’s strategic level . . . coming from all security and intelligence in the State and other public and private entities as the Political-Military Direction of the Bolivarian Revolution will require.”
Going even further, the ninth article enables CESPPA’s president to “declare as withheld, classified, or of limited authorization, any information, fact, or circumstance which comes to his attention while performing his duties.”
Maduro’s government has also implemented a policy of blocking foreign currency purchases for private print media, making it problematic for them to buy paper. This has pushed many private companies to the verge of collapse, whereas government-friendly newspapers have had no problems purchasing paper. The Venezuelan Chamber for Regional Press indicated that 25 newspapers closed last year due to a lack of printing paper.
Currently, most national or regional papers with independent editorial lines have paper inventory for little over a month. As Luisa Torrealba, general coordinator for the Institute of Press and Society, said, “the many obstacles for currency purchases and the appearance of new requirements affect both the media and the audiences. Information has been reduced for readers because some small newspapers have stopped circulation, while others are drastically reducing their pages.”
Furthermore, many courts controlled by party loyalists are ruling against independent media. They are setting fines impossible to pay, and they are banning or censoring publications from running stories on specific topics. The government has also installed online firewalls, blocking several websites from being viewed as a result of publishing US dollar and Euro rates that differed from the official figures. A discussion on whether or not to control social networks is currently ongoing.
After the alleged “right-wing media coverage” of Mónica Spear’s homicide, Maduro created a vice-minister for social networks. He has also announced a vice-minister for television, radio, and print media. They will all report to the minister for communication and information.
If the government continues to choose radicalization as a way to deal with national crises, it will undoubtedly strengthen the stand against independent media. It will also continue violating its citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and information. After all, Venezuela is the state with the highest communication capacity, the largest media, and the one producing the most presidential messages in the Americas.
Translated by Melisa Slep.