This week, the crisis in Venezuela—after years of economic decay, food and drug shortages, mass emigration, violent political unrest, and corruption—reached an inflection point. Juan Guaidó, head of the country’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared President Nicolás Maduro’s government illegitimate and declared himself president instead. The United States government quickly backed Guaidó, as did Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Paraguay, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Cuba, Bolivia, Russia, Turkey, and China continue to support Maduro; the European Union is staying on the fence for now. Maduro has demanded that the US withdraw its diplomats. The State Department says it will not, although The New York Times reports that some personnel are being evacuated from the US embassy in Caracas.
Venezuela’s media is also in distress. Between 2014 and 2018, the country slid 27 places on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index; as of last year, it sat 143rd out of 180 countries. Since 2002, when private news outlets backed a coup against President Hugo Chávez—the attempt failed; Maduro, Chavez’s chosen successor, took office upon his death—the Venezuelan government has inhibited freedom of speech and of the press. That includes a 2010 law aiming sanctions at critics of the regime, and a 2017 law criminalizing the promotion of “fascism, intolerance, or hate” on social media; a new government proposal would further state control of the internet. The government frequently discredits negative reporting as propaganda invented by a hostile world media, pushing counter-narratives that flat-out deny the existence of many of the country’s problems.
Much of Venezuela’s independent press has simply disappeared. The state has actively shut down some outlets—according to the country’s press institute, the regime closed 40 radio stations in 2017—while a crippling recession has forced others to close. Last summer, Reuters reported that, since 2013, three-quarters of the country’s newspapers had shuttered. In December, El Nacional, Venezuela’s last nationally circulated anti-government newspaper, went out of print, and blamed the government for restricting the supply of newsprint. It vowed to continue publishing online, but web-based outlets in Venezuela have long reported blockages. Last June, Maduro remarked that “only the debris of the bourgeois media is left.” He was speaking on national journalists’ day.
Physical threats to journalists have intensified. According to Venezuela’s National Press Workers’ Union, the first four months of 2017 brought more than 200 attacks on reporters. That summer, civil unrest escalated, and four journalists were detained by state authorities. Sustained violence and harassment has driven some journalists—such as Elyangélica González, a long-time radio reporter—to flee the country. Senior reporters at Armando.info, an investigative website, left after exposing widespread corruption at a state-run food program, fearing legal threats. They continue to report from neighboring Colombia.
Venezuelan outlets and journalists have suffered the most. Still, the country has become a hostile environment for foreign reporters, too. In 2017, the government barred Nicholas Casey, a correspondent for the Times, from re-entering the country after he left to take a vacation. Late last year, Billy Six, a German freelance journalist, was reportedly imprisoned there on charges including espionage and rebellion. And just this week, airport security agents detained Kristoffer Toft, a Danish freelancer, then deported him.
Even without infringements on the press, Venezuela is a complicated story to tell—it can be hard, in particular, to convey the extent of Maduro’s authoritarian grip and at the same time interrogate the legitimacy of US intervention behind the opposition. Venezuela’s journalists—and its citizens—are paying a very great price for their attempts to get at the truth.
Below, more on Venezuela’s press climate:
- A history of press threats: In June 2017, Julissa Treviño interviewed Hannah Dreier for CJR on Dreier’s three years covering Venezuela for the Associated Press. Two months later, Diego Senior and Jonathan Schienberg caught up with Elyangélica González as she began a life in exile. And on our podcast, The Kicker, Meg Dalton talked to Casey, of the Times, about his expulsion from the country.
- Fighting censorship: In October, the AP’s Scott Smith reported that Google was testing an anti-censorship app in Venezuela. The app, Intra, connects phones “directly to Google servers that access the domain name system—a kind of phone book of the internet,” Smith wrote. “That bypasses any blocks set up by local internet providers, making it harder for governments or other interlopers to deny access.”
- Important context, I: As the US throws its weight behind Guaidó and Venezuela’s opposition, the AP has a useful rundown of prior US interventions in Latin America, including its support for Cold War-era coups in Guatemala, Brazil, and Panama. While US officials stress democratic values are behind their support of Guaidó, the US backs other regional regimes whose legitimacy has been questioned, including the right-wing government of Honduras. In 2017, I reported that US officials refused to help three freelance journalists detained in an airport there, telling them to “figure it out.”
- Important context, II: Maduro has brutally clamped down on dissent in Venezuela—hundreds of protesters have died or sustained injuries in clashes with his government. In December 2017, Jon Lee Anderson profiled Maduro for The New Yorker.
Other notable stories:
- On Wednesday, after word came of impending job losses at Verizon, the parent company of HuffPost, staffers awaited grim news. Yesterday, layoffs hit. A number of prominent journalists lost their jobs, including Jason Cherkis, Pulitzer finalist, and the site’s entire opinion staff. (Writers Guild of America East pointed out that Verizon took in nearly $4 billion in government-funded tax breaks last year.) Staffers at BuzzFeed News will learn their fates today amid a “restructuring” that will cause more than 220 jobs cuts. With Gannett also laying off staff, CNN’s Oliver Darcy and Tom Kludt estimate that the media industry is shedding roughly 1,000 jobs this week.
- Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, talked with Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the Times, about her new book, Merchants of Truth, in which she discusses the current state and future prospects of the news business. You can read the interview here, or listen to it here on The Kicker.
- On Wednesday, Farhad Manjoo published a “Never Tweet” column in the Times, making a case that “Twitter is ruining American journalism.” On Twitter, American journalists debated whether that, in fact, is true. CJR had the same conversation over on Galley; you can join in here. At least one outlet is taking the matter seriously (perhaps too much so): US-based staffers at Insider will be banned from using Twitter during work hours next week, The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reports. Editors there have challenged reporters to get out of the online “echo chamber” and “develop your own ideas,” although a few editors will remain on Twitter duty.
- In another media experiment, Sky News will, for one day, livestream everything that happens in its newsroom online and on a dedicated channel called “Sky News Raw,” BuzzFeed’s Mark Di Stefano reports. According to a source, the feed, which is a 30th anniversary project, will be monitored by a producer before it goes out.
- After Reuters reported that Thai naval and police officers helped traffic migrants into the country’s seafood industry, Thailand’s ruling military junta responded via native advertising in Reuters, Joshua Carroll reports for CJR. The ad was marked as “sponsored” and had nothing to do with Reuters’s editorial arm, Carroll writes, yet “it gave space to a government to whitewash abuses on one of the same platforms on which they were exposed.”
- For Politico Magazine, Max Blau profiles City Bureau, a Chicago-based “J-school of the streets” where “experienced reporters would be paired with emerging journalists from communities that historically had been ignored or misrepresented in news coverage.”
- Stephen Elliott is amping up his defamation lawsuit over the “Shitty Media Men” list, a widely circulated 2017 Google Doc that contained accusations of sexual misconduct against a number of men working in the industry. According to The Hollywood Reporter’s Eriq Gardner, Elliott will subpoena Google for the identity of an anonymous contributor who accused him of rape, sexual harassment, and coercion. Google said previously that it would resist any such demand.
- And CJR’s Justin Ray profiles Jonathan Cresswell, a London-based web developer who built a popular site allowing anyone on the internet to easily make shareable fake news.