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Reporting in Venezuela: 'The fear has become real'

Ole Tangen Jr
August 30, 2017

The situation for media professionals in Venezuela has become increasingly dangerous. But according to journalist Gustavo Hernandez, social media and the country's hunger for information is keeping the news media alive.

Venezuela Protest und Ausschreitungen in Caracas | Pressefreiheit
Venezuelans commemorated 10 years since the closure of Radio Caracas - RCTV - in MayImage: picture-alliance/Zuma Press/J.C. Hernandez

Gustavo Hernandez is a local Venezuelan journalist reporting for the online outlet Caracas Chronicles. He and his colleagues are working to cover the situation in Venezuela as the government tightens its control over traditional media sources.

DW: What is the situation right now for journalists on the ground in Venezuela?

Gustavo Hernandez: The situation in Venezuela over the last few months has deteriorated to the lowest point and has made it almost impossible for journalists to work on the streets. In the last two months, the security forces - the national guard, police and intelligence services have become more aggressive against journalists and have literally made them targets.

We have seen multiple cases of journalists being attacked using tear-gas canisters and even cases of journalists being shot at. We also have cases or journalists whose equipment has been confiscated or damaged. We have cases of journalists who have been detained for hours at military installations without access to lawyers. They were eventually released. We have cases of journalists who have been threatened by security forces for doing their jobs.

This situation is not new. We have had situations like this since 2014 but not to the scale that we are seeing today. 

Nicolas Maduro
President Maduro has labelled journalists who have criticized him as 'terrorists.'Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Cubillos

Is it safe for journalists to cover the protests now in Venezuela?

Well it is very tricky for journalists right now even if you have proper identification. Colleagues now have to do their jobs wearing bullet-proof vests, helmets and gas masks. The national guard is now working to stop any journalists from covering the protests and will take away equipment or break equipment to make sure that journalists cannot cover the protests in Venezuela.

Over the past couple of years the government has taken control of the traditional media: radio, television and to a certain degree the written press.

The consequence of this is the growth of new digital media who are doing the heavy bulk of the coverage of the protests. But they are now also being targeted by the government and by the media authorities who want to regulate digital and social media. They have even accused some outlets of distributing "terrorist” messages and are now asking internet service providers to block access to such sites in Venezuela.

The government has also acted against international broadcasters. CNN en Espanol was taken off the air in Venezuela in February because they were accused of being against Venezuela. It can only be seen now online.

And to add insult to injury, Venezuela has the slowest internet speeds on the continent.

So how are Venezuelans accessing information about what is happening in the country?

The most important tool right now for Venezuelans to get informed is social media. The former head of Conatel, the country's national communication regulator, has suggested that social media should be heavily regulated. They are calling for the tools to fight so-called terrorists.

Right now the government cannot do anything because they do not control the national assembly. But now with this new constitutional assembly, the government can take steps to control social media. President [Nicolas] Maduro has said that he intends to go after those who criticize him on social media and there have been cases of people who have been detained by security forces because of what they published on social media.

If there have been threats against publishing on social media, why are people still doing so?

Venezuelans have a hunger for information about what is happening in their cities, their neighborhoods. Traditional media is heavily self-censored. There is legislation that controls what is reported and it is very vague, very ambiguous on what can and cannot be said. So broadcasters are very cautious about what they say so that they do not risk losing their broadcast license.

Venezuela Journalist von Caracas Chronicles Gustavo Hernandez
Gustavo Hernandez is a journalist in VenezuelaImage: privat

For example there was very little media coverage of the election of the constitutional assembly in the country. There were threats against media companies by the electoral commission not to broadcast certain information related to the election. 

How are Venezuelans reacting to this new media situation?

Sadly we have to deal with this new reality now. At any moment there could be arrests of journalists by the national guard. The fear has become real. We are seeing a new, unprecedented wave of repression in Venezuela not seen since the last dictatorship we had more than 50-60 years ago. Sadly journalism has to adapt to this new reality.

This commentary is a part of DW's Freedom of Speech Project which aims to highlight voices from around the world on the topics of freedom of expression and press freedom. You can also follow the project on Facebook. Interview by Ole Tangen Jr.