This article was originally published on July 26, 2018 on “Red Etica: Programa Etica Periodistica”.
The article was written by Luz Mely Reyes, co-founder and director of Efecto Cocuyo, a Venezuelan news website. Reyes is a recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2018 International Press Freedom Awards, and was a fellow at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism in 2016.
I have translated Reyes’ article into English below. The original article, in Spanish, is here.
How can we defeat the fear of being a journalist in Venezuela?
Despite fear and repression, Venezuela is living through a blossoming of independent digital media outlets, according to Luz Mely Reyes from Efecto Cocuyo.
This past June, a journalism student told us about an incident which she experienced while she worked on an assignment from a professor, who sent the class to cover the May 20 presidential elections as part of their field work.
The student, a lively woman from Zulia, had told her parents that she was studying Publicity and Public Relations, which is the field that most of her colleagues in her Social Communication program are studying because it is less risky, she said.
On the Sunday of the election, a soldier detained her near a voting centre and forced her to delete the images that she had captured with her phone. While she tried to get away from him, on the other side of the sidewalk, separated by a fence, her mother, who had gone with her to vote, was scolding her: “You deserve it. That’s what happens to journalists.”
A week later, another young woman from a newspaper in central Venezuela interviewed me via telephone. The conversation had been an easy one until she asked: “How can we face the fear?” She confessed immediately: “I’ve grown up with this fear of not saying or writing what I see, what I think. Sometimes, my bosses tell me to not get into any trouble.”
Until recently, it was a taboo to say that you were afraid, and almost no one dared to do so. However, during the last 20 years I’ve seen this pop up in the writings of the newspapers at which I worked in Caracas. I’ve seen it circulate among journalists, young and veterans alike. More than once, a colleague has told me that they would not write about a topic because they were convinced that it would not be published. Others began to demonstrate a hesitance to cover certain issues because they were afraid, rightfully so, that they would be attacked by violent groups.
I know that anyone’s life can be threatened when they cover the abuse of power in a country where injustice reigns; where groups of political activists, while carrying out official duties, surround journalists and beat them; where security forces shoot rubber pellets and tear gas at anyone they see with a camera; where an official who opens the door to a journalist prohibits them from asking questions; where opacity works to hide corruption, and even information that is essential to health; where digital media outlets are blocked through increasingly refined mechanisms, as has been confirmed by the Press and Society Institute.
Once, when I was designing a satirical cover page for Diario 2001, which I directed between 2012 and 2015, an intern approached me and asked me whether I was afraid of making fun of the president. Days later, I was reminded of her when the president [of Venezuela] asked for the imprisonment of the person responsible for the front page due to a headline that he considered to be part of a conspiracy against the government. This was about an article that highlighted the shortage of gasoline at eleven gas stations in Caracas, which was an unprecedented event at that time.
Ipso facto, Luis Ortega Diaz–who is now the attorney general-in-exile–ordered an investigation into the newspaper, and in a few hours we in the editing team appeared before justice as “witnesses”.
My relatives and those of my colleagues were nervous. They were worried about our safety. Unfortunately, we were neither the first nor the last to be attacked in this manner. Fortunately, we received the support of many colleagues and of media outlets which, at that time, still had windows towards freedom.
Between 2013 and 2014, still-anonymous powerful actors purchased two of the best print media outlets in Venezuela: Ultimas Noticias and El Universal. Very quickly, their editorial lines changed to openly favour the government and its allies.
These actions were felt like fragmentation grenades in editorial rooms. Shortly after, several of the country’s best journalists scattered.
Some had to abandon Venezuela, while others reinvented themselves inside the country. As a result of the dismemberment of editorial staff, several of us migrated at once to digital platforms; others, as was my case, founded media outlets, while others went on to head them and yet others joined digital staffs where they lead editorial teams.
This is how the wave of creative impertinence, which I want to believe is part of the new Venezuelan journalism, has been formed. It is made up of dozens of journalists, both from the old guard and the new, who love this work so much that we have found ways to continue to carry it out.
According to experience, doing more and better journalism can pull the rug from under those who shield themselves with power to commit crimes and violate human rights.
Getting together, creating networks, looking after one another, looking for support in organizations that defend our rights, taking stock of threats, taking measures to protect ourselves, being well informed and trained all work to reduce fear, although this does not mean the elimination of risk.
The effort has borne fruit. Internationally, Venezuelan journalism has carved a space for itself. Among others, Efecto Cocuyo, Armando.info, RunRunes and El Pitazo have won awards for producing high-quality journalism. Others are carrying out great, high-impact reporting, as is the case with ProdaVinci, El Estimulo, El Nacional web, Cronica Uno, all the while niche initiatives that look to break down censorship, record what is happening in Venezuela and increase the dissemination of the work that is being produced continue to pop up.
I wanted to explain all of this to the young woman who interviewed me, but I am not sure that I was able to. She, like so many others, has grown up in an environment in which freedom is a footnote, or a virtual reality simulation.
I could continue to talk about the oasis of resistance that we have created, but I have been in this field for too long to not warn about the implications that come with persevering in a hostile environment.
In early 2018, my beloved colleagues–investigative journalists Joseph Poliszuk, Ewald Scharfenberg, Alfredo Meza and Roberto Deniz from Armando.info–had to leave the country. Due to their reporting on the irregularities detected in the importing of food from Mexico, they were sued by a Colombian businessperson who works with the government. In Venezuela, this type of lawsuit could mean, in practice, staying imprisoned in the country as is the case with Teodoro Petkoff and other directors at Tal Cual, or being unable to enter the country because they will be prevented from leaving, as is the case with the directors of La Patilla or the emblematic newspaper El Nacional.
On the other hand, the majority of the new media outlets are located in the capital. In the cities in the interior of the country, where there was once a solid regional press, several newspaper languish as their print paper has been confiscated. On top of this is the difficulty in accessing the internet to allow for the distribution of content. As a consequence, the government’s long-pursued media hegemony finds itself between the bewilderment of the new generations and the danger that those of us who have preceded them will tire out.
How do we defeat fear?
Likely as a result of these limitations, of this attempted extermination, we are not only doing better journalism–in comparison with that of less dark times–but also, among the chaos, alliances have surged, methods of cooperation are being explored, and spaces in which to defend freedom are being sought. There is an atmosphere of cooperation among journalists because we understand in general that an aggression against one of us is an aggression against any one of us, and hurts all of us.
However, this is not enough.
As in any other profession, experience polishes talent. To train a good journalist, their particular condition is not enough, rather there must be a system to support them, to accompany them, to offer them dignified working conditions, that allows them to breathe freely.
We can observe a congruence of various phenomena in the Venezuelan case, from the migration of colleagues who are forced to leave the country due to economic and political conditions, to the precariousness that forces the desertion of media professors, confusion over the new skills that are required to join a digital editorial team, the lack of experience of the young professionals who decide to stay in the country, as well as the destruction of the editorial room ecosystem, which in practice is a continuation of journalism school that counted on several channels.
Many times, a young journalist does not count on the guidance of a veteran of the field and in other cases, those with many years of experience cannot adapt themselves to the new digital dynamics.
This gap is a problem, but also an opportunity. At Efecto Cocuyo, we like to say that we inform and educate, because we have insisted on training that I consider to be more necessary each day.
It is not the same to face off against powerful actors from a weak position–which is already the starting point–than to confront them with the weapons of knowledge in a system that is hardened by networks of protection. Perhaps educating the new generations, which despite the adverse conditions insist on being journalists, and training the more experienced could be a good combination to face some of the fear that accompany us on this path.