Prior to any analysis of the media landscape in Venezuela, it must be highlighted how the current situation in the country, with two governments claiming to be the rightful one for more than a year and with a pandemic situation shocking an already economically depressed country, could lead to sudden changes in some of the information provided in this report. Those changes, however, are not expected to affect the media landscape, as this situation can only be modified in the long term with some deep and stable reforms. So, even if the current political crisis should lead to a change in the government and Maduro is to leave power, his successors won’t be able to stop repression and introduce freedom immediately, and the polarisation of society and media will not suddenly disappear and neither will the economic crisis. As of May 2020, Juan Guaidó, the self-proclaimed president acknowledged by many countries and international organizations, has not yet the effective power to introduce real change.
Since the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power in 1999, Venezuela has followed a path of state intervention and lack of freedom – including censorship and self-censorship – in the media, a situation which worsened since Chávez’s death and the arrival to presidency of Nicolás Maduro in 2013. The country’s advances in social equality and respect for minorities are perceived also in the media landscape, but in general terms, this is currently defined, like almost everything else in the Caribbean country, by the government repression, by inflation and by the shortage of goods. The first one has limited the freedom of speech of journalists and communicators that do not belong to pro-government media, with physical aggressions, removal of broadcasting licenses, limitations to the access of public information or intervention in online sites. All these measures, supported by the law and by violent groups linked to the government, have also lead to self-censorship, which has reached levels hard to measure in a report like this, but it has been, at the same time, the only way for many journalists and media to survive and continue informing.
The other two elements, inflation and shortage of goods –worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic–, have been for years affecting communication companies, such as newspapers, that face lack of newsprint to operate. The decadent telecommunications infrastructure, with frequent cuts of the lines, and the poor quality of telecommunication services are also holding back innovation and a proper media scenario, in which the use of Internet, social networks, mobile devices and, in general, ICTs, is not growing at the same pace as in the rest of the world, although its use for political activism has gained relevance to escape the state control of traditional media. In general, Venezuelans have a strong desire for information, since the reality of everyday clashes with what official media show, but their efforts to find information are not always satisfied. Finally, it is hard to find up-to-date official statistics about companies, consumers or their use of media; the ones available come mostly from civil institutions, professional organisations or NGOs, and sometimes they contradict each other or the ones of public institutions. These organisations, mainly based on the Internet, are the main bastion of free press in the country, reporting the attacks and censorship attempts that journalists and media are victims of.
The intervention of the government in the media market has been counterproductive for the development of the sector. The removal of the license of the television broadcaster RCTV or the purchase of the newspaper Últimas Noticias, some of the most traditional and popular media in the country, are good examples of how state action was negative for those media (Fernández, 2018) and, by extension, for the media market. The obligation to broadcast official announcements, the prohibition to broadcast or publish for a certain amount of time that some media have to face as a “punishment”, the shortages of newsprint, the failures in the TV or Internet services, the impossibility to access certain websites, are all factors affecting mainly critical media, but not only. Additionally, the economic crisis and the uncontrolled inflation –significantly increased during the Covid-19 pandemic– has made the consumption of media drop for many people. The press has been the most affected because of the lack of newsprint, with several media disappearing or surviving only online. This helps explaining how, despite being under the regional Latin-American average, the Internet penetration rate reached 65 percent in 2019 (Tendencias Digitales, 2019), showing the need of citizens of looking for information and solutions in alternative sources. In general, and like most other sectors in Venezuela, the media market is going through turbulent times and the perspectives in the near future are not positive in a completely divided country.
Media are also polarized between government supporters, with outlets owned or controlled to different extents by the state, and media critical with the government, which are not necessarily close to parties of the opposition. The communication and information field has been one of the most affected by authoritarianism and repression, as its control is essential to expand the view and the government’s “revolution”; that is why many media have been bought or fell under pro-government hands, and that also explains why the others have developed a stronger rejection against the government. Critical media are, in general terms, less organised, there are private and international media among this heterogeneous group, with different political ideas; some are closer to some opposition parties or groups, promoting their agendas and their views, while others are more independent. The pro-government group, however, is more homogeneous, and they are either owned by the state or by people somehow connected to it. It is a fact that the government has supported and encouraged the purchase of media by their acolytes (Fernández, 2018). Some other smaller or international media that agree with the views of the chavist movement could be included in this group, but the links with the government or political parties are weaker or almost nonexistent and are purely ideological.
All this has led to a lack of trust in media, as they are often more partisans and supporters of each side than independent sources of information. This rising mistrust is not equal in all media, nor in all groups, but the confidence of people in media has decreased dramatically, especially in traditional ones (press, radio and television), as censorship and government’s control is stronger; especially among television media, independent voices are inexistent, and audiences are migrating to other platforms. This mistrust in Venezuelan media system has made international media a much demanded source of information, both international and national, in order to really know what happens in the country. However, censorship has also reached international groups and information critical with the government or addressing the crisis of Venezuela are temporary blocked or deleted by hackers that are supported by the government. This has affected media mainly in Spanish and in English, as those are the languages most understood in Venezuela and are also the ones spoken where the diaspora of Venezuelan emigrants lives.
This also leads us to the media for the diaspora: with more than 5 million Venezuelans living abroad as migrants or refugees (according to UNHCR, 2020), media focused in the needs of these people or having them as target are increasing. Some of the most relevant ones are El Venezolano TV –broadcasting from Miami and Spain–, Venezuela al Día –a website also located in Miami–, or NTN24 –a Latin-American channel with home in Colombia that focuses greatly in Venezuelan information–. These media are focused on Venezuelan content but mainly for people already living in those places; migrants that are currently on the move in very large numbers use mainly social media, especially WhatsApp and, more recently, Telegram, mostly with information meeting their needs about how the situation at the border is or how to find visas. It should be highlighted here that, although the situation in Venezuela has not improved, thousands of Venezuelan emigrants are returning to their country given the hardships they face in their hosting countries given the Covid-19 pandemic.
This whole situation, especially the shutting down of media and the impossibility for many people to carry out their profession in a free environment, has been negative for journalistic professionalism in Venezuela. But at the same time, this has prompted professional organisations and trade unions to join and gain relevance, becoming important actors in the construction of the public discourse and reporting the violations of the rights of journalists. Their presence in the media context has increased as they are one of the last barriers between authoritarianism and freedom of speech and of the press. Despite that, the uncertainty of many professionals, the emigration of others, the threats and attacks that others have had to face and the losing of jobs due to the closure of several media, has weakened the profession as a whole. Journalism has partly lost its value due to the partisanship of many professionals in a strongly polarised scenario. The Code of Ethics and the activities of some NGOs and professional organisations seem to be the only ways to sustain the profession. Also, the proliferation of citizen journalism and alternative ways of getting information, such as social networks or blogs, has made journalists expendable and far less relevant in the construction of the public discourse.
State intervention in the media system is probably one of the main problems in Venezuela. Attacks to the rights of journalists and media professionals, such as expulsion of international journalists, physical violence or seizing of materials are common, and so are the attempts to control the content that is published, either buying independent or critical media or using legislation to silence dissident voices. But journalists are not the only ones whose rights are attacked, also users, mainly on the Internet, have been seen their rights limited and they are forced to use VPNs to access certain sites.
The laws related to communication and information and the action of a non-independent justice, as well as the power of the Comisión Nacional de Telecomunicación (National Commission of Telecommunications - Conatel), have become censorship tools that have led to the temporary or permanent closing of media and the imprisonment and different sanctions against professionals, but also against citizens that use social media to inform. At the same time, state-controlled or state-supporting media are often propaganda tools of the government. According to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, Venezuela is in the 147th position out of 180 countries. This has made the population lose confidence in traditional media, especially those under state control or ownership, looking for information in alternative media, mainly social media, making it easier for fake news and polarised contents to spread. According to a survey by Hinterlaces (In Pinillos, 2018), 77 percent of Venezuelans have little or no confidence in media.