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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Venezuelan government is openly manipulating information, IPYS director says



For Marianela Balbi, executive director of the Institute of Press and Society (IPYS) in Venezuela, the government of President Nicolás Maduro is censoring critical media outlets -- with tactics like the blockage of live broadcasts of the protests -- in an effort to prevent more people from joining the manifestations. In the poorer areas of Venezuela, where internet access is scarce, the only version of events people know is the one they learn from local news programs. 

Marianela Balbi. Photo via Linkedin.

Balbi described the government's actions as " an open manipulation" of information.

“When Francesca Commissari was arrested, the very person in charge of press relations in Miraflores said on her Twitter page that ‘eight international terrorists’ had been arrested, a comment that was never cleared up.” Balbi.

In a recent interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Balbi spoke about media censorship during the last few weeks of protests, the role of social media in the actual crisis and the legal measures Maduro has employed to quiet his critics since assuming the presidency.

For some weeks now, protests against the insecurity, inflation and lack of certain goods have shaken the biggest cities in Venezuela. What started as student marches turned violent when the National Guard began repressing protesters, leading to numerous human rights and freedom of expression violations. According to the press workers’ union in Venezuela, more than 89 national and international journalists have been assaulted since the start of the protests.

For Balbi, the aggressions against civilians and journalists mark a sharp difference in how Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, dealt with crises.

“The difference between the government of President Chávez and President Maduro is in the treatment of the people,” Balbi said, adding that even though Chávez never had an easy relationship with the media, he was usually more careful in the area of human rights.

In addition to the aggressions, in a little over a year since Chávez’s death, the news media in Venezuela have noticed an increase in the use of legal and judicial measures as censorship mechanisms, Balbi said. Some of these measures have been sanctions through laws that prohibit the broadcast of images that incite hate and violence, as was the case of Colombian news channel NTN24, whose signal was taken off the air during the first week of protests, after it broadcasted images of protests in the streets – something that Balbi said was a measure to inhibit other channels.

She added that since last year, IPYS has been noticing a change in the pattern of the government’s treatment of the press.

“There were always physical assaults against journalists and some media outlets. This year the pattern started to change. Tribunals started being used; the Attorney General’s office and the Supreme Court are being used to present suits against journalists and media,” Balbi said. “This isn’t happening as part of the current crisis, this is something that they had already started to use against certain media and journalists directly.”

As an example, Balbi used the case of the newspaper Tal Cual – where, in a lawsuit over an opinion piece written by Carlos Genatios, a court imposed cautionary measures on the newspaper’s board of directors.

Members of the press have also claimed that Maduro’s government censors and monitors social media, which is the only means many Venezuelans have to access the news.

At the end of February, Twitter confirmed that images of the protests that were being published through their website were being blocked, and they suspected the Venezuelan government was behind that.

But even though in a lot of cases social media has helped fill in the information gap, people in the poorer areas of the country don’t have access to them, and the lack of verification within these forms of communication has contributed to the uncertainty. The fact that the protests and repressions aren’t being transmitted live in the majority of the country’s radio and TV broadcasts generates plenty of anxiety because people feel uninformed. Social media has become a news source but among the data also lie false news that sometimes sow panic, Balbi said.

“The people go to social media as a way to search for the information that is being blocked in the radio electric spectrum, but online there isn’t any kind of control, unverified information can circulate freely,” she said, but added that within the cacophony there’s also “information verified by journalists and news media that work online, which allows for clearing up situations, especially when there’s people injured.”

Various international organizations have condemned the attacks against press freedom in Venezuela. The International Press Institute asked Maduro to stop threatening the media, a group of independent United Nations experts asked the Venezuelan government to clear up the reports of detentions and excessive use of force, and former Latin American leaders have condemned the human rights violations.

In addition, the three most important Latin American newspapers recently banded together in order to report on the situation in Venezuela under the slogan “We are all Venezuela. Without press freedom there is no democracy.”



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