After six years of being locked out, journalists are allowed to enter Venezuela's National Assembly
Since 2009, Venezuela's National Assembly chamber had been closed to journalists during sessions. That changed on Jan. 5 when, after a six-year absence, media workers from national and international press outlets were allowed inside to cover the swearing in of members of the country's new legislative body.
Henry Ramos Allup, the new president of the Assembly, "welcomed the media with a cry of 'Open doors!" to the applause of the communications workers," reported Venezuelan digital news portal RunRun.Es.
Reporters, photographers and camera operators watched from an ornate chamber balcony as members of opposition parties were sworn in and became the majority in the National Assembly for the first time in more than 15 years.
Since 1999, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was elected to office and started his socialist Bolivaran revolution, there has been a contentious relationship between the government and critical media and journalists. That pattern continued with successor Nicolas Maduro. Over the years, government ownership of traditional outlets has spread. Media outlets have reported challenges including lack of access to information, a dearth of resources and pressures that lead to self-censorship.
But, in December 2015, Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela party lost a majority to opposition parties in the country’s legislative body and journalists started to hope that it might symbolize the beginning of an era of greater press freedom in their country.
Two days ahead of the new National Assembly session, the National Association of Journalists (CNP for its acronym in Spanish) in Venezuela published an optimistic letter on its site looking forward to the new legislature that “has the duty to enforce the constitution and re-open the doors of the Chambers to journalists.”
CNP National Vice President Nikary González said it would be a first step to regaining freedom of expression in the country, since the National Assembly can address related issues like access to public information, regulation of radio and television and misuse of state media.
González also called attention to self-censorship of private media, the need for inclusiveness in public media and the controversial Communications Law of Popular Power. The National Assembly approved the law shortly after the legislative elections and the end of the session. Critics said it was contrary to pluralism and that communications-related organizations were not consulted.
Ahead of the start of the new Assembly session, the National Union of Press Workers (SNTP for its acronym in Spanish) called for many of the actions requested by the CNP and asked for the repeal of specific articles that it said “had violated freedom of expression and right to information.” According to the organization, they involve restricting television transmission of Assembly sessions and of journalists’ entry to the chamber.
Come induction day, some of the journalists' hopes came to fruition as they were permitted to enter the Assembly chamber. Additionally, ABC News reported that “state TV broadcast interviews with the opposition political leaders.”
During the day, supporters of the socialist and opposition parties rallied around their political leaders in the areas surrounding the government building. Some socialist leaders left the Assembly after claiming the majority violated assembly rules concerning speaking, according to TeleSUR.
Venezuelans also watched the changing of the guard online and some celebrated on Twitter with the hashtag #ElCambioComienzaHoy (#ChangeStartsToday) and memes and photos of the new and old legislative members.
Twitter users also posted photos of a chamber balcony filled with media members aside the hashtag #PrensaLibreEnAN (#FreePressInNA). According to Expresión Libre, a coalition of journalists previously campaigned via social media with the hashtag for the entrance of journalists to the National Assembly.
But in some social media circles, an alarming photo started to surface. Eduardo Ríos, a reporter at web portal La Patilla was severely beaten in downtown Caracas near the National Assembly building and independent journalist Antonio Posteraro was also attacked, according to freedom of expression organization Espacio Público. The organization said the attackers were members of “collective groups.” The term refers to pro-government groups that are known for sometimes using violence.
In another event, supporters of the opposition harassed Vladimir Carrillo, a reporter for state-owned TeleSUR, and prevented him from doing his job, according to digital news outlet Efecto Cocuyo.
At both incidents, media workers from different outlets came to the journalists’ aid, Efecto Cocuyo reported.
Along with the political changes the new National Assembly brings to the country, Venezuelan journalists are eager to see if the new legislators will also bring significant advances for freedom of expression and the press.
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