For over a decade, under the leadership of President Hugo Chávez (1999 – 2013) and now President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuelan citizens have been suffering the consequences of abuse of power in the executive branch. Human rights guarantees have been violated and the government is intimidating, persecuting, and even criminalizing and prosecuting its critics.
Since 2014, the South American country has experienced an economic and political crisis and one of the consequences that this has brought are shortages of medicines, medical supplies and food, undermining Venezuelans rights to health and food. The situation got worse and it resulted in that Venezuelans would engage in waves of demonstrations since 2015 in a campaign to demand a change of government by popular democratic election thus leading to a better quality of life. In addition to that, protesters have been arbitrarily detained since then, and media professionals have been subject to increased levels of repression and violence by the state authorities.
According to the Committee to Protect journalists, (CPJ) more than 100 journalists and media workers have been threatened, harassed, detained and injured from doing their work in Venezuela since mass demonstrations erupted against of the Nicolas Maduro government, at the beginning of April 2017.
This organization adds that Venezuelan press freedom groups, including Espacio Publico, the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), and the National Union of Press Workers (SNTP), have documented cases in which journalists have been injured. Print offices have been attacked. Venezuela’s state telecommunications regulator ordered two international news channels off the air in April 2017 and in adittion to this, broadcasters and other outlets have reported service interruptions.
Espacio Publico, a domestic watchdog, identified 366 violations of freedom of expression during 2016, a 28 % increase from 2015. Most were acts of violence, aggression, or intimidation against reporters, and 44% of all violations occurred during public gatherings. Security services frequently interfered with domestic and foreign journalists covering mass demonstrations held on several occasions during 2015 to express demands for a solution to the economic crisis and calls to replace Maduro.
Some of the reporters covering demonstrations were detained and interrogated, and many had their photographs, recordings and equipment confiscated. Journalists covering other aspects of the crisis, including hospital conditions and food queues, faced similar treatment. Media workers were also subject to violence by civilians during protests and some reported receiving no protection from security forces who were present.
Human Rights Watch describes the case of Braulio Jatar, a prominent Venezuelan journalist who directs an independent digital outlet in Nueva Esparta State. He went missing on the 3rd of September of 2016 after the coverage of a spontaneous pot-banging protest against President Maduro in a pro-government neighborhood on Margarita Island. His coverage had received widespread attention in Venezuela and internationally. His family did not know his whereabouts for more than 36 hours. A prosecutor later charged Jatar with money laundering, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison, in connection with approximately US$25,000 cash that he allegedly had in his car. Jatar says the evidence was planted. At the time of writing, Jatar was in pretrial detention.
Currently citizens can only rely on new digital media which carries the bulk and the burden of thecoverage of protests following the political and economic crisis. However, this media platform is now also being targeted by the government and by the media authorities who want to regulate digital and social media. They have accused some outlets of distributing ‘terrorist’ messages and are now asking internet service providers to block access to such sites in Venezuela.
This statistics are a major reflection that Venezuela is passing through a very real crisis. Citizens rights are being violated by a government that since its beginning has been modifying the constitution to get more power and control crucial sectors that are essential for the progress of any democratic society such as education, mass media and public institutions.