Pressure on Venezuela’s media worsening

During his 14 years in power, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez tried to muzzle critical news organizations. Chávez died in March, but the pressure on Venezuela’s remaining independent media outlets is only getting worse under his successor.

In a move that critics described as unconstitutional, President Nicolás Maduro on September 30, 2012, signed a decree creating the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Fatherland, or CESPPA. Maduro called CESPPA part of a renewed effort to centralize intelligence information to help overcome plans, plots, and attacks against Venezuela. Media analysts described the new organization to CPJ as a bald-faced attempt to intimidate the media and censor the news.

CESPPA replaces the National Center of Situational Studies, or CESNA, an agency that had a similar mandate but maintained a low profile. However, CESPPA is likely to take a far more vigorous role now that the Maduro government has stepped-up its verbal attacks and legal actions against the press following a series of news stories reflecting badly on his administration, according to Luisa Torrealba of the Caracas-based Institute for Press and Society, or IPYS.

Last month, for example, the telecommunications regulator CONATEL opened an administrative process against Globovisión following the private TV station’s recent report about food shortages. After Maduro urged that the newspaper’s editors be thrown in jail for its story on gasoline shortages in Caracas, the attorney general, on October 17, 2013, opened an investigation against the Caracas daily Diario 2001 for allegedly fomenting public anxiety. Now comes CESPPA.

The Venezuelan Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and prohibits prior censorship. But Torrealba points out that Article 9 of the decree creating CESPPA states that the head of the agency has the right to classify and censor information. In addition, the Constitution states that any restrictions on national security information must be taken through legal measures approved by the National Assembly, not through a presidential decree.

“The decree creating CESPPA is so broad and ambiguous that it could declare any kind of information – like a health crisis or food security – sensitive and therefore classified,” Torrealba told CPJ.

“The big concern has to do with the discretion of the people that will head CESPPA: What criteria will they use to limit the flow of information?” said Macelino Bisbal, a communications professor at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

The presidential decree also describes CESPPA as a political-military organization that answers not to the Venezuelan state but to the ruling party’s so-called Bolivarian Revolution. In militaristic language, it also describes the existence of internal and external enemies of the state without elaborating on who they might be, Torrealba said. Not surprisingly, CESPPA will be headed by retired army general, Gustavo González López, who is the former Secretary of the Intelligence and Security Unit of the Electric System, a government entity in charge of security for the national electricity grid, which has suffered numerous blackouts and failures over the past five years. The government often attributes such failures to “sabotage.”

National security analyst Rocio San Miguel warned that all Venezuelans – not just the media – should be concerned about CESSPA.  She pointed out that the agency’s mandate is so broad that it could require any Venezuelan citizen to provide information, including details about family members. 

“This is a typically Cuban-type scenario in which people will be obliged to spy on others,” San Miguel said.