Shoppers flock to stores after the government orders business owners to lower prices. (Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)
Shoppers flock to stores after the government orders business owners to lower prices. (Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Venezuela tries to suppress reports of economic upheaval

Amid skyrocketing inflation and shortages of basic goods, Venezuelan authorities claim that an “economic war” is being waged against the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro. The government is striking back by forcing stores to discount prices, by arresting business owners accused of hoarding–and by targeting journalists trying to cover the grim economic news.

Over the past two months, several journalists have been briefly detained by authorities. The editor of Caracas’s top financial daily was fired after Maduro complained about a story. Seemingly at Maduro’s request, newspapers are being investigated by the attorney general’s office for their economic reports. Officials are even berating journalists for using words like “shortages” or for reporting on scattered outbreaks of looting. The repression comes during the run-up to mayoral elections that will be held across Venezuela on Sunday and are widely viewed as a referendum on the Maduro government.

“The government realizes that the economic situation is extremely critical and that it could provoke a social explosion,” Marianela Balbi, the director of the Caracas-based Institute for Press and Society, told CPJ. “So they are focusing much of their attention on media coverage of the economy.”

TV news programs have toned down their coverage, especially in the wake of the April sale of Globovisión, the last Venezuelan TV station that was openly critical of the government, to a business group close to the Maduro administration. As a result, most of the government’s wrath has been trained on newspapers reporting on how government policies have played a large role in bringing about the economic troubles and how shortages and one of the world’s highest inflation rates are impacting readers.

In October, Diario 2001 faced an aggressive verbal attack by President Maduro for reporting how motorists had to visit several filling stations to find enough 95-octane gas to fill their tanks. Maduro called the story a lie and demanded that the editors responsible for composing the cheeky headline–“Gas distributed by dropper”–be put in jail.

“What Diario 2001 is doing is a crime,” Maduro said in a televised speech as he held up a copy of the newspaper. “We can’t permit such irresponsibleness in Venezuela because we have to protect the people. No more of this!”

Shortly afterwards, the attorney general’s office launched an investigation of the newspaper for allegedly disseminating false information. Luz Mely Reyes, the editor of Diario 2001, told CPJ that she was ordered to testify about the newspaper’s sources for the story. She said the investigation is ongoing.

On November 1, three Diario 2001 journalists were briefly detained–and one of them beaten up–by National Guard troops for covering a chaotic scene in which hundreds of people who had been in line since 4 a.m. at a food fair to buy discounted pork, an item hard to find in supermarkets, broke through security barriers in desperation. In the aftermath, the Banco de Venezuela bank, the only state entity that advertised in Diario 2001, has withdrawn its publicity.

“My journalists feel intimidated and unprotected. What do you do if the president starts insulting you? You have no way to defend yourself,” Reyes told CPJ. “I don’t know if we will have the strength to resist if the government comes after us again.”

One journalist who tried in vain to resist is Omar Lugo, who edited the financial daily El Mundo, Economía y Negocios. The newspaper was often lambasted by the late President Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer in March, but Lugo considered the criticism a badge of honor and it helped boost sales.

But in June, Cadena Capriles–the media conglomerate that includes El Mundo as well as Últimas Noticias, the country’s largest newspaper–was sold to a group of investors rumored to have close ties to the Maduro government. (Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro in the April presidential election, is distantly related to Cadena Capriles’s previous owners but has never held a stake in the company.)

Lugo told CPJ that starting in October the new owners began to lean on him to publish stories friendlier toward the government. Lugo refused, saying it was impossible to put a happy spin on the country’s economic situation. He knew his days might be numbered and they were.

Using official government data, Lugo published a front-page story on November 15 showing that the central bank’s international reserves were falling at an unprecedented rate to their lowest level in nine years. In a nod to the price reductions being forced on many Venezuelan stores by government inspectors, Lugo topped the story with the headline: “Discounts reach the central bank.”

The story apparently enraged Maduro. In a televised speech the next day, Maduro accused the newspaper of making false calculations–despite its reliance on government data–and berated the paper’s new owners. They fired Lugo the following Monday.

“Government officials wants to manage economic reporting in the midst of an economic crisis,” Lugo, who is now looking for work, told CPJ. “They are acting like generals in a war who want to censor information so as not to affect the morale of their troops.”

Lugo’s dismissal sent a chill through the Cadena Capriles building, where reporters from Últimas Noticias and El Mundo share the newsroom. A group of reporters put out a communiqué calling the action “a blow to press freedom” and started the Twitter account @UNsinCensura to give followers an inside view of how they are being pressured to toe the government’s line.

Foreign correspondents are not immune to the crackdown. Miami Herald Andes Bureau Chief Jim Wyss was detained on November 11 in San Cristobal, a city on the Colombian border, while he was reporting on the region’s flourishing underground economy.

One reason for shortages is that staples like cooking oil, rice, flour, and other goods are smuggled into Colombia where they sell for six or seven times their official price in Venezuela. Wyss tried to interview military officials–who are widely rumored to be involved in the contraband trade–but instead of talking to him they arrested him.

Wyss was flown to Caracas where he was promptly released. Venezuelan officials later claimed he was detained because he had failed to register for journalism credentials from the Ministry of Communications, a step that all visiting foreign correspondents are now required to take for each reporting trip to the country. Wyss, who has been reporting on Venezuela for years, said the episode was troubling.

“My ordeal lasted about 48 hours,” Wyss later wrote of his detention. “I was exceptionally lucky. The Miami Herald, the U.S. State Department, airlines, local journalists, and absolute strangers pushed hard for my release. I am grateful to all of them.”