Venezuelan economic controls lead to newsprint shortage

Although nearly all Venezuelan newspapers have websites, many of their readers like to get their news the old-fashioned way: on paper. But that’s getting tougher every day amid a critical shortage of newsprint.

Some Venezuelan newspapers have been forced to reduce their size and circulation. Others have stopped their printing presses.

Venezuela does not produce newsprint. Nearly all of it is purchased from Canada and the United States by Venezuelan import companies or by individual newspapers.  But due to government currency controls, securing dollars to buy that paper can take months. Reserves of newsprint have fallen to an all-time low, according to news reports.

Many Venezuelan journalists say they believe this is a deliberate strategy by the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro to muzzle critical voices.

“It’s a way to stop newspapers, to make them afraid of the government, and to reduce their importance because most newspapers are independent and critical. And the government doesn’t like that,” Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the Caracas daily El Nacional, told CPJ.

The last time El Nacional–which is extremely critical of the Maduro administration–was allowed to buy dollars from the government to buy newsprint was in May 2013, according to Otero. (The government is the only legal source of dollars in Venezuela. Dollars can be purchased with bolivars, the Venezuelan currency, on the thriving illegal black market but are 10 times more expensive.) To save paper, El Nacional has stopped printing special sections. Its widely read Sunday magazine is only published online. But paper stocks are fast running out.

“Right now we are a month away from a total shutdown because we don’t have any more newsprint,” Otero said.

In a new report, the Caracas-based Institute for Press and Society, or IPYS, said that during the first two weeks of January 2014, 21 newspapers and magazines in nine states were having trouble securing newsprint, ink, and other supplies. The report said 14 newspapers in Caracas and other parts of the country had reduced their pages or had eliminated sections to save paper.

Late last year, the paper shortage forced seven regional newspapers to stop publishing their print editions. Of the seven, IPYS said in its new report that three remain out of print: El Diario de Sucre in Sucre state, Antorcha in Anzoátegui state, El Sol de Maturín in Monagas state.

Antonio Briceño, the owner of Antorcha, which stopped publishing its print edition in September 2013, told IPYS that it used to take one month to secure dollars from the government but that the process now requires eight months. Luisa Torrealba, IPYS coordinator for press freedom, described the government’s role in these delays as a form of indirect censorship.

“Different sectors of society make their complaints through the media and to stop this, the government is restricting newsprint imports,” David Natera, editor of the daily Correo de Caroní based in Ciudad Guayana and president of the newspaper industry group Venezuelan Press Block, told local media. Natera’s newspaper is now a shell of its former self, publishing just eight pages per day, down from the normal 32.

Another newspaper in crisis is El Impulso, Venezuela’s oldest daily which was founded in the western city of Barquisimeto in 1904. Editor Juan Manuel Carmona told CPJ that it takes 16 cumbersome bureaucratic steps to get dollars from the government to buy newsprint. He said these requests are often denied if newspapers owe back taxes or are dealing with labor problems.

The process used to be faster because newsprint had been listed as a “priority” import item by the government, since Venezuela does not produce it. But in August 2012, newsprint was removed from the priority list. As a result, the import process now requires the extra step of securing a certificate from the Commerce Ministry stating the obvious fact that there are no newsprint plants in Venezuela. This step can take one to three months, Carmona said.

Last year, he added, El Impulso was unable to import any newsprint because its requests for dollars were ignored. It is now borrowing newsprint from El Carabobeño, a newspaper published in the nearby city of Valencia, and has reduced its size from 36 to 26 pages.  El Impulso, which normally has a weekday circulation of about 40,000 copies, has also reduced its press run.

Carmona said printed newspapers remain vital in Venezuela because many people lack the money for iPads or Internet service. When they do go online for news, it can be a frustrating experience because Venezuela has one of the slowest Internet download speeds in the world.

What’s more, Carmona said that newspapers comprise the main government watchdog in the Venezuelan media now that many TV and radio stations are either controlled by the government or no longer scrutinize it for fear of losing their transmission licenses.

In a communiqué, the Miami-based Inter American Press Association accused the Maduro government of placing an economic stranglehold on newspapers. That includes the pulling of nearly all government ads from independent papers. But Maduro’s allies insist there is no shortage of paper.

Julio Chavez, a ruling party legislator who heads the media commission in the National Assembly, told state-run VTV on January 14 that Venezuela imported 30 percent more newsprint in 2013 than the year before. He accused newspapers and import companies of hoarding their stocks as part of a broader “economic war” that he claims is being waged by the private media and the business class to create distortions and embarrass the government.