Transitions

Why Venezuela's Newspapers Can't Afford the Paper They're Printed On

Everybody knows print is dying. The Internet sounded the death knell for newspapers all over the world, while many are struggling to stay afloat.

Venezuela's newspapers are also dying, but not because of the market. They are being killed off, slowly, by a resentful government.

Venezuela's media have long been critical of the government. In 2002, TV channels as well as other media actively encouraged street protests that led to a short-lived coup against then-President Hugo Chávez. Their role in those events led the government to see independent media as enemies to be vanquished.

Since then, it is safe to say the government has largely tamed broadcast media. After the failed coup, most Venezuelan TV stations began self-censoring in order to survive. Meanwhile, the government has also continued the policy of constant mandatory broadcasts. According to Monitoreo Ciudadano, an NGO, President Nicolás Maduro has averaged 28 minutes per day of mandatory simultaneous TV and radio broadcasts, locally known as "cadenas," or chains.

Those that did not self-censor have either disappeared or been bought out by government allies. In 2007, the government famously refused to renew the broadcasting license of RCTV, Venezuela's most popular TV station at the time and a bastion of the opposition. The move sparked a student protest movement that still shows occasional flickers of life. Similar moves against radio stations across the country followed. Last year, businessmen linked to the government bought the last TV channel critical of the government, the all-news outlet Globovisión.

Newspapers, however, proved more difficult to tame. With TV and radio, the argument is that the government owns the broadcast space through which they transmit, and therefore is entitled to have a say in what is broadcast. There is no such ownership issue when it comes to print media -- but there are other ways to make newspapers suffer.

The government has started limiting advertising space in Venezuelan newspapers on political grounds, refusing to place ads in opposition-minded newspapers. In a country where the main exporters and many of the largest companies are owned by the government, this is a significant problem. They have also limited reporters' access to government sources, and have set up pro-government newspapers to compete with established ones.

But the main reason the crisis is reaching a boiling point is because the government refuses to sell newspapers the currency they need to buy printing paper.

One of Caracas' main newspapers is El Nacional. Founded in 1943 by legendary Venezuelan author Miguel Otero Silva, it is an established institution in Venezuela. On Jan. 29, the paper announced it was reducing its content by 40 percent due to a lack of printing paper. According to the current publisher, Otero Silva's son Miguel, the newspaper only has enough stock of paper to last a few more weeks. Other papers, such as Barquisimeto's El Impulso, the oldest in the country, are saying the same thing. Some smaller papers outside of Caracas have already closed. Journalists have hit the streets to protest. Even the Roman Catholic Church has expressed concern over the shortages.

In the meantime, the government's changes to currency regulations are only making matters worse. In order to expedite currency transactions, the government announced on Jan. 22 that it would increase the amounts sold via currency auctions -- but since then, no auctions have been held. On Feb. 4, an auction where El Nacional was expecting to land some currency was suspended at the last minute.

Marianna Párraga, an influential journalist, claims the currency problem stems from the fact that many of the country's oil sales do not generate enough cash. Large amounts of oil are either sold at a discount to political allies, or sold to China in exchange for funds the Chinese have already handed over and the government has already spent. The claim is that Venezuela only generates sales for 1.5 million of the 2.8 million barrels it produces every day.

Venezuela's allies in the region frequently put pressure on newspapers. Ecuador's president has famously fought his country's press in the courts, and Argentina's president Cristina Fernández has done the same.

But nowhere is the conflict more acute than in Venezuela.

The demise of newspapers is bad news for freedom in the country. Internet penetration in Venezuela is below average for the region. Internet speed is one of the lowest in the world. For Venezuelans -- who are frequently stuck in buses in traffic for hours, and who cannot rely on TV for reliable news coverage -- newspapers are a vital source of information and entertainment. Most Venezuelans get their news from traditional media, and newspapers remain the last bastion of independence.

In the old days, government bureaucrats would censor the press by telling journalists which stories were OK to report, and which were not. Cutting off newspapers' paper supplies is not as blatant a move, but it is an equally effective one.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

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