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

Transitions

Are Libyan Politicians Curtailing Freedom of the Press?

Every time I read a newspaper or watch television in today's Libya, I'm conscious of what a long way they've come since the revolution. A lot of the work the media are doing to keep Libyans informed about current events is inspiring. The huge expansion in privately owned media outlets helped shape the media landscape, increasing the coverage of politics and economics, while opening up to a greater diversity of opinions, including those critical of the government. Needless to say, though, there are still many problems.

The General National Congress, the country's interim legislature, has just passed a new decree that bans satellite television stations critical of the government and the 2011 uprising against Qaddafi. Human Rights Watch was quick to condemn the decree, which, it says, violates free speech and Libya's Provisional Constitutional Declaration. "The decree violates freedom of expression because it censors a wide range of speech, including peaceful political dissent, and its broad and vague wording is open to arbitrary implementation," the HRW statement warned.

Media played an integral role in the revolt against the Qaddafi regime in 2011. Under Qaddafi, most Libyans watched entertainment channels beamed into the country by satellite, both in English and in Arabic. Domestic TV channels were popular only during the Ramadan holiday, the only time of the year when Libyan broadcasters showed local content. Since the dictator's fall, the media landscape, and television in particular, has expanded dramatically, allowing for more diverse voices within Libya to be heard and discussed.

Despite the many advances, though, laws on the press have continued to restrict free speech even since 2011. Observers of the post-revolution media environment have long worried about a shift back to self-censorship, due to the rise of extremist views in Libya and the increase in violence against journalists and activists. Today's government still has a Media Ministry that is supposed to oversee the sector -- itself an indication, perhaps, of the extent to which Libya's new democratically elected leaders still don't entirely trust journalists to make their own decisions.

Meanwhile, attacks on journalists and TV personalities are on the rise. In December 2013, a Libyan court fined Jamal al-Hajji, a leading political activist, for "defaming" public officials. In another incident, an unknown group launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the house of the editor of Libya Aljadida, a daily newspaper based in Tripoli, on Jan. 15. These are just two examples of the spreading violence facing journalists in today's Libya. Despite the increase in internet popularity, the internet penetration rate remains very low (around 17 percent). Libya's internet service is among the slowest in the world. This means that TV and radio are still the main sources of information for those who are trying to keep up with the extremely fluid situation in their country.

Journalists and businesspeople have launched a large number of new private TV stations over the past two years. Many of the new broadcasters focus on news about Libya's political scene and its democratic transition, while leaving entertainment to the Arab-language channels beamed into the country by satellite. TV shows such as Arab Idol, X Factor, The Voice, and Turkish soaps, broadcast by networks such as the Dubai-based channel MBC, are among the most popular shows in the country today -- despite a fatwa by Dar al Ifta (Libya's highest religious authority) that advised Libya's mobile operators and viewers against SMS voting on such TV shows. That most viewers chose to ignore the decree shows clearly that Libyans are willing to challenge the positions of the religious authority on such matters.

After the revolution, Libyans' viewing options seem to have widened dramatically, but that impression is a bit misleading. Domestic TV and radio broadcasters are all work and no play, concentrating on security, economics, and politics to the detriment of entertainment, which is provided almost entirely by outside networks. (The main exception, again, is Ramadan, when domestic broadcasters strive to provide more non-news shows tailored to Libyan tastes.) The range of political standpoints is broad. Some broadcasters support Islamist opinions, while others push nationalist or liberal agendas -- divisions that reflect the general polarization of Libyans' political views since the revolution. One can only hope that the space for competing voices will continue to expand as Libya moves farther away from the Qaddafi era. In that respect, the lawmakers' decree is clearly a step in the wrong direction.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.

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