For Venezuela's Media, It's Death by a Thousand Cuts

Venezuela's oldest newspaper, El Universal, has been having a difficult time as of late. Like newspapers the world over, it faces increasing competition from new media, and advertising revenue has been declining. But in Venezuela, that's only part of the problem. The government has been restricting access to newsprint, forcing newspapers like El Universal to shrink dramatically. 

To add insult to injury, journalists are increasingly hounded by a government that does not hide its contempt for independent thinking. Faced with this scenario, El Universal's owners must have been relieved to receive an offer to purchase the newspaper last week, reported at an astonishing $100 million. The purchasers are a supposedly Spanish business group with a shady past, according to a prominent blogger.  

Few in Venezuela doubt that the buyers are aligned with the government. If this is confirmed, the rescue of the paper's owners from financial ruin could actually entail a significant blow to freedom of expression. 

Most Venezuelans get their news from three sources: TV, radio, and newspapers. The government has been relentlessly attacking all three. The pressure applied to El Universal follows a pattern that the authorities have resorted to often in recent years: choking media companies financially until the owners are forced to sell to someone who does the government's bidding. 

This was the modus operandi with Globovisión, an independent all-news TV channel. Until last year, Globovisión had been fiercely anti-government. Government fines mounted. Officials threatened owners and journalists with jail. And finally the owners were forced to sell to a chavista business group. Since then, independent-minded journalists at the broadcaster have either resigned or been fired

The same happened with Venezuela's most widely read newspaper, the afternoon tabloid Últimas Noticias. Since its purchase by a chavista group, many key players in its award-winning staff have resigned to protest the censorship imposed on them by their editors. 

Self-censorship is another prominent side of the equation. After the government yanked several radio stations and one large TV channel (RCTV) off the air, Venezuela's remaining private TV and radio broadcasters began looking carefully at what they said. Many of those I've spoken to inside these stations confirm that self-censorship is a reality. Stories about the government are given more prominence, while stories critical of the government are either curtailed or not broadcast at all. 

As for new media, it still does not have the reach to really make a dent in public opinion. Twitter and blogs play a prominent role, but they tend to reach people who are already convinced of their own positions. Furthermore, new media relies on traditional media sources to reproduce, comment, and expand the reach of stories. If traditional journalists are muzzled, stories will have a hard time getting out, and new media outlets will find it difficult to comment. 

The future looks bleak. The Caracas daily El Nacional remains one of the few independent news outlets, but the paper is not in a solid financial situation. Rumors have been swirling about the paper's imminent sale to a pro-government buyer, but the owners have so far remained firm. One wonders how long this can last: A few months ago, the paper had to accept a donation of newsprint from sympathetic Colombian papers in order to keep publishing. 

The model for Venezuela's leaders is Russia, where independent news media outlets have basically ceased to exist. Yet instead of imposing the model in one single blow, the end of press freedom in Venezuela has been a steady, uninterrupted process. As yet another media outlet falls prey to what the government calls "communicational hegemony," Venezuelans are left with few, if any, choices to keep themselves informed. 

An old proverb says that the best way to boil a live frog is to dip it in water at room temperature and slowly raise the heat so that the frog doesn't realize the water is boiling. Like the frog, Venezuelans have yet to realize that the bubbles around them mean that the days of press freedom in their country are numbered.

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.

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Can the United Nations Save the Day in Libya?

Now that Libyans have voted in another parliamentary election, the United Nations is gearing up to pave the way to a national political dialogue. Last month the UN's efforts to bring the country's political factions to the negotiating table broke down amid criticisms of the way the United Nations Special Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was preparing for the talks. The controversy forced UNSMIL to postpone a planned meeting that was supposed to launch the dialogue. The UN issued a statement chiding unnamed forces for derailing the talks, adding -- with uncharacteristic frankness -- that "such attitudes are not helpful in launching a dialogue under the current circumstances." UNSMIL's initiative met its strongest opposition from nationalist and tribal factions. (The image above shows Libyan election officials counting ballots after the parliamentary election last month.)

The latest efforts to jump-start talks among the most important political players started on June 5, in the wake of General Khalifa Haftar's military campaign against extremist militias in eastern Libya. The retired general started his campaign, which he has dubbed "Operation Dignity," in response to two years of terrorist attacks targeting the army and security forces as well as judges, journalists, and political activists. Given the central government's failure to improve the security situation, Haftar has managed to garner significant popular support for his military campaign, which is currently seen by many Libyans as the only viable way to rein in terrorist groups. But western diplomats worry that Haftar's campaign might lead to renewed civil war.

UNSMIL's initiative is supported by the United States and the British, represented respectively by special envoys David Satterfield and Jonathan Powell. Yet all those involved in the effort seem to have been caught off guard by the storm of criticism it has prompted. A range of politicians have denounced it as biased and poorly prepared, claiming that UNSMIL hadn't done enough to consult with important figures in Libya's political scene. Some even denounced the effort as going too far to placate the Islamists.

The role of UNSMIL and Libya's friends in the international community is crucial at this juncture in the country's affairs. The past two years have thrown into sharp relief the inability of the various political factions to come together and discuss a path forward from the current crisis. Theoretically, at least, a well-planned from the UN could provide just the stimulus needed.

As welcome as their efforts may be, however, the UN and other countries need to proceed carefully. Any moves by international players should be well thought-out and carefully designed to counter possible perceptions of undue bias against particular factions.

One of those charging the UN with impartiality was ex-health minister Fatima al Hamroush, a member of the current National Dialogue Preparatory Committee, who is currently leading efforts for reconciliation among the Libyan diaspora, which includes large numbers of Libyan expatriates living in the neighboring countries of Tunisia and Libya. Another key politician to criticize the UN initiative was ex-Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril. Jibril, who emphasized that he doesn't oppose the dialogue initiative, criticized the preparatory document issued by UNSMIL as "one-sided" and "biased."

Why? Largely because UNSMIL's draft document on the initiative expressed strong criticism of Operation Dignity, which has significant support among Libyans, especially in the eastern part of the country. In addition, the document seemed to imply enshrining the role of militias in the security and defense sectors, an idea that Libyans have been publicly demonstrating against for the last two years, demanding that professional army and police forces should be based on proper vetting procedures and a clear chain of command. These two distinct issues were enough to make Libyans doubt UNSMIL's neutrality.

In its statement announcing the initiative, UNSMIL was at pains to emphasize its neutrality toward all factions and its respect for Libya's sovereignty and stability. But that didn't stop the storm of criticism and demonstrations, prompting the mission to call off the meeting scheduled for June 18-19.

The critics didn't attack UNSMIL only for alleged bias. They also attacked it for the way UN and western diplomats invited delegates to the meeting. This was dramatized by a June 12 TV interview with Tayeb al Sharif, a key figure in eastern Libya's tribal politics -- he's a member of the council of elders for the Obaidat tribe, the biggest in the East -- who was invited to participate in the first round of the dialogue. In addition to raising similar concerns about pro-Islamist bias in the initiative's draft, al-Sharif scolded the UN for failing to send him an agenda for the meeting or a list of participants, despite repeated requests. "I obtained all this information [about the initiative] through my own contacts and from other sources." al-Sharif said. He also faulted the UN initiative for failing to address the roots of the problems that now plague the country. "To my huge surprise," he said, "I found out that the point of the invitation was not to discuss the present situation in Libya and the future of Libya, nor was it about what should be done in order to save Libya from the current crisis."

There are several reasons why UNSMIL and the British and American special envoys encountered these problems, but one of the most important is their failure to consult with important political players outside of Tripoli. Indeed, any initiative by the international community is likely to run into trouble if it relies solely on contact with the political elite in Tripoli and neglects to broaden its base of communications to include the full range of forces across the country's diverse regions. Allowing militias and their political backers in Tripoli to dominate the dialogue process will almost certainly undermine it -- and it was precisely such an approach that derailed the process last month. Libya's friends should not take the current reality of Libya as a given by glorifying the role of militias and their alleged role in the revolution that toppled the Qaddafi regime, thus giving them unlimited legitimacy and impunity.

UNSMIL and Libya's friends in the West must study the results of the parliamentary elections, engage with key groups and players on the local level, and widen their information and communication base. If any dialogue initiative by the international community is to succeed, it must learn from the failures of the Libyan interim parliament and government over the last two years. The politicians in both of these institutions promised an inclusive political process, reconciliation, and transitional justice. It was their failure to deliver on these promises that contributed to the problems that bedevil Libya. The UN and Libya's friends in the international community have to do better.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.