Last week, the Venezuelan government unveiled its latest initiative against the opposition media. Groups of so-called “communication guerillas”, made up of thousands of school children and students dressed in military-style uniforms, are to be trained to “counter media lies and disinformation” with leaflets, text messages, murals and through the internet.
It’s just the latest tightening of the screws in a country where criticising the government and its president has become a risky occupation. The arrests last month of two prominent opponents of President Hugo Chávez – Guillermo Zuloaga, head of the TV channel Globovision, the last remaining broadcaster critical of the government, and Oswaldo Alvarez, former state governor and presidential candidate – had already raised serious concerns about the future of free speech in the country.
“Freedom of expression in Venezuela is under threat,” says William Echeverría, a journalist and president of the National College of Journalists (CNP) in Caracas. “We’re living in very difficult times in Venezuela where expressing an opinion has become a crime.”
David Ludovic, a political editor at Tal Cual, Venezuela’s leading opposition newspaper, agrees: “Free speech is becoming more and more restricted. Every time there’s an election, attacks against government opponents and critics in the press rise.” Corruption scandals, spiralling crime rates – there are on average 50 murders during any given weekend in Caracas – power cuts and water shortages are just some of the uncomfortable truths of daily life in one of the world’s major oil producing nations that Chávez does not want appearing in the headlines.
The government crackdown on dissenters, where criminal proceedings are increasingly being brought against state opponents, is also creating a climate of self-censorship. “What’s happening at the moment is that the government and Chávista groups are creating a climate of fear to silence their critics. That climate of fear creates self-censorship where some journalists are thinking – ‘I prefer not to express my opinion because this could put me in jail’,” says Echeverría.
Over the years, the government has pushed through a series of laws tightening state control of the airwaves while increasing the penalties for speech and broadcasting offences, including the so-called “insult laws”, which makes it a criminal offence to insult or show disrespect for the president and government institutions.
During his 11 years in power, Chávez has spent over 1,000 hours of airtime talking, and sometimes singing, to the nation during Hello President, his Sunday television show. But that hasn’t stopped the president seeking to expand his media presence. Last month, Chávez announced he would start his own blog and vowed to “bombard” the internet, while hinting that internet access and content in Venezuela should be regulated. “The internet cannot be a completely free space, where anything is said or done,” Chávez said on television recently.
All this means it’s likely that political opponents and the few remaining media outlets intent on taking a line against Chávez will face increasing pressure to toe the party line.