Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He is also the author of “We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom.”
With Venezuela’s entire electrical grid on the fritz, the economy paralyzed and the health system collapsed, the suffering of Venezuelans knows no limits. Amid their many basic needs — food, sanitation and transportation — there is another that is less obvious but no less essential: information.
It goes without saying that Venezuelans are living through a huge news story. But the government of Nicolás Maduro wants to keep the people of Venezuela in the dark. “It’s like a movie about the apocalypse and we continue to work very hard to cover it,” said Luz Mely Reyes, the editor of Efecto Cocuyo, a leading independent news website.
Venezuelans need accurate and timely information to make life and death decisions, such as where to find food or whether to leave the country. They also need information to make decisions about their country’s political future: What is the political program of the opposition leader Juan Guaidó? What is the constitutional basis for his claim to the presidency?
Of course, this is precisely the kind of information that the Maduro government does not want people to have. Maduro has taken dramatic, crude and sometimes brutal steps to impose censorship. Government-backed militias, known as colectivos, have physically assaulted journalists covering public events. The government has imposed Internet shutdowns to coincide with Guaidó's rallies. International journalists have been denied access to the country and those admitted, such as Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, have faced harassment and worse. A prominent radio journalist and analyst, Luis Carlos Díaz, was detained Tuesday and released after 24 hours. Díaz is facing spurious charges of “incitement” and is barred from leaving the country.
While Maduro has increased the attacks as his government comes under pressure, the structure of media repression was put in place by his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Chávez, who swept to power in 1999 on a wave of popular support, began the media crackdown following a failed 2002 coup, which was backed by wealthy media owners and the United States. In the aftermath, Chávez used political and regulatory pressure to transform the media landscape, orchestrating the sale of critical outlets to owners who backed his agenda and investing heavily in state-run media outlets loyal to the government.
Just as humanitarian aid has become a battleground in Maduro’s endgame, so too has information. A critical way for the international community to support Venezuelans is to defend the right of the people to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” as guaranteed under international law.
International and regional media organizations — particularly Spanish-language outlets — should maximize their coverage of the crisis, either by sending correspondents into the country or, if that’s not possible, by using social media and interviews with the refugees who are pouring across the border into Colombia. Press freedom groups — including the one I run, the Committee to Protect Journalists — need to stand up for the rights of Venezuelan journalists, document and denounce violations, and provide safety information and support to Venezuelan journalists working in dangerous conditions. Technology companies should push out tools that will allow Venezuelans to circumvent Internet censorship.
Governments also have a role to play. While the United States has the ability to apply political and economic pressure on Venezuela through targeted sanctions, its ability to exercise moral influence — often called soft power — is limited by its interventionist history in the region. Given President Trump’s contempt for the role of the media — not to mention his decision to expel Ramos himself from a 2015 campaign event — no one is going to believe this administration’s approach to Venezuela is driven by a concern for press freedom.
Instead, pressure should be applied through the Lima Group, which includes many Latin American governments along with Canada. The Organization of American States, led by a former Uruguayan foreign minister, Luis Almagro, should continue to challenge the Maduro government on its failure to uphold its human rights obligations. Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights and former Chilean president, has sent a team to Venezuela to assess conditions on the ground for a formal visit. It’s positive that Bachelet expressed concern about Díaz while he was being held. Now she needs to insist that all journalists in the country are able to work freely without government interference.
Every totalitarian system is based on control of information — but that need becomes acute when a government faces a direct threat. Supporting the rights of Venezuelans to accurate and timely information amid the unfolding crisis is not an attack on the country’s sovereignty. To the contrary. It’s a way of ensuring that Venezuelans retain the ability to determine their political future.