Quitting Time

In Venezuela, one newspaper exemplifies a bad trend

The call came on a crisp spring morning, when I was still a journalism student in New York.

“So, I hear you’re working for us,” said a man who identified himself as an “assistant” to the owner of The Daily Journal, Venezuela’s only English-language newspaper. I’d emailed the owner, Julio Augusto López Enríquez, a few days earlier to ask about the possibility of employment if I chose to move to Caracas. “Uh…” was all I got in before he continued. “There are some U.S. military ships off the coast of Venezuela. We want you to go to the Pentagon, and find out what they’re doing there.”

I began to explain that the Pentagon was not only not in New York, but that it also rarely provides information on its operations to unidentified journalists who happen to knock on the door. But I was interrupted once again. “If they won’t talk to you,” the man advised, “take a picture of yourself in front of the Pentagon. We’ll print it, and say that they won’t talk to you.”

I hung up slightly dazed, and very confused. Such an idea flew in the face of everything I’d learned during my yearlong program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Nevertheless, I called the Defense Department, and relayed what I’d found out to López’s assistant. And upon graduation in May 2006, I decided to make the move to Caracas. After all, The Daily Journal had a hardy, sixty-year-old reputation as a breeding ground for successful foreign reporters, and had been specifically recommended to me by an editor at The Associated Press. If a few journalistic standards were bent along the way, well, maybe that came with the cross-cultural territory.

But upon arrival, I quickly discovered that things were more out of line than I’d anticipated. López—who had purchased The Daily Journal in March 2006 for upwards of $1 million, and has since invested large amounts of money in a start-up television station—has a close relationship with President Hugo Chávez’s administration. In Venezuela, where opposition-aligned media are facing increasingly aggressive government measures, state-owned news organizations are becoming more prevalent and many private outlets have adopted less controversial editorial lines. Under López’s direction, The Daily Journal has joined a growing list of media whose overseers prefer that content be shaped less by what is newsworthy than by what will guarantee the government’s monetary endorsement and avoid its reprisals.

The Daily Journal is one of a small handful of daily English-language newspapers that have established themselves in Latin America. In 1990, it had a healthy circulation of 20,000 and news agencies viewed it as a training ground for potential recruits; many prominent journalists started there, and fondly recall developing their skills in a “sink or swim” environment. Today’s Daily Journal resides in low, concrete structure in Caracas’ eastern industrial neighborhood of Boleita Norte. Over the past year, what was once an aging building with stained carpets and a few ancient computers has morphed into a beehive of activity, with López, former owner of a Caracas daily, El Diario de Caracas, as its queen bee. Flat screen televisions hang on every freshly painted wall; the parking lot is filled with shiny new vehicles bearing the logo of López’s new, twenty-four-hour news channel, Canal de Noticias. The newspaper has changed as well. Government-sponsored advertisements, often in Chavista red, are regularly splashed across its pages—many of which are now printed in full color, something it couldn’t previously afford.

Yet despite the financial investment, the quality of the newspaper’s content—particularly on its national pages—is deteriorating. López’s attempts to open bureaus in Peru and Colombia failed; debts left behind in Colombia went unpaid for months. In Caracas, where circulation has dropped below 1,000, a number of news agencies have canceled their subscriptions, or are considering doing so.

When I arrived at the newspaper in November, I was surprised to discover that I had been named “national editor.” Although I had some journalism experience, my Spanish language skills were lacking, and I knew very little about Venezuela. However, I soon came to realize that the position was hardly enviable. The “stories” I was in charge of editing were largely regurgitations of reporting that the Spanish-language papers had done. But what was more disturbing was that I was expected to adhere to a poorly-defined idea of what was considered “appropriate.”

While I was never explicitly told that I couldn’t write a story, or that I had to adopt a certain angle, my higher ups often used vaguely-worded instructions to encourage slanted coverage. “Look at this,” the editor, Miguel Angel Villaba, advised me shortly after my arrival, flipping through the paper. He’d recently been promoted to the position after his predecessor was fired. “So be careful,” he said pointedly, indicating an advertisement picturing a group of smiling, red-clad participants in one of the president’s many social programs, followed closely by one for Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., the state-owned oil company. “I’m an opposition guy,” he said. “But I don’t want to get in trouble, and I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

As national editor, I was often required to include blatantly pro-government feature stories and interviews, and reporters were encouraged to write them. One such reporter, Pacifica Goddard, was pushed to write a gushing piece about the National Reserves, who were beginning training. She was loathe to do so, but obliged. I was expected to publish this story, as well as regular interviews with a Chavista economist named Eugenio Mora. “This really has to go in today,” was a phrase I heard repeatedly in regards to such material. It was never quite clear who was dictating the order, and there was no discussion of why the piece in question should take precedence over other, more newsworthy items. A month after I left the paper, my successor, Chris Poole, wrote a detailed letter expressing his indignation at being required to include one such interview, in which Mora called on the government to take legal action against a daily newspaper columnist who’d been accusing the government of corruption. Poole-who has since left The Daily Journal-planned to circulate this letter around the office, but the editor told him if he did, he’d be fired.

Others were told to negatively slant or limit their coverage of opposition party members. One editor had his photograph of choice - picturing an opposition mayor of the Caracas municipality of Baruta, Capriles Radonski-removed because, he was told, the newspaper didn’t want to provide too much space for any one politician and his opinion. Dan Cancel, who covered national news at The Daily Journal during the change of ownership, was once asked to write what was essentially a “slander piece” about Radonski, calling his policy of placing stickers on the houses of wealthy Caraqueños who hadn’t paid their taxes “unconstitutional.” Cancel, who ended up writing a short piece about the decision, with no mention of the Constitution, said he felt as though he was being used. “I was pretty angry, and my instinct was obviously to quit,” says Cancel. “But there aren’t that many options in Caracas.” He did eventually leave when another opportunity presented itself.

López maintains warm relationships with many in the Chávez administration; the Boleita beehive is often visited by the likes of National Assembly Deputy Luis Tascón, author of the infamous “Tascón List,” which publicly named everybody who signed the recall referendum on Chávez’s presidency. López is especially close with the mayor of Caracas, Juan Barreto, who heads a government-owned regional television station called Ávila TV. López’s first editor-in-chief once worked in the mayor’s office.

Even Chávez has publicly recognized López, giving him a shout-out over an open microphone at a press conference. “Look, there’s Julio Augusto!” Chávez was reported to have said in the Spanish-language magazine, Exceso. “How’ve you been?”

Meanwhile, however, other members of the media are receiving very different treatment, especially the 53-year-old Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV. Chávez faulted the station for supporting the attempted 2002 coup, during which he was briefly ousted from office. Many private media outlets—particularly those that Chávez has referred to as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”—failed to cover the president’s return to power. Since, two of these stations—Televen and Venevision—have changed their editorial line dramatically, leaving just two opposition-aligned networks highly critical of the Chávez regime: RCTV, and Globovision, which is only broadcast in Caracas and Carabobo state.

Just after Christmas, during a post-reelection speech, Chávez announced that he wouldn’t renew RCTV’s broadcasting license, which he claimed was due to expire at the end of May; RCTV argued that its license was valid until 2012. “There will be no new concession for that coup-plotting television channel,” he declared to the troops assembled at Fuerte Tiuna, a Caracas military base. The statement set off a verbal firestorm. Venezuela’s top Catholic prelates, watchdog groups, such as Reporters Without Borders, and the Organization of American States all expressed grave concern. Chávez, backed by his Minister of Communication and Information, responded with a barrage of insults. Reactions on the streets were mixed. RCTV workers and supporters, warning that other news stations could be next, staged numerous demonstrations. Meanwhile, at an anti-Bush rally staged during the U.S. president’s Latin America tour, many women—sporting Chavista red from head to toe—grasped signs that read “RCTVas,” or “RCTV, go.” That channel is just “sex and more sex,” one woman told me.

And a few days ago, on May 27, RCTV was replaced by a state-owned television station called Televisora Venezolana Social. Protestors are taking to the streets; clashes with police have resulted in injuries on both sides and nearly two hundred demonstrators have been arrested. Press freedom groups continue to express concern about the decision’s implications. In early January, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists sent a delegation to meet with government officials, members of the private-and state-owned-press, and media analysts. They were not happy with what they found. “We have reviewed all the documents, and the government is clearly not following procedure,” says Carlos Lauria, CPJ’s Americas program coordinator and a member of the delegation. “The state has a right to assign and regulate broadcast concessions, but they should do it following protocol.” This is not the first move by Chávez that has troubled such groups. In 2005, changes to the penal code that made it easier to prosecute journalists, and the introduction of The Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television—aimed at protecting children from violent and sexual content—was faulted for vague wording that enables the government to prosecute media at its discretion. Among other offenses, the government contended that RCTV violated this law by broadcasting programming it publicly decried as “pornography.” Media analysts in Venezuela, however, say that RCTV was targeted less for its programming than for its political stance and widespread influence.

As the media frenzy over RCTV was reaching its height in early March, some of us at The Daily Journal decided to put together a two-page center spread on the debate over the channel’s right to broadcast. But when we proposed the plan to our editor, he advised us keep it to—at most—one page. The issue, he said, was “too controversial.”

It was at that point that I decided to call it quits. Feeling frustrated and disillusioned, I relinquished my position at The Daily Journal a few weeks later. Lopez’s newspaper and television channel represent an emerging class of media, one defined by its government connections. At the same time, a war on the opposition-aligned media is being waged, as shown by the silencing of RCTV. Two days after it went off the air, Chávez publicly threatened to shut down Globovision, the only remaining opposition network, which he accused of inciting violence and misreporting recent protests against the RCTV decision. Such developments hardly bode well for Venezuela. As the government continues to expand its media microphone, the opposition’s voice is quickly dropping to a whisper.

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Rachel Jones is a freelance writer based in Caracas.