Getting Out the News in Chaotic Venezuela

May 2, 2019 09:00 AM
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The morning rush hour in downtown Caracas may look like any other, but dig just a little bit and one can see how different it really is.

The Metro rail by and large doesn’t work, and the buses are unreliable. Electricity is spotty and prone to fail, just like Wi-Fi and the Internet. Some residences in the city haven’t had water for six months, and hyper-inflation has left Caracas largely cashless.

Noticeably, there is very little news, whether on the radio or TV, in newsprint, or online. What does exist is largely state controlled, and independent voices are hard to find. But they are there, thanks to the tenacity of a committed corps of journalists working in a country that’s largely broken down.

“Reporters feel frustrated by the living conditions of their families and themselves,” says Cesar Batiz, editor of El Pitazo, one of the largest independent media outlets.
“There is no secret that Venezuelan journalists have to deal with an authoritarian government, like in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador or Russia. They also have to deal with everyday problems such as not finding food, medicine, transportation or paying rent, that every year is more difficult to do,” Batiz says.

El Pitazo boasts that, unlike many media organizations today, they have reporters in every part of Venezuela.

“They (Venezuelan government) don’t like that we are creating awareness and informing Venezuelans. We have people in every community, they are our ears and voice. They tell us what is going on in their neighborhoods and they inform other people of what we are publishing,” Batiz says.

The government of Nicholas Maduro continues to clamp down on the Venezuela free press. Over the last four years, Venezuela slipped 32 places on the annual World Press Freedom Index, resting now at 148th out of 180 countries.
Media outlets critical of the government are shuttered, reporters harassed and arrested, and Maduro frequently references “media warfare.”

The hazards and challenges facing Venezuelan journalists makes for a long list. They've been harassed, detained, and beaten by police. They've been robbed and assaulted by both pro- and anti-government advocates. The daily search for food, medicine and currency can take many hours - time not spent reporting.

Food, water, shelter

Janeth De Abreu knows well the difficulties facing her journalists. De Abreu is editorial director for VIVO Play, a TV news outlet that was forced off the air and now serves its audience online. 

“Some journalists that work for us have been more than six months without water in their homes,” she says. “They have to bathe themselves with a small container. Another challenge is the lack of transportation before reporters come to work. Public transportation in Caracas is extremely chaotic and the Caracas Metro doesn’t work properly.”

De Abreu arranges transportation for some of her workers, and she’s even let others come stay at her home. Being an editorial director these days, she says, isn’t just about planning news coverage. It’s increasingly important she protect the well-being of her reporters – on and off the job.

“We have had several journalists in fact who have been arrested while they’re working,” De Abreu said. “The day of the drone attack in the Bolivar Avenue, one of the journalists who was working that day was sent to the location immediately.

“When something like this happens in Venezuela, our journalists go prepared with anti-riot equipment, including bullet proof vests and helmets. When we got to the location, the National Guard officers were suspicious about why we were dressed up that way. They detained our team for hours,” she says.

As VIVO Play and others have increasingly moved online, the government has stepped up its aggressive efforts to block access to various Internet sites. Still, De Abreu and her staff try to keep one step ahead of the blocks.

“The fact that we are present on the internet and social media, allows people to get informed,” she says. “There is more news to tell, and that people are following us is a big reward. We have more work to do, but our gratification is bigger, because people are watching us and getting informed.”

No Internet? Take a news bus

Social media apps like WhatsApp might be the go-to tool for journalists like De Abreu, but others have found old-school ways to reach an audience.

A prime example: “El Bus TV”, which is sort of exactly what it sounds like. Under the editorial direction of seasoned journalist Laura Helena Castillo, a crew of about 50 college student volunteers board Venezuelan public buses and simply read the news out loud, all while holding a cut out image of a TV to frame their faces.

“We go on buses and narrate news to an audience that has little or no access to independent media or Internet,” says Castillo. “This is the soul of what we do; we don’t wait for the audience to come to us, we go to where the audience is.”

Not all the passengers like the presentations, but Castillo says as long as enough do she and her team will keep at it. Some of the drivers even let the students ride for free.

Says Castillo: “Our duty is to inform. Working on El Bus TV is like escaping reality, escaping the things we have to go through as Venezuelans. This is something that will make us grow as journalists and as Venezuelan citizens.”

Whether on-the-air, online, or even on a bus, Venezuelan journalists are working exceptionally long hours and often in dangerous situations.

The morning rush long since past, Maria Jesus Vallejo, a reporter for El Pitazo, recently journeyed home in the late-night darkness. The dark walk scares her a little, she says, but what choice does she have? She wants to serve her country -- as a journalist.

“Sometimes I don’t know if what I do is worth it,” she wonders. “Of course, sometimes I feel that the work that I do is very useful and that at some point someone is going to look back and see that human rights were being violated.

“I think my work and publications will be useful for us not to repeat history,” Jesus Vallejo says, “and that has more value than what I make."