Paper shortage threatens closure of Venezuela dailies
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A shortage of paper in Venezuela is forcing some local newspapers to stop printing their editions and others to scale down publications. Rights groups fear the freedom of the press is once again under threat in the South American country.
On January 21, El Expreso, a regional daily in the southeastern state of Bolivar shut down its printing press for lack of paper, bringing the number of newspapers that have disappeared from Venezuelan newsstands in the past four months to 10.
The scarcity of paper for printing newspapers and magazines is part of Venezuela’s larger struggle to purchase key imports, but advocates of a robust and free press say the new problem has its own unique and worrying repercussions.
“It has become a real danger to the free flow of information, and is therefore affecting citizens’ ability to form opinions and make decisions,” Marianela Balbi, president of the Institute for Press and Society (IPYS), a Caracas-based independent media watchdog group, told FRANCE 24.
The lack of paper, but also ink and other products needed for the printing process, was first noticed in September. While the problem was at first limited to small regional dailies, it is now hurting some with national distribution.
IPYS has reported that besides the shutdown of 10 dailies, 14 other newspapers have been forced to cut back the number of pages in each issue, or abandon weekend inserts.
Journalists in the streets
On Monday, employees of El Nacional, one of the most widely-read dailies in the country, staged a march in downtown Caracas to raise awareness of the problem, demanding that President Nicolas Maduro’s government take steps to remedy the situation.
“For your right to stay informed. For my right to work,” said one banner held up by angry journalists. “Free press in danger,” warned another.
Members of Venezuela’s National Union of Press Workers (SNTP, its acronym in Spanish), backed by university students, staged a fresh protest in the capital on Tuesday. Besides stifling information and democracy, the SNTP says the paper shortage could kill thousands of jobs.
Dwindling stocks of imported products, including milk, medicines and even toilet paper, has become a common predicament for Venezuelan consumers and the country’s Socialist government.
Economists blame the government’s price controls and its monopoly on foreign currency. Dollars needed to purchase precious items on the international market are in short supply, and the government has set up strict rules for acquiring the coveted greenbacks.
El Nacional newspaper claims it has been unable to place an order for new paper since last May, a complaint echoed by many other companies.
IPYS’s Balbi admits that Maduro’s government has recently freed up some dollars to sustain regional dailies, but she insists the government needs to go further by lifting the cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles that limit newsrooms’ access to dollars, and therefore to paper.
She denied that newspapers that were more critical of the government had been targeted by specifically withholding US currency from them, but agreed that independent news outlets are disproportionately affected. Government-controlled publications do not face the same administrative checks in place for private companies and citizens.
If authorities allow the paper shortage to continue, it could easily be interpreted not just as political inefficiency, but as a form of censorship.
“[Former] president Hugo Chavez, and now Nicolas Maduro’s government, have always had a conflictive relationship with the media,” Balbi said, noting that the two administrations had shut down many private television and radio channels in the past by citing alleged failures to comply with bureaucratic procedures.
“We feel like there is a strategy in place. First it was television, then radio, now newspapers are feeling the pressure,” she said. “Print, and to some extent the Internet, is now the last refuge of independent media.”
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