CARACAS – After boarding a bus in Venezuela's capital, Juan Pablo Lares sits in front facing the passengers, turns on a microphone and speaker, and delivers the news while a colleague holds a black cardboard frame around his face to mimic a television screen.
“Good morning! This is the newscast of El Bus TV Capitolio,” he reads from his script to the passengers, most of whom listen carefully while others brush past him to get on or off at their stops. The news he delivers is not always flattering to Venezuela's socialist government.
That rudimentary news delivery system is one of several ways journalists are fighting to preserve press freedom in the South American nation. Media in Venezuela, like in other countries, have been struggling to stay afloat, but their difficulty is not just dwindling advertising revenue.
They face mounting pressures from a government trying to control the flow of news, including fines over criticism of officials and barriers to purchase of newsprint. This has left millions with access to information largely through state media.
“This newscast is a way to overcome censorship and misinformation in Venezuela,” Lares told his audience of passengers after his newscast one July afternoon. Stories that day included the decay of a university considered a World Heritage Site and the effects of the country’s hyperinflation.
Journalists are also giving free newspapers to bus passengers and people at bus stops, and encouraging them to share the papers with others. Other journalists are walking into neighborhoods and reading the news to people gathered around them or listening from their windows.
Since President Nicolás Maduro took office in 2013, more than 60 news outlets have closed, some of them burdened by multimillion-dollar fines imposed by a government telecommunications commission that accused them of promoting hatred and destabilization of the government.
Maduro’s actions against the press, which he accuses of conspiring against his government and spreading false information, are an extension of the tactics deployed by his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, who called independent media an enemy after taking office in 1999.
Natalie Southwick, Latin America and Caribbean program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Venezuela is one of the most difficult environments for the independent press as the government has used various tools — from physical harassment and detention of journalists to the use of the courts against media outlets — to make the space for critical media smaller.
“And all of this ultimately contributes to this overall goal of trying to control information, trying to control the narrative both within and outside of the country,” said Southwick. “And that’s why we see people from (President Recep) Erdogan in Turkey to someone like Maduro in Venezuela really targeting the independent press. They know that that reporting poses a threat to their ability to control what people hear and how they make decisions.”
A court in May seized the Caracas headquarters of the newspaper El Nacional, an outlet critical of Maduro and his closest collaborators. The action was the result of a defamation lawsuit filed by the vice president of the ruling party, Diosdado Cabello, and sought to guarantee a multimillion-dollar payment in damages.
That same month, the newspaper El Tiempo de Anzoátegui, in the country's northeast, stopped printing but kept its digital edition. The nongovernmental organization Espacio Público, which documents media censorship in Venezuela, said the newspaper suspended its print edition because of hyperinflation, increased maintenance costs and a shortage of newsprint. Importing newsprint has been made difficult by the government’s tight currency controls, which have only eased recently, and the creation of a state-run monopoly to sell the paper to media companies.
Now, residents in 11 of the country’s 23 states no longer have access to regional newspapers, according to Espacio Público.
The pressures have even pushed some to abandon the country after selling their assets. That was the case at the Globovisión news channel.
In 2013, the channel was sold to a group of businessmen, including Raúl Gorrín, a friend of Maduro’s government who has been sanctioned by Washington over fraud accusations. Its original owners fled the country after several legal proceedings were launched against them, some linked to other commercial activities. They maintained they had not committed any crimes and were being prosecuted because Globovisión had been critical of Maduro.
Daniela Alvarado, coordinator of information freedom atVenezuela's independent Press and Society Institute, said the use of alternative ways to report news "has been the positive side of the terrible consequences for journalism in the country, censorship and the precarious conditions that are currently being experienced.”
“It is very important to highlight the work these journalists, these media, are doing to seek new ways to reach audiences and to not only think of audiences as something massive, as something of a national scope, but to start locally with journalism that prioritizes the needs of neighbors,” said Alvarado, whose organization monitors violations of the rights of journalists.
The hostility toward the press comes as Venezuela’s political, social and economic crises, attributed to plummeting oil prices and two decades of government mismanagement, continue to deepen. The country has been in recession for years. Millions live in poverty amid high food prices, low wages and hyperinflation.
“What we are doing is journalism but in a different way,” said Maximiliano Bruzual, another journalist with El Bus TV. “Journalism is used to being the media reporting news on television, radio or the print media. What we do is get out of the box so to speak."
Francisco Marquez used to sell dozens of newspapers a day from a kiosk in Caracas. Today, a full week’s supply of newspapers is three copies.
“Three newspaper units. So, three people come and take one newspaper each and it’s over,” he said Saturday next to his kiosk.
Hundreds of miles away, southwest of Caracas in the country’s Andean region, the newspaper La Nación once printed more than 30 pages every day and won national journalism awards.
Its head, Omaira Labrador, recalled that area residents used to call the newspaper because local leaders would react to stories and address citizens’ complaints. There were classified ads and during elections, the newspaper would be a lot thicker.
But today, the pandemic, shortages of newsprint and fuel and far fewer classified ads have reduced the newspaper in the state of Táchira to less than 15 pages and only four editions a week.
Labrador said the displacement of newspapers by online outlets and social networks has also affected La Nación, but while the newspaper has a website, people in rural communities prefer to get their news in print.
Last year, she formed an alliance with other media outlets, and since December they have produced a newscast aired by various radio stations. The goal, she said, is to “fulfill the social mission of all media” to keep people informed.
“By radio, by press, by television, but let yourself be informed,” she said.
Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.