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Venezuela’s Newspapers Are Running Out of Paper

A shortage of newsprint and the repression of journalists loom over coverage of the protests that have rattled the country.

by Alice Speri
Feb 27 2014, 3:20am

Photo via Getty Images/Juan Barreto

In addition to the shortages of toilet paper, flour, and medicine that have brought Venezuelans to the streets over the past few weeks, local print journalist have another concern: they’re running short on newsprint.

It’s gotten pretty bad - so much that El Nacional, one of the country’s leading newspapers, has added a tagline to its front-page header – “there are no newspapers without paper.”

In a country with a troubled – if contested – record on press freedom, the paper shortage has taken on an eerie symbolism.

“There’s this sort of tragicomic metaphor about it,” a Venezuelan journalist, who asked not to be named, told VICE News. “They literally don’t have paper. Every day the newspapers have less pages.”

Last Friday, El Nacional was only six pages long.

The problem is that Venezuela imports most of its paper from the US and Canada, but due to the government controlling the value of currency, getting enough dollars to restock on supplies can take a long time. Sometimes too long.

While most Venezuelan newspapers also have websites, at least 14 have been forced to shrink or cut their print editions, leaving a significant number of readers – those without iPads and smartphones – with no access to their content, the Committee to Protect Journalists said.

Venezuela has the fourth-highest Twitter penetration rate in the world, according to the Associated Press. Ironically, it also has one of the slowest Internet download speeds in the world – and that’s before the government started to allegedly tamper with Internet services after the protests started.

Some 44 percent of Venezuelans use the Internet, according to 2012 statistics by the International Telecommunications Union – the UN agency for communication technology. Most of them are under 35, well educated and from Caracas.

Venezuelan journalists told the media watch group that they think supplies were deliberately slowed down – just like the Internet, which the government has reportedly disrupted in the aftermath of the protests.

“Most newspapers are independent and critical. And the government doesn’t like that,” El Nacional’s editor Miguel Henrique Otero told CPJ.

Last month, members of Venezuelan press associations, unions and students protested the paper shortage at a rally outside the headquarters of the former Commission on Administration of Foreign Exchange.

The video below shows the protesters chanting “freedom of expression” and “no paper, no work.”

Members of the Venezuelan press protested a shortage of newsprint.

Julio Chavez, who heads the national assembly’s media commission, told a state-run TV channel last month that Venezuela has actually imported 30 percent more newsprint in 2013 than the year before. He accused newspapers of hoarding and reselling their newsprint stocks for profit.

But Venezuela’s media problems don’t end at the printing press.

The government expelled, then re-invited, a team of CNN reporters covering the latest protests. It also took a critical Colombian channel off the air.

Maduro accused CNN of “calling for civil war, hatred” and of “lying to the world about what is happening in Venezuela,” the network reported.

But some journalists faced worse repression than having their credentials revoked. Marya Cienfuegos, a state television employee, was shot – allegedly by opposition protesters – while covering the demonstrations, CPJ reported, and at least 13 journalists were assaulted by law enforcement and government supporters, according to local freedom of expression group Espacio Publico.

“The censorship is so brutal,” Venezuelan journalist Mariana Atencio told VICE News. Atencio, who directed a documentary on press freedom in Venezuela and was briefly detained while covering last year’s presidential election, said things got “much worse” during the latest round of protests.

Last week, her cameraman was assaulted while covering the rallies in Altamira Square in Caracas.

“He came to the office with plastic bullets and blood all over his legs,” Atencio said.

Then during the weekend, she had her phone – with contacts for all her sources – snapped out of her hands by a man on a motorcycle.

“You can’t really say they were hurting me, Mariana the journalist, or was I just attacked as a regular Venezuelan because that’s what they have to go through every day?” she asked.