The New Censorship Technique in Latin America: Force a Sale

PHOTO: A mural in Sinaloa, Meixco. Unknown artist.

Unknown artist in Sinaloa, Mexico.

What’s worse than a dying news outlet? One that dies unceremoniously. That is precisely what happened in the last six months in Ecuador and Venezuela, with the newsmagazine Vanguardia and the news channel Globovision, respectively.

We all know the governments of Venezuela and Ecuador dislike critical media to varying degrees. The images of Radio Caracas Television’s (RCTV’s) signal going black in May 2007, after the now deceased Hugo Chávez opted not to renew their broadcasting license, or journalist Emilio Palacio being thrown out from the Carondelet Palace by Rafael Correa—coincidentally in the same week—are still fresh in our minds. Yet, that is not what is happening now.

The recent shutdown of Vanguardia and the sale of Globovision shed some light into an unfortunate new trend in the region: how profit motives can lead to the disintegration of news bureaus and the subsequent sale or shutdown of news outlets in Latin America. This "slow death" is a dangerous rollback of freedom of expression in these countries, because the surreptitious way in which news outlets disappear doesn't spark a societal reaction.

What’s worse: the sell out divides tight-knit news teams between those who support the owners’ decision to sell and those who don’t. The owners themselves walk out in a shadow of undeserved shame. After years of fighting against the government, they end up being hated by some of the employees and the majority of public for having thrown in the towel.

The similarities

Vanguardia and Globovision were two independent news outlets that were the target of government harassment for years in Ecuador and Venezuela. Two critical voices that put up a good fight to inform those that weren’t aligned with the government in these two extremely polarized nations. Both were stealthily sold by their owners or stockholders to avoid financial or legal hurdles.

With the disappearance of Vanguardia, Ecuadorians lost the only investigative magazine in the country. With the sale of Globovision, Venezuelans lost the only television station critical of the government.

The case of Vanguardia

For eight years Vanguardia published weekly editions that featured hard-hitting investigations about Correa officials. They covered the government backed censure of Ecuadorian politician Fernando Balda in Colombia, who has since been jailed; allegations of corruption against former Central Bank President Pedro Delgado—a cousin of Correa who fled to Miami—; as well as cloudy government oil sales to China, among other stories.

And they paid a heavy price for it.

In 2012 officials of the Ministry of Labor Relations raided the Quito headquarters of the magazine and impounded computers, furniture and other assets, according to a CPJ report. “The raid was justified as being a response to non-compliance with an administrative sanction,” reads the CPJ statement, “regarding the magazine’s failure to heed the requirement that it employ a certain number of handicapped persons on its staff”. Vanguardia had suffered another government-backed raid in December 2010, because it supposedly owed rent for its offices.

The magazine's team was lead by journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Iván Flores Poveda, both of whom had their own history of harassment by Rafael Correa's Government.

Calderon, the magazine's director, is co-author of "Gran Hermano", the controversial book that revealed the supposedly hidden contracts that Fabricio Correa, the president's brother, had with the state. He was ordered to pay the president $2 million for “moral damages,” even though charges were later dropped.

Flores Poveda, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, was also constantly mocked in Correa's Saturday broadcasts.

"Ivan Flores, the one who massacres dignities and destroys families for his hobby," Correa said on national television, while the audience saw a full-screen photo of Flores. "He is the one who wants to preach us on what is right.. he is shameless, a cynic, immoral…", said the president as he drank some water. Meanwhile, a song played in the background with the lyrics, "and everyday, and everyday…newspapers printed crap."

The owner and president of Vanguardia, Francisco Vivanco, supported his staff members and was himself a repeated target of Mr. Correa’s televised rants.

However, Ecuador's new media law was, passed in June of this year, was apparently the last straw. The law had been drafted a couple of years back and was ironically approved by Congress on the same weekend NSA leaker Edward Snowden reportedly requested asylum in Ecuador.

Mr. Vivanco said he was shutting down the magazine because the controversial law made it difficult to practice investigative journalism in Ecuador. He prepared the following statement for Vanguardia’s final issue:

“We cannot accept in silence that the government should determine the topics and agendas that we can cover,” it read, according to the New York Times, “…rejecting the idea that all freedom of information should be regulated, inspected and that a superintendent chosen by the president should stand as executioner to penalize.”

Vivanco was right in that assessment, as the law prohibits the supposed "media lynching" of public figures, makes it difficult to cover corruption and report on trials that don't have a definite sentence.

But the way he shut down Vanguardia is not consistent with his prior conduct.

The staff was informed of the owner’s decision with no preamble. They were expected to leave immediately. The printing press was stopped, literally (my camera crew was detained at the security gate after we’d been granted permission to film inside and done so on a prior occasion).

But a group of journalists wasn’t going to take it. Led by Calderón, they got together to leak the farewell issue of the magazine, #398, which paradoxically featured Mr. Snowden on the cover.

“Mr. Vivanco suspended the printing process, which was a process of self-censorship for us,” said Desiré Yépez, a Vanguardia journalist. “To stop it, what we decided…what we did was spread that issue on social media.”

The Vivanco camp has stated on the magazine’s site that they didn’t authorize the farewell issue and that the employees involved illegally used their copyrighted logos and image. That has generated even more flak from former employees.

“The directors have behaved like the government entities have behaved with us in the past,” said Jean Cano, chief of information at Vanguardia, “taking away our hard drives, taking away our servers, changing the locks on us, telling us to get the heck out of the house, so, obviously, there’s has been an absolute division.”

The abrupt closure of the magazine and its last print edition generated the rupture of what was once a compact editorial team.

Since then, Juan Carlos Calderón and his group have taken the Vanguardia owners to court over the failure to pay their severance packages.

“I don’t know if his intention was to get the team out of the way for other reasons,” said Calderón about Vanguardia’s owner, “but that we can’t know today, because it was too unplanned, abrupt and also with little transparency.”

Flores Poveda, whom we interviewed a year ago after the second raid on the magazine, didn’t show up to two pre-scheduled interviews. He left Ecuador for Spain a couple of days after the magazine closed.

“If one day, when this time of aggravation has passed, we could all tell our stories…it would make for a very sad book,” said Flores in 2012.

President Correa didn’t miss a chance to comment on the magazine’s shutdown in his subsequent speech. “Vanguardia isn’t closing because of the new media law, but for financial reasons,” he said. He stated the owner couldn’t demonstrate the print run the magazine claimed to have, a number that must now be made public in accordance with the law.

Another incongruence? Mr. Vivanco also owns the newspaper La Hora, which will continue to circulate regardless of the new media law.

History will also judge the owners of Globovision, the only 24-hour news network in Venezuela, although at the moment, public opinion has favored them more than their Ecuadoran counterparts.

While exiled in Miami with his oldest son, owner Guillermo Zuloaga announced the sale of Globovision a few weeks before the last general election in Venezuela.

After 14 years of combating the Chavez government and more than a dozen judicial processes against them, Globovision was passed on to the three owners of a Caracas-based insurance company called “Seguros La Vitalicia.”

The deal signed by Zuloaga allowed Globovision to conduct its regular election coverage under it’s traditional editorial team, lead by vice-president Maria Fernanda Flores. Hence, the sale would become formal on April 15, 2013.

Until then, nobody really knew how fast the channel’s editorial stance would change, even though Mexican journalist, Enrique Krauze, immediately signaled out the owners’ strong link to Chavista strongman Diosdado Cabello in a press-freedom conference in Puebla when the sale was announced.

One day after the most contested election in Venezuelan history (Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, won by 1% of the vote), Globovision employees said goodbye to their longtime supervisors, Flores among them.

Globovision employees wept as they said goodbye to Zuloaga’s younger son and Flores, who had been at the channel since its inception 20 years ago. Maria Fernanda Flores during her last day at Globovision.

“She’s leaving because of an obligation this network’s owners are being forced to fulfill,” said DelValle Canelón, one of the channel’s main political reporters about Flores’s departure. “They’re having to sell this channel because they are asphyxiated legally and want to maintain stability for the employees, and that removal comes from limiting freedom of speech.”

The channel’s new direction was laid clear before viewers in the first weeks. The station refused to keep broadcasting the speeches and events of opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, who was still rightfully contesting the election results.

Finally, a couple of weeks after the sale, one of Globovision’s new owners, Juan Domingo Cordero, was invited to the Miraflores Palace to meet with president elect Nicolás Maduro, his wife Cilia Flores and Hugo Chávez’s son in law, Jorge Arreaza. The meet and greet was broadcast on the network.

“We all know the reasons why Globovision didn’t come to this Palace,” said Cordero on national television, “that won’t happen again at Globovision.”

After that, many of Globovision’s faces left the station, such as Francisco “Kiko” Bautista, Carla Angola and Nitu Pérez Osuna; but also longtime investigators and opinion editors like Lysber Ramos Sol.

But Leopoldo Castillo, Globovision’s main anchor and presenter of their highest show “Aló Ciudadano”, decided to give the new owners the benefit of the doubt. He accepted an offer to become the channel’s new director.

“They are buying a brand and that brand is Globovision,” he said in his house on the day of the sale. “They are buying a way of managing the news and if they want to maintain that, they need all of us.”

His tenure as director lasted four months.

After the owners cancelled two shows that featured low-income families’ perils and discontent with the Chavez Administration, Castillo had enough. He said goodbye to his audience live on the air with Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” in the background.

“Here we confronted the abuses of power and we had to do it because a news outlet has to be critical,” he said after taking his anchor jacket off, “…it should embrace the sentiment, the hope of those who don’t have access to a microphone…”

Since Castillo’s resignation on Aug. 16, Globovision ended six news and current affairs programs and let go of more than a dozen journalists.

Long-term repercussions

What becomes evident is that the administrations of Maduro and Correa are the clear winners in both outcomes. Two outlets have shut down and fewer ones are left to report on government corruption and abuse. Profit motives are the new method semi-totalitarian governments have devised to get rid of dissident voices.

Even though these governments and their associates have to shell out the cash and/or financially pressure media owners, the result is more convenient than when an outlet is shut off. No semi-autocratic government wants the demonstrations in the streets provoked by the closure of RCTV in Venezuela. That public sentiment made way for the emergence of a student movement that made Hugo Chavez lose a referendum six months later. Maduro and Correa learned that lesson well.

When it comes to press freedom, it’s always hardest to tell the story that develops in various shades of gray. Unfortunately, that’s the state of press freedom in Latin America nowadays. We can’t compare ourselves to Pakistan or Syria, but must be concerned by this alarming new trend in our region, because in the end the ordinary, everyday citizens stand to lose the most.

As a journalist who has been covering the state of news media in Latin America for the past two years, I would like to invite you to watch “PRESSionados” (“PRESSured” in English), a documentary on the fragile state of press freedom in Latin America. “PRESSionados” takes the viewer from Ecuador, to Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, Brazil and Mexico to examine how reporters struggle to cover the news under the threat of governmental persecution, exile or even death.

PRESSionados will air nationwide on Univision Network Sunday, December 15th, 2013 at 3:45 pm ET/ 2:45 pm CT/ 2:45 PT. Extended video versions of the cases of Globovision and Vanguardia can be found on Univision.com, Fusion.net and in the following link http://t.co/c1ZF4JApAt

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