Over the past decade and half, the streets of Venezuela have become a battlefield for journalists. This year, the country came third-to-last in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, with independent NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) naming Venezuela’s situation “difficult.” The independent media’s virtual blocking from official sources, and the active persecution practiced by Nicolás Maduro and his government –and Hugo Chávez before him– against critical voices, are some of the biggest obstacles these professionals face.
The examples are many –just read about Chilean-Venezuelan political prisoner (now on house arrest) Braulio Jatar, or New York Times reporter Nicholas Casey, who was banned from the country in October 2016. Reports abound of the countless arbitrary arrests and assaults suffered by reporters, camera crews, and photographers in the recent protests against Maduro and his constituent assembly referendum.
The shift in how information is shared in Venezuela’s mass media can be traced back to Chávez’s silencing of TV station RCTV 20 years ago. A large percentage of TV & radio stations and print publications are now government-owned, and only share what Venezuelans have come to know as the “official version” of events; the majority of the remaining private outlets recur to self-censorship in order to stay out of trouble.
This means Venezuela’s citizens have practically just one place where they can find out what’s going on in their own country: the Internet. And here too, there are obstacles. Venezuela has the slowest internet connection in Latin America, and a penetration of just 53% –of which only 2% represent low-income communities. Right now, it’s becoming more and more common for opposition politicians to broadcast their press conferences on Periscope, for example, or to witness police enforcement excesses on Facebook Live transmissions.
In the context of these past 100+ days of protests, a group of journalism students from Monteávila University, in Caracas, have stepped in to try and fight journalism’s good fight. They turned their thesis into El Tambor –a full-fledged independent online news medium, which uses tools like infographics, videos, photos, and animations targeted to millennial audiences. What began as a four person outfit is now a team of 45 young people based in Caracas –and an Instagram account with over 70,000 followers– with a passion and a sense of duty to keep their fellow Venezuelans informed.
Their special coverage of the almost-daily demonstrations that have been going on in Caracas has required them to remain on the front lines, which means their reporters are often risking their lives in the middle of violent actions from police, military, and even paramilitary groups. That’s why El Tambor has started a crowdfunding campaign to acquire equipment to protect themselves in these situations, like gas masks, bulletproof vests, safety helmets, as well as additional technology to keep doing their job.
We spoke to Jorge Lander, co-founder of El Tambor, to learn about their experience as an independent news medium the social turmoil of today’s Venezuela.
What are some of the obstacles journalists face today while doing their job in Venezuela?
Every day when we go out to cover the demonstrations in Venezuela, we have to wear bulletproof vests, gas masks, safety helmets, and we have to identify all of our equipment with press tags to ID ourselves. Still, three of our reporters have been assaulted by both government police forces and by violent paramilitary groups looking to stop us from doing our job. Despite all these threats, we remain determined, informing our citizens and the rest of the world about what’s going on, because that’s our role as journalism students.
How has the experience been for the El Tambor members covering these ongoing 100+ days of protests?
Going out to do coverage gives us mixed feelings and emotions. At one moment, you’re photographing a protest full of chants and posters against the government, and minutes later you start seeing people badly hurt because of repression by police enforcement officers. We risk our lives doing our job because, with this censorship and lack of information, our society needs us. In spite all of this, seeing the final result –seeing the debates generated by the news and knowing that our audience is thinking critically about what we post, makes us proud and gives us strength to go on.
In this particular moment, what’s the importance of online media outlets like yours which inform about what’s going on in Venezuela?
In the middle of the censorship we experience in Venezuela, digital media has been fundamental for sharing what’s going on here. That’s why the responsibility we assume as a medium is increasingly bigger; we’re committed to the country, and that’s why all the information we post on our website and social media is rigorously confirmed. We’ve witnessed how people are trusting online media more and more; they’re basically the only windows Venezuelans have to know what’s going on in the country.
As journalism students, how do you see the future of your profession in a country like yours?
We face Venezuela’s situation with optimism. We believe deeply that there will be a positive change in our country, politically and socially speaking. That’s why we keep working with care, using the few resources we have at hand, and always fighting to overcome the obstacles. Because we know we’re responsible for building the future of our country; it’s in our hands to build tomorrow’s journalism. We firmly believe we’ll be pioneers in communications here and, amidst the crisis, we see a space for learning and opportunities that will guide us to a bright future.
Donate here to support El Tambor’s crowdfunding efforts.