Reimy Chavez took a radical career step last Wednesday.
The 32-year-old anchor for Venezuelan news channel Globovision quit on air, arguing that he had differences “of standards” with the network that couldn’t be surmounted.
Chavez is not alone in his frustration with Globovision, which was until recently the only TV channel in Venezuela that actively criticized the government.
More than 50 Globovision staff have quit, or have been fired, since the news channel was taken over by businessmen with ties to the Venezuelan government a year ago.
Former Globovision staffers have accused the channel of censoring news that does not benefit the government, downplaying the recent wave of protests that has hit the country, and having a complacent attitude to Hugo Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro.
These charges are denied by the channel, whose managers argue that they are just looking to make news more balanced. Globovision director Mayela Leon, said that she was “surprised” by Chavez’s resignation on a CNN en Español Program.
“This is not good practice,” Leon told CNN on Thursday. “We consider that an act like this is an affront to the labor of our journalistic team who is working all day to get our programs on air.”
So what exactly would make Chavez so angry, that he had to quit on air?
We spoke with him about journalistic practices at that channel, and about the current state of freedom of speech in Venezuela, where more than 30 TV stations and radio outlets have been shut down since 2007.
Let’s be clear. Was it your own choice to quit or were you forced to resign?
I quit, on air.
Why did you decide to quit?
Because I ran out of patience, with the way things were done over there. They were doing lots of things I was taught not to do in journalism school
So what were the most frustrating things at Globovision?
There was a lot of censorship within Globovision. They are very complacent with the [venezuelan] government. For example, they totally lost all notion of what breaking news means. Every afternoon we had to broadcast the signal of the state TV channel, to see what the president or other public officials were saying, even if it was not newsworthy.
On top of that you couldn’t say words like ‘food shortages’, barricades, repression, those type of terms were forbidden.
So the language that you used was controlled?
It was controlled yes. Then on Feb. 12th, the first day that the [anti-government] protests in Caracas turned deadly, we were on the air for hours, without saying anything about what was going on, we were in absolute silence about what was happening.
We were only allowed to address the situation when the Attorney General gave an official statement on TV, so what we did was to tune into VTV’s [The State-run TV channel’s] signal.
You’ve worked with the previous owners and the current owners of Globovision, have you found any differences?
There are lots of differences. There is no balance now. Perhaps under the old ownership we made mistakes, we have to admit that. But here there is absolutely no balance. For example, the mode of operating for show producers is that if you are going to talk about a political issue with a member of the opposition, you must invite someone from the government for that same show. If a government spokesperson is not available, you have to cancel the segment. But the same is not true if an opposition person is not available. Then the segment can run.
So in your case, what was the straw that broke the camel's back?
First of all I was affected by the resignations of three correspondents in other cities… [who resigned over contractual disputes]
Then, I had two meetings with the channels’ production manager. I proposed doing some stories on social problems, where we would demonstrate that we were not turning our backs on the country’s reality and my ideas were rejected.
I also proposed a series on the student protests, which was going to be called ‘protests, popular clamor or soft coup attempt’. The manager told me to do that series because in the end I’d come to the conclusion that the protests were a veiled coup attempt.
That angered me a lot, because as a journalist I cannot search for certain answers. My job is to show both sides of the coin and let the viewers reach their own conclusions.
How is it possible that the manager of a 24-hour-news channel tells me what the conclusion of my investigation will be, before I’ve even begun to write the story?
Would you say Globovision has gone from being a pro-opposition channel, to a pro-government channel?
Yes. When the new owners came they promoted the idea that they were aiming for balance. But you hardly ever see that balance in the channel.
For example, last week I was on one of my rounds and we had to cover a rally in which [opposition leader] Maria Corina Machado, headed to the National Assembly. The whole first block of our program was about that, and we had everyone but Machado speaking in it. We didn’t show the images of when she spoke at a square or when her supporters were attacked with tear gas by police. We had those images and we didn’t broadcast them. So this is a fake sort of balance. There are many irregularities at Globovision.
Do you think there is self censorship in other media outlets in Venezuela?
I’d dare to say this happens in most media outlets here. The majority of TV channels are afraid of losing their business. They have seen how RCTV [a TV channel that was critical of the government] was denied the renewal of its broadcasting license, with many irregularities happening in the process. So I think media owners are afraid of losing what they have.
Nowadays, is it possible to be an independent journalist in Venezuela?
It’s hard. But I think that you can still do it in electronic media and in the press. The thing is that those media are not regulated by the law on “social responsibility in radio, tv and electronic media” which is what has tied our hands
However, those media are also attacked by the government through other means. For example, newspapers [critical of the government] are constantly audited by officials, and if there are any problems with their finances, they are hit with hefty fines.
So you’ve just quit, what are you going to do now?
I don’t know. I don’t have a plan B. I didn’t quit because I had another job lined up, I did it out of conviction.
You had a pretty good job as a news anchor. You think you’ll regret quitting your job?
Not at all. You should see the peace of mind I have experienced since I quit. I can go to bed now without questioning whether what I was doing was right or wrong. I no longer have to wonder if I will be morally in debt to my country, for having been an accomplice to censorship.
What do you think that people outside Venezuela, should know about the current situation in Venezuela?
“Wow. It’s a long story. What should they know? They should know that there is a big lack of respect for the law here, that occurs daily. They should know that in this country there is no separation of powers. For example, with Chavez and also now, you see the president saying on TV that x person should be imprisoned, and not many days pass before that person is imprisoned. There is almost no respect for human rights here.
Do you think you’re living in a dictatorship?
I don’t think we are in a dictatorship, but this is definitely an authoritarian government. I think there are some elements that are missing for this to become a dictatorship, but this is certainly authoritarianism.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d just like to ask people to respect the journalists who are still at Globovision, cause they’ve been attacked by both sides. [in Venezuela’s conflict] Over there in Globovision there are still people who are fighting for [real journalism] and trying to defend their spaces.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.