The value of editorial independence

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Piles of papers stacked at the edge of desks. Cups of coffee that were left behind due to the rush. Phones ringing and old headlines highlighted with red marker hanging in the walls. Visiting the editorial newsroom of the Star Tribune on August 14, along with the 2014 WPI fellows, remained me how good is the feeling of working on an in-depth feature that only relies on interviews, research and analysis, released from editorial constraints imposed by political censorship.

After we were told that the Star Tribune has had four different owners in the last 16 years, the only question that I could think about was: what was the impact of these changes in the editorial line of this media outlet? “None”, answered the political editor Patricia Lopez after explaining that the paper was purchased this year by a local billionaire called Glen Taylor, who has never made a phone call to the editors for requesting changes in a headline, even though the business section is one of the greatest strength of the daily.

After President Hugo Chavez died in March 2013, three major media outlets in Venezuela have changed hands: Globovision, a television station that strongly covered and promoted the opposition’s agenda during Chavez’s government; Cadena Capriles, a newspaper chain that owns the biggest circulation daily in the country; and most recently El Universal, one of the most important pro-opposition national newspapers.

Anchors and reporters of Globovision quitted their jobs progressively after facing constraints regarding the coverage of electoral campaigns and governmental decisions on public policies. Claiming for editorial independence, reporters from Cadena Capriles agreed on not sing their features and daily coverage articles for three month. Many of El Universal’s columnists decided to publish their pieces in blogs and independent websites, after being asked by the new board of directors to soften their critics against President Nicolas Maduro. Even though nobody has been able to prove it, many media professionals in Venezuela are convinced that these media outlet have been purchased by government allies.

The situation is not better for the written media that remains in private hands. Since Venezuelan economy is ruled by an exchange system that allows the Government to control the purchase and sale of foreign currency, the owners of independent newspapers do not have access to dollars for buying paper supplies in the international market. They have seen themselves force to cut off pages and personnel in order to extend the time they can publish their printed edition. For instance El Nacional newspaper, one of the most important pro-opposition dailies in the country, achieved to maintain its print edition thanks to the collaboration of other Latin American newspapers that provided paper with no profit in return.

The lack of foreign currency to import goods and pay the services of foreign companies is not only affecting media outlets but the whole private sector as well and has created a crisis of scarcity of basic goods such as food and medicines. In the meantime, a huge state media apparatus repeats that scarcity is the consequence of an economic war launched by entrepreneurs and portrayed by those media that are losing their editorial independence due to the official censorship.