5 Realities Of Reporting The News In A Brutal Dictatorship
We tend to take that whole "freedom of the press" thing for granted in the Western world. If we come out and say that the president is nothing but a stream of farts a blond wig is using to keep itself aloft, nobody is going to come arrest us. Around the world and throughout much of history, however, that has not been the norm. We would be wise to never forget this.
To remind ourselves of how precious a thing this is and how quickly it can be taken away, we talked to "Luis." He's a journalist in Venezuela, and he risked his life to bring you the stories of other journalists he knows who've risked their lives reporting the truth in a country where this kind of shit happens:
They told us ...
They'll Use Your Nudes For Blackmail
Here in America, we can write just about whatever we damn well please, and as long as we don't threaten to kill the president or, uh, kidnap his children, Uncle Sam can't say shit about it. In Venezuela, if you step over the line, you'll soon realize the government has tapped your phone ... mainly hoping to overhear (or in the case of a smartphone, see) something that will ruin your life.
Usually, a dick pic ruins the other person's morning.
"We're talking about a threat that every journalist that works in this nation has to face," says Luis. Journalists have to trust their sources inside the government to give them a heads-up if they're being watched, and have to "change [their phone number] ASAP if they want to solve this problem at least for a couple of months, 'til the Intelligence Service find[s] out." Until then, it's a treacherous verbal dance to avoid saying anything that could be used against you.
"When I knew that I was tapped, I didn't [have] money to buy another cell phone," said "Alberto," a radio host. "So I explained what was happening to [as] many contacts [as] I could." That meant calling them up and figuring out how to say "The government is listening" without actually saying that, which sounds easy until you have to do it. Go ahead, try it right now. Watch how fast it becomes a particularly gritty episode of Frasier.
Frasier: Caracas has less opera, more fires.
And this is a game with no margin for error whatsoever. "What happened was that a friend called me while he was drunk." Alberto said. "He asked me if I remembered the time when we sniffed cocaine at my ex-girlfriend's house. I said I didn't and hung up, but the next day, I received another phone call in which I was told to not publish anything related to the government, or I would be charged with drug trafficking."
It's impossible to know who called Alberto or how serious they were, but this was enough to get him to change directions in his career. "Since that moment, I started to work on the entertainment section, so I don't have to publish anything that puts my life at risk."
He always gives Frasier: Caracas good reviews to be safe.
A similar incident happened to "Mariana," a newspaper reporter. "I was sexting with my lover and I [sent] him some very sensitive images," she said. "Next day, I got a call in which the Intelligence Service identified themselves, and ordered me to stop my investigation about a corruption case, unless I wanted my naked body [shown] on Twitter and TV." She stopped.
The Death Threats Aren't Just Talk
Let's give you some very brief background on the situation here. Venezuela is, on paper, a super-rich country. They have more oil than anyone else on Earth. But thanks to cartoonish levels of government corruption, their economy's shit the bed so badly that it's no longer recognizable as a bed. As a result, Venezuela is sort of collapsing as a nation (they're now experiencing food shortages so severe that one citizen we spoke with reported defending his mango tree with a crossbow). Since the Venezuelan government is largely responsible for the clusterfuck, they tend to clamp down brutally on journalists who write about it.
At least five journalists have been murdered in the country since 1992, all for writing stories that weren't the literary equivalent of a government blowjob. That means that when these guys get death threats, it's not the same as the bullshit you have to tolerate every time you express a negative opinion on Twitter about a Marvel franchise. There are plenty of reasons to think they'll follow through -- they have the means and know where you live.
"I published an article criticizing the government's corruption," said "Dolores," a Venezuelan newspaper columnist, "and I received an anonymous call in which an unknown person told me that I was going to get my head cut [off] if I kept writing those things. Next week, I published another article of the same kind, and I received another call where the guy told me my house address and my son's name."
Also, it's possible the call was coming from inside the house.
She went ahead and published her next article a month later, and "[T]his time, I found in the front door of my house a recent picture of my dad and a note on the back that said 'Maybe we will do him instead.' Not knowing what to do, I post a tweet in which I blamed the Communication Minister about what was happening, and he respond[ed] some days later, saying that I was an alarmist and that I was maligning him." Let this be a lesson: Very few things have been solved by tweeting.
This particular story has a silver lining: The minister was eventually replaced, Dolores kept publishing her stories, and as far as we can tell, she has not been murdered. But death threats are a regular Venezuelan government tactic. In 2014, members of Venezuela's Bolivarian National Guard threatened to murder two photojournalists and a reporter for covering a prison riot, and a journalism professor was threatened for supporting a student protest.
Good thing our journalists never face repercussions over that sort of thing.
Sri Lanka, we assume, drops journalists off cliffs.
We should note that the U.S. currently ranks #41, which you'll notice is several slots lower than #1. But hey, at least we can still talk shit about Burma.
Everyone Is Subject To Absurdly Strict Loyalty Tests
Of course, lots of the threats only occur if you happen to work for an outlet willing to talk back to the government in the first place. Much of the time, if your goal is to do real journalism, you won't even make it through the door ... or if you do, you won't stay for long. Ask Mariana. "In the first [media company] I worked, I wrote a report about the increasing rate of murders that happened in the last month, and my boss decided to dismiss me, saying that I was putting the company at risk because of my investigator wannabeism," she said, inadvertently teaching us a new word in the process.
Venezuela discourages radical opinions, such as "murder is bad."
"Veronica," who works for state-owned media, has even less freedom -- which, for those of you keeping score, is negative freedom. "It is well-known that If you want to work in these places, you have to be enrolled in the ruling coalition party, because otherwise you don't have a chance." She told us about a sports writer ("one of the best sports journalist[s] in the country") who applied for a job, only to have Human Resources ask him "if he was enrolled in the government's party, and if he was willing to give his life for the revolution." That's a pretty heavy goddamned question to get if you're applying to work at the CIA, let alone a job covering fucking baseball scores.
"The guy said that he only was a reporter and a sports fan, and the secretary told him that in this media, we only need militants who want to fight against the 'information war,' which is the name that the ruling coalition has put to the news that explicitly explains the nation's reality," she continued. Obviously, the guy didn't get the job ...
But Venezuela went on to win the World Cup, say reports.
There are, in fact, endless ways the government can put the squeeze on outlets that speak the truth. For instance, the Maduro government, which is conservative but as corrupt as the old left-wing government, controls the national paper supply. So if the government doesn't like what a newspaper has to say, they take away the "paper" part. Back in March, the last independent paper in Venezuela had to stop publishing for that very reason.
And if the government doesn't get you ...
Journalists Can Get Beaten In The Street By Paramilitary Gangs
Every oppressive government's playbook includes tools not just for shutting down the free press, but also convincing people that the press is the enemy. There is therefore a looser standard of law enforcement in Venezuela when it comes to folks who enjoy beating up journalists. Enter Colectivos -- part political education organizations, part armed gangs of assholes.
Part uncategorized scary motherfuckers.
Luis explained that they "[Tend] to intimidate in a physical and very violent manner those who are filming or investigating a case." Or at least, any such investigations that won't reflect well on the government. During a protest in 2014, "I was going back to my car after interviewing one of these protesters," Alberto says, when "two guys wearing [black helmets] suddenly appeared and asked me if I supported these guarimberos terroristas." That is, "road-blocking terrorists" -- their rather inflammatory term for the protestors. "After saying that I was just a journalist, one of them took a bat and hit me in the stomach, while the other guy grabbed my recorder and stuffed in his pants pocket, laughing at me."
"Just a journalist" is like telling a hammer you're "just a nail."
Even pro-government journalists aren't safe from this kind of bullshit. "There was an opposition protest, and I was told to go there and look for any information that may disgrace the protesters," Veronica said. "Once I got to the place with the photographer, two guys came on a motorcycle and scream[ed] that we were from one of the most famous [independent media sources]." This was enough that "three middle-age men came out dressed in the same outfit, pointing at us with a shotgun and leading us to a building parking lot, where two of them started to stroke their penises, telling [me] that I would know what they do to 'imperialist saboteurs.'" They then proceeded to wail on her photographer until "he managed to pull out our media ID card, which let them realize that we were 'comrades.'"
When she returned to the office, she recounted the incident to her boss, who frankly could have been a bit more sympathetic. "He told me that I couldn't be so naive, and that it was my fault by putting them in a situation where they would mistake us with somebody else. Since that incident, he forced us to wear [a shirt with the company's logo] every time we cover something on the street, so the paramilitary know that we're 'the good guys.'"
Other journalists are handed shirts with bullseyes on them.
Ultimately, The Goal Is To Terrify Everyone Into Silence
Of course, the government has also made a habit of straight-up jailing reporters who don't play nice, like radio personality Braulio Jatar. He was coincidentally charged with "money laundering" immediately after publishing videos of a protest.
"Laundering money? What money?"
This was similar to what photojournalist "Antonio" went through some years ago, when he was taking pictures of a riot near his vacation home. "I took some photos of the event, and some guys from a famous newspaper told me to go with them to the newsroom in order to sell the photos for a very good price," he said. "Once I was in the car, those guys told that they were from the Intelligence Service, and I literally pissed my pants, which cost me several punches in my face." For the next 48 hours, things amazingly went downhill from there.
"When I got to the prison, they ordered me to call my mother and tell her that I was going to another city to make an investigation. Then I was jailed with other five guys in a tiny cell with no beds and no toilet, having to take turns to lie down and rest for 30 minutes in a floor full of urine, excrement, and puke of some who couldn't resist the disgusting smell."
They did rock-paper-scissors, and the 30-minute lie-down went to the loser.
He was starved for his first day, but on the second, "... they gave us rice and beans in a big pot as if we were animals. I only eat a little bit because it tasted horrible, I slept some hours on a guy's shoulder, and I didn't go to the bathroom even once."
He was released on the third day, but before he left, "... a cellmate told me that this was the modus operandi of the Intelligence Services, disguising as reporters in order to catch rioters and journalist[s]." Since he'd told them he was on vacation, Antonio was easy bait. "When I was about to leave, a soldier told me that if this incident appears on the press, they would 'fuck my entire family,' so I didn't say a single word to anyone."
Until now. Because fuck those guys entirely.
It's Spring Break! You know what that means: hot coeds getting loose on the beaches of Cancun and becoming imperiled in all classic beach slasher ways: man-eating shark, school of piranhas, James Franco with dreadlocks. There are so many films about vacations gone wrong, it's a chore to wonder if there's even such a thing as a movie vacation gone right. Amity Island and Camp Crystal Lake are out. So what does that leave? The ship from Wall-E? Hawaii with the Brady Bunch? A road trip with famous curmudgeon Chevy Chase? On this month's live podcast Jack O'Brien and the Cracked staff are joined by some special guest comedians to figure out what would be the best vacation to take in a fictional universe. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased here!
For more insider perspectives, check out My Wealthy Country Became A Dystopia Overnight: 6 Realities and 5 Apocalyptic Realities In A Country That's Out Of Food.
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