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One Website Challenges The Limits Of Free Press In Venezuela

Nov 10, 2018
Originally published on November 10, 2018 9:22 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In Venezuela, a crackdown on the media by the country's authoritarian government has led to self-censorship, the closing of newspapers and the jailing of reporters. That's prompted hundreds of Venezuelan journalists to flee the country, including the founders of an award-winning news website. Reporter John Otis has more.

EWALD SCHARFENBERG: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Ewald Scharfenberg is the founding editor of Armando.info, a Venezuelan news website that investigates government corruption. But when Scharfenberg speaks with his team of reporters in Caracas, he must do so over the telephone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

SCHARFENBERG: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: That's because Scharfenberg works from neighboring Colombia. He and two other editors of Armando.info moved to Bogota in January. They feared they would be arrested after they exposed widespread fraud within a government-run food distribution program.

SCHARFENBERG: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Scharfenberg says relocating proved to be a wise move. Shortly after they arrived in Bogota, he says, a judge loyal to the government barred them from leaving Venezuela amid a pending libel lawsuit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

OTIS: They now work from the office of a Colombian news magazine that has loaned them desks and computers. Among them is journalist Roberto Deniz, who left behind his girlfriend in Caracas.

ROBERTO DENIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Publishing our stories has come at a great personal cost," he says. "It's been painful."

In fact, nearly all independent news organizations in Venezuela are suffering, according to press freedom groups. More than two dozen newspapers have stopped circulating due to a lack of newsprint. Journalists have been beaten up by pro-government thugs and tossed in jail. TV and radio stations that criticize Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro can lose their broadcast licenses.

The harassment and a deep economic crisis are prompting journalists to join a mass exodus of Venezuelans. Among the 3 million Venezuelans who, according to the U.N., have fled the country in the past three years are an estimated 500 reporters.

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: Living abroad is the only way the Armando.info team can keep publishing hard-hitting stories. And its work is paying off. A Colombian businessman involved in the food distribution program exposed by Armando.info is now under investigation by the Bogota government. And on Thursday, Joseph Poliszuk, the website's editor-in-chief, received the prestigious Knight International Journalism Award at a banquet in Washington. He and his colleagues may not like living in exile, but they have found some advantages.

SCHARFENBERG: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In Venezuela, Scharfenberg says, he had to spend about four hours per day looking for food, medicine and other scarce items. Now, he can dedicate that time to investigative journalism. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF KELLER WILLIAMS' "TICKS WHEN TOLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.