In the eyes of Venezuela's authorities, journalist Dereck Blanco committed a serious offence last month. During a live television broadcast, he referred to opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country's "acting president".
For state media regulator Conatel, which recognises President Nicolás Maduro as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, this was too much. It sent a complaint to Blanco's employer Globovisión threatening to punish it.
Globovisión, a privately owned channel, suggested Blanco take a holiday. He did, and then quit.
“I didn’t make a premeditated decision to call Guaidó acting president. In fact, I’d done it before,” Blanco said. “But this time one of my social media followers posted it and it went viral. That’s what seems to have angered Conatel.”
Blanco's case says much about the state of press freedom in Venezuela. US-based think tank Freedom House says that in Latin America, only Cuba has a worse record.
Journalists are being arrested, intimidated, censored by their own media, physically and verbally attacked and threatened with legal action. Some have had their equipment confiscated and their recordings destroyed.
Espacio Público, a local media watchdog, said things had worsened since Guaidó launched his challenge to Maduro in January, and declared himself interim president. It said the state had embarked on “a new phase of repression against people who express their criticism or dissent”.
In the first two months of 2019, the watchdog registered 288 violations of the right to freedom of expression, mostly against journalists. “The way we’re going this will be by far the worst year yet for press freedom,” its director Carlos Correa said.
On Tuesday, several journalists were robbed outside the National Assembly building in Caracas as they turned up to hear Guaidó speak, and other remained trapped inside the building due to the threat outside.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, condemned "harassment of National Assembly deputies and members of the media . . . by Nicolás Maduro's lawless armed gangs, known as colectivos".
But it is not only journalists who are being silenced.
Last month, while Guaidó was giving a speech, state telecoms company CANTV blocked YouTube and Google Translate in an apparent bid to prevent his words reaching a wider audience. It has done the same with TunnelBear and Windscribe – VPN services used by Venezuelans to skirt censorship.
When the country suffered its worst-ever power outage this month, TV, the internet, mobile phone networks, WhatsApp and Twitter were all knocked out. At one point, 96 per cent of Venezuela’s telecoms infrastructure was offline.
Everyone suffered, but especially ordinary people, who could not contact friends and relatives. "The blackout was absolute," said 63-year-old Oscar Pinto, a Venezuelan exile in Bogotá who struggled to contact his wife and son in Caracas.
The power cut hit Guaidó and his supporters disproportionately hard. Largely denied access to state media, they rely heavily on social networks to get their message across and to mobilise.
In contrast, state-owned Radio Nacional de Venezuela stayed on air, repeating the government’s mantra that the outage was caused by Guaidó and US-backed saboteurs. A second major blackout hit the country again this week, closing schools and businesses and forcing Venezuelans to seek out rare spots where they could find a mobile phone signal.
Clashes between Venezuela’s left-wing government and journalists are nothing new. More than a decade ago, then-president Hugo Chávez branded the country’s privately owned TV channels “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” after they actively supported a coup to remove him from power.
Since then, one, RCTV, has folded while the three others, including Globovisión, have been largely bent to the government’s will. Switch on a TV in Venezuela these days and you will find scant coverage of Guaidó’s street protests.
Newspapers have fared little better. Espacio Público says 25 closed last year because of government intimidation, a shortage of cash or simply a lack of paper. The country’s last big anti-Maduro newspaper El Nacional published its final print edition in December after 75 years.
In February, Maduro cut short a TV interview with Jorge Ramos of US-based broadcaster Univision because he did not like the journalist's questions. The crew was arrested briefly and its equipment confiscated.
Days later, US freelance journalist Cody Weddle was taken from his house and interrogated before being abruptly deported after four years in Venezuela. During the power outage, local radio journalist Luis Carlos Diáz was briefly arrested and accused of orchestrating it.
“It’s clear that the atmosphere for journalists has deteriorated drastically in the first few months of this year,” said Weddle, now back home in the US. “In my case, it was a classic example of authorities looking for a journalist’s sources. In the case of Luis Carlos, authorities needed a scapegoat for the blackout.
“This persecution could escalate further as the political crisis continues.”
This month, German journalist Billy Six was released after four months in prison, accused of spying.
Journalists from Poland, Sweden, Chile as well as Venezuela have also been targeted.
As for Blanco, after more than a decade at Globovisión in which he became one of its best-known anchormen, he is looking for a new job.
“I plan to stay in Venezuela but the situation for journalists here is complicated,” he said. “Very complicated.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019