Not long after I returned from conducting a day-long seminar on investigative reporting in Caracas for a diverse group of Venezuelan journalists, my hosts from the country’s chapter of the Latin American Institute for the Press and Society alerted me to a new warning from the government of President Hugo Chavez: Journalists who receive material support and training from the United States might face sanctions.
That news, which came on the heels of a report, was probably just oddly coincidental to my visit. Yet it was unsettling, since the article named my host organization as among the groups receiving support from the U.S. government. But what kind of U.S. government support is delivered to the Venezuela chapter of the Institute for the Press and Society? It’s laid out in an open reply the group wrote to the Chavez administration. It seems like the kind of support long distributed to underfunded journalists throughout Latin America by the U.S. State Department and groups like the National Endowment for Democracy.
IPYS, as it is known by its Spanish acronym, has a reputation throughout the region for its fierce independence and it support of the highest standards in investigative journalism. And it’s true: IPYS doesn’t count too many Latin American presidents or governments among its friends. But its work on behalf of Latin American journalists is all about holding truth to power, regardless of its political stripe.
The help ICIJ provided in Venezuela – my workshop — was straight-forward, non-partisan and included an admonishment that when faced with increasing restrictions and pressure, a journalist’s best defense can be to act more professionally and make clearer the appearance of fairness and objectivity. Full disclosure here: the workshop was also supported by the Caracas-based Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce, which strives for objectivity but in reality is not known as an ally of the Chavez government. The Chamber supported the workshop as part of a day of celebration for Venezuelan journalists, some of whom were honored with awards for their stories on business social responsibility. The Chamber had no role in the preparation of ICIJ’s workshop syllabus – which was based on a Spanish presentation prepared by Investigative Reporters and Editors. Nor did the chamber participate in the workshop discussion.
In Venezuela, journalists face a number of limits: they’re underpaid, underappreciated and routinely crippled professionally by their own, often-partisan editors and owners. IPYS Venezuela’s director, Ewald Scharfenberg, said after the government’s new admonishment, “a difficult environment is getting worse.” The mere practice of independent journalism, he said, appears to be enough in today’s Venezuela to draw uncomfortable and unwarranted scrutiny.