... Where's the rest of it.

Venezuelan Censorship Gets Creative

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Illustrator Rayma Suprani recently got a phone call. Her editor was on the line and was brief. El Universal, Venezuela's century-old daily newspaper, where Suprani had worked for 19 years, winning prizes and delighting readers, would no longer require her services.

Her offense: A cartoon.

Split in two, the top of the drawing simulated the readings of an electrocardiogram, showing the peaks and valleys of a healthy heartbeat above a caption, "Health."

Below was a second graphic showing the telltale signs of a patient flatlining, the horizontal bar stretching across the page in the familiar style of the late Hugo Chavez's signature. The caption: "Venezuelan Health."

In the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, plagued by scarcity of medicine, physicians and hospital beds, the cartoon hit home. This is the sort of work that had made Rayma, as she is known, one of Venezuela's most cherished satirists and won her recognition throughout Latin America. The Palacio de Miraflores wasn't amused.

Founded 105 years ago, El Universal earned a reputation as one of the boldest independent voices in Venezuela. But repeated clashes with the keepers of Chavismo took their toll. Lawsuits and fines against the paper became as predictable as the morning print run.

Then came a more creative crackdown: censorship camouflaged as prudent economics. With hard currency bleeding, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro tightened the rules for acquiring import dollars, including for newsprint. Several newspapers slashed their staff and circulation, some went entirely digital and others buckled.

For El Universal, already financially troubled, currency controls were the equivalent of game over. Waiting in the wings was a shadowy Spanish company, whose owners have yet to be disclosed. Venezuela's opposition saw Maduro's hand in the deal. The new management took over in July, pledging that nothing would change. But some 30 columnists were promptly let go. Among them were some of Chavismo's fiercest critics, including the economist Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, who got his four-line dismissal by email.

By now this is a familiar story in Latin America. In 2009 Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, long at war with media critics, marshaled her legislative majority to ram a new, restrictive communications law through Congress, a ruling the Supreme Court upheld last year. She also is bent on grabbing a controlling stake in Papel Prensa, the lone newsprint supplier. If that bid succeeds, maverick publishers like Clarin and La Nacion, betes noires of Kirchnerismo, would be left at the mercy of the state paper monopoly or the black market dollar to buy imported newsprint.

A similar fate befell Ecuador's Diario HOY, a 32-year-old Quito daily which saw its supply of newsprint throttled by President Rafael Correa's currency tourniquet. In July, Hoy announced it would boost its online presence and scale back to a weekly in print, one more casualty in Correa's seven-year war on the press.

The terms of engagement for the media in Ecuador are spelled out in the country's year-old Organic Communications Law, a massive document, filled with rules on how to "cover and disseminate events of public interest." Failure to comply is considered an act of "prior censorship," punishable by law. Just what that means is up to the state-run media authority, called, fittingly, Supercom. Correa supporters have already filed more than 100 legal measures against alleged violators, including one for failing to cover Correa's state visit in Chile in May.

In the old days, strongmen who didn't like the morning headlines jailed journalists or simply razed newsrooms, as Brazilian dictator Getulio Vargas's troops did to the Diario Carioca in 1932. With the rise of television and radio, Chavez and his friends revoked broadcast licenses.

Now the caudillos rely on rubber stamp legislatures and ring the Central Bank to slap on currency controls.

"Print is the last independent bastion of independent criticism," said Thor Halvorssen, president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, a watchdog group. "That's why autocrats have declared war on paper, too."

That's one cartoon El Universal won't be running.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net