The challenge of covering the new coronavirus and Covid-19 pandemic arrives in Venezuela at a time when the country is already in a fragile state, debilitated by the complex humanitarian emergency it has faced for the past three years, the difficulty of accessing information, the massive migration and brain drain, the lack of a good internet connection, mobility, and supplies, specifically protective equipment. Regardless of the challenges, we also see opportunities to do the best journalism we can, within the conditions we are in.
Efecto Cocuyo is a native digital outlet founded in 2015, in the midst of what many believed were the darkest hours of Venezuelan journalism. At the time, we got together, we were three well-seasoned, experienced journalists and three young reporters, who had not yet completed their undergraduate degrees. Now, we are a team of 22 staff members and several collaborators, with teams doing daily coverage, fact-checking, and investigative work.
In a context of censorship, self-censorship, and economic limitations, Venezuela went through a process, starting in 2014, which has been described by some as a digital spring. Several initiatives appeared on the media landscape that still remain today. In contrast, the country saw the dismantling of the traditional legacy news media.
Just as several journalists were opening the windows that were available, thanks to internet access, Nicolás Maduro’s government decided to close them and to block several initiatives. These blocks have ups and downs in intensity, but they are common to the majority of independent news outlets since 2019, as reflected in different studies.
Venezuela undergoes a constant political crisis. Since 2019, we have two “presidencies.” One that holds the official recognition of over 50 countries and another one that has the territorial control and is considered by human rights organizations as a de facto government.
The arrival of SARS-CoV-2 occurs in a context of political struggle, institutional weakness, authoritarianism, migration of specialized human talent, and a lack of credibility among the spokespersons who have control over the information.
On March 13, authorities within Maduro’s government confirmed the first two cases of coronavirus. They said that the two people infected were travelers who returned from Spain on two different flights, on March 5 and March 8. They also announced a social quarantine in seven regions of the country.
At the time this story was written, there were three people dead and 119 infected by the SARS-CoV-2. On March 29, it was reported that the last patient who died had shown symptoms since February 29. It remains unknown if the coronavirus was causing the symptoms all along or if maybe it was a person in a vulnerable state who became infected after the official cases were announced.
The spokespersons give out information only through televised addresses from the presidential office, without the presence of journalists with the right to ask questions.
On top of that, Maduro and some spokespersons spread fake content with conspiracy theories about the creation of the virus and, in the most extreme case, about an alleged cure, which led to Twitter removing two tweets from Maduro.
One of our strategies is to do journalism with the people. Being close to people.
Although we had predicted that restrictions to leave our homes could come, even before the first coronavirus cases were official, the announcement, without any clarity on the exemptions, put us in a dilemma: the severity of the pandemic would force us to abandon the streets. The same streets that many low-income families cannot possibly leave because they sustain themselves with whatever they can make each day.
How to overcome those limitations imposed by the protective measures which can distance journalists from people, from looking directly into their eyes, above the masks that cover their faces and that they are obliged to wear? How to go beyond the screens, the networks, and the phones to get to the soul of the people that, now more than ever, have a lot to say, teach, and share?
Scientists will take care of explaining and producing the vaccine against this Covid-19; we journalists have the responsibility of documenting and, above all, telling what is happening to people, those who even before the coronavirus were already living in a complex humanitarian emergency.
Newsrooms have physically entered a “recess” while restrictions preventing people from accessing their workplaces are kept in place. At Efecto Cocuyo, we have set ourselves to preserve some of the routines that bind us together as a team, even at a distance. We are meeting online, attending to the most immediate requirements to do better production, getting equipment to guarantee better coverage. And especially, managing the emotions that are so heightened in these days of global uncertainty.
On March 21, independent journalist Darvinson Rojas was taken from his home and detained for reporting on coronavirus cases. Beatriz Rodríguez, director of a local newspaper, was also removed from her home and taken to the district attorney’s office to testify about the publication of information related to a case the newspaper had confirmed.
Rojas and Rodríguez are two out of the four journalists who have been harassed and persecuted in the first 15 days of coverage. Rojas faced charges for violating a widely questioned “anti-hate law,” approved by the National Constitutional Assembly, a legislative arm under control of the executive branch.
Venezuela is on its third week of quarantine and it is also under a state of national emergency, contemplated in the Constitution to be decreed in times of “catastrophes, public calamities and other similar events which may pose serious danger to the security of the nation or its citizens.”
This state of emergency obliges the monitoring of human rights. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, in a recent update of her report, questioned the aggressive action against journalists and acts by armed groups who support Maduro’s government.
Our metrics show that users are looking for useful content, fact-checking stories, and stories about recommendations, which are among our most viewed content. Nonetheless, we know that even though we get to certain audiences, our reach is not directly massive.
That takes us to the constant search for distribution channels, like WhatsApp and Telegram, that are widely used in Venezuela and allow for sending content using low usage of mobile data.
From Efecto Cocuyo we have also seen the opportunity to advance the project Venezuela Migrante, (“Venezuela Migrates”) which was designed to offer quality information to the Venezuelan diaspora (more than four million people have left the country in the last three years). We decided to pivot and start by drawing attention to Venezuelans out of the country and how they were facing the epidemic. We have been doing it with Venezuelan journalists who are immigrants themselves in countries like Spain, Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Canada.
As a part of an ecosystem of emerging digital media we have joined initiatives with other outlets for an awareness campaign about the importance of following the guidelines and taking the quarantine seriously. We came together to explain to people how important it is to follow social distancing measures, with the hashtags #Quedateencasa (#Stayhome) and #Tomateloenserio (#Takeitseriously), following the example of unity shown by the Argentinian press. We have also proposed cooperation in order to not duplicate efforts, since we are all mostly small newsrooms, so that we can share contents produced by each media outlet, thus amplifying the reach.
We still do not know how this pandemic will economically affect the media industry. Regardless, with three weeks of national coverage of Covid-19, we believe that the economic impact will likely get us to generate more collaborative journalism platforms, maintaining the independence of each media organization while gathering each one’s strengths. At this moment, it might be a bold idea, but it is very possible that some of the small newsrooms will have to become allies in a more permanent way.