No Dissent at El Universal: Celebrated Venezuelan Cartoonist Out the Door
In the print edition, the editors substituted Rayma’s graphic for a pictorial of Caracas, devoid of news content. The digital edition, however, still shows Rayma’s cartoon from yesterday — the one that brought on her dismissal, after 19 years of employment.
“Today, I’ve been notified of my dismissal from El Universal, because of this cartoon and my awkward position regarding graphic dissent,” Rayma shared via her Twitter account.
Rayma explained to the BBC that on Wednesday afternoon El Universal dismissed her over the phone. Apparently, the cartoon “greatly disturbed the daily’s new leadership.” As of this Thursday, she is waiting for a formal, written dismissal.
On CNN en Español, the journalist referred to El Universal‘s change of ownership, after being sold last July: “We don’t know who bought El Universal, who pays the salaries, but now we know they get upset with criticism.”
The controversial cartoon made reference to the crisis facing both private and government medical care in Venezuela. The chaos threatens the lives of millions, on account of corruption, budget shortfalls, and scarce equipment and medicine. In her vignette, former President Chávez’s signature devolves into the electrocardiogram signal of a dead person.
In an interview with Venezuelan radio station Éxitos, Rayma added that the cartoon was a “commitment.” She could not look the other way at the medical crisis and the obscurantism of the regime, such as its strategy towards the outbreak of a strange illness that has caused the death of at least nine patients in the Central Hospital of Maracay city.
“What I think is most grave is the lack of information about such a complicated situation, and attempts to cover it up. As has happened with these communist governments, they always build a parallel reality. It is to maintain a farce,” she said.
El Universal Shows Its Red Face
People have swarmed to social media and expressed that Rayma’s firing confirms the centenary daily is no longer part of whatever free and independent media may exist in Venezuela.
An internal source, on condition of anonymity, told the PanAm Post that “the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Chávez, and Maduro are untouchable.”
The journalist, who has more than 15 years experience with the publication, says that the protected status extends to the only Chavista mayor in Caracas, Jorge Rodríguez, and the minister of interior affairs, Miguel Rodríguez Torres. Their activities are now difficult to criticize without repercussions.
“Editorial decisions are now taken after 5:00 p.m,” another reporter explained anonymously to the PanAm Post, which means the last-minute changes happen away from the journalists. “Pressures on the team of bosses are getting worse under the foolish guise of being balanced.”
According to the consulted journalists, the search for “balance” is used to ask reporters to include less information that may be critical of the regime. “They always shield themselves behind the balanced-information argument. They swear we’re neither Chavistas nor opposition,” the first source explained.
But the only thing known about the new owners of El Universal is that they comport themselves under a consortium named Epalisticia, created in Madrid less than a year ago with €3,500 (US$4,506) as capital. “This meager figures contrasts with the estimated €90 million [$116 million] exchanged in the sale of El Universal,” as affirmed by the Spanish outlet ABC.
— Víctor salmeron (@vsalmeron) September 18, 2014
Exodus: The Dam Bursts
Up until now, the new editorial line has manifested in the dismissal of several opinion writers. In addition, three journalists have denounced censorship of their submissions, at which point they requested to have their bylines removed.
That was the case for a news story, “Guayana workers rally to support the steel industry,” suppressed on August 14. The editors still went with an article on the topic, but one written by the state news office, the Venezuelan News Agency (AVN), and with the story couched in the regime’s perspective. El Universal journalists even had the courage to write a public statement about this, just after the incident.
Given Rayma’s dismissal, however, a wave of resignations looms. That is the case, even after the new board raised salaries for senior positions.
Chief Editor Elides Rojas has engaged in a flurry of tweets to discourage a massive departure of journalists: “Being fired is more decent than quitting. There are 118 journalists still working for El Universal. Today’s report: One dismissal. Two resignations. And it continues.”
Qué viene? Renuncias en opinión. Renuncias masivas en redacción. Más caída de lectores. Pocos anunciantes. Pues, nos vamos todos
— Elides J Rojas L (@ejrl) September 18, 2014
Y cerrado El Universal
— Elides J Rojas L (@ejrl) September 18, 2014
Nonetheless, internal sources have shared that a small group journalists have already decided to quit in the next few days: “We feel frustrated and ripped off,” one of the employers remarked to the PanAm Post.
Maduro’s Censorship on the Rise
Almost eight months ago, the Colombian TV channel NTN24 was censored from private subscription services in Venezuela. The regime also blocked their website, but users found ways to bypass the censors and still access NTN24 online.
This Thursday, though, NTN24.com director Johnattan Bilancieri confirmed that, in addition to the web page, all the brand’s platforms and applications have now been blocked in a comprehensive, aggressive fashion: “This time is different from the previous attempts, because now access is impossible for all kinds of users.”
Through Twitter, he also informed followers that the Maduro regime has blocked the RCN radio network of Colombia (Radio Caracol Noticias).
In comments to Argentinean outlet Infobae, the journalist explained that there is no legal avenue to challenge the Venezuelan censorship, but he assured they will try other options to resist.