Free press crucial for transformative justice in Venezuela: a talk with Luis Carlos Díaz
by Allan LEONARD
30 October 2023
Luis Carlos Díaz, an accomplished journalist from Venezuela and deemed a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, was a guest keynote speaker at an event organised by the International Conflict Research Institute (INCORE) at Ulster University, Belfast. A conversation was facilitated by Juliana Poveda Clavijo and Cristal Palacios Yumar, both PhD researchers at the university.
Professor Brandon Hamber (John Hume and Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Peace) introduced Luis Carlos Díaz, informing the audience of his co-authorship of nine books on technologies and politics in Venezuela, his work as an anchor on the Unión Radio circuit, and consultancy for human rights organisations.
Luis Carlos Díaz gave an overview of the contemporary media environment in Venezuela. He immediately put this in the context of others’ expectations of the media, in terms of transitional justice — lawyers, psychologists, international researchers, and human rights activists saying, “You in the media need to do this…” But Díaz countered by saying that journalists should be able to talk about their own role. For him, the first and simplest role is to tell the world what is happening in the world. However, he said that in Venezuela this is not so easy — “it is really, really hard” — due to the media system in the country.
Díaz explained the crisis that media organisations are dealing with, such as censorship, bankruptcy, expropriation, takeovers, and the loss of skilled labour among the 7.7m who have left the country. He spoke about government control of print newspapers, censoring permitted topics on radio, blocking foreign TV news channels and encouraging television as a source of entertainment, and blocking websites. Such interventions went as far as the government telling journalists to present “happy news, good news about the country”: “That is like a tropical North Korea, you know, controlling the emotions of the journalist.” Díaz also described how the financial precariousness of media organisations, leading some to be bought out by government money, weakens their ability to operate freely.
Returning to the original question of who will discuss transitional justice within the media, Díaz retorted, “Which media are going to talk about this, because we don’t have a healthy environment of media in Venezuela.”
Díaz broadened his perspective to larger crises in Venezuela, such as accusations of state crimes against humanity, how endemic corruption affects the whole of society, a “socialism and death” (i.e. the state’s extrajudicial executions as well as its socialist policies causing death due to hunger, malnutrition, and lack of access to healthcare), and the rise and influence of populism. The significance of all these “wounds” was two-fold: journalists need to think in different layers of crises, and peacebuilders need to recognise several types of traumas experienced by the people of Venezuela.
He outlined several remedies underway presently. In terms of democracy, there is a negotiation process that is working towards conditions for free and credible elections; one barrier is that the diaspora is not entitled to vote yet. Another is the open process for redress at the International Criminal Court. Finally, there is a fact-finding mission by the United Nations, to assess alleged human rights violations committed since 2014. Díaz concluded that the damaged media system in Venezuela is unable to cover the above and gave a call for action:
“There is so much darkness to fight against… This is not to depress you but only to tell you what we are doing, and why Venezuelan people outside Venezuela need help, because there’s a lot of people trying to help us and we don’t have enough tools to do it. But at the same time, we are inside, we are fighting, we are reporting, we are creating knowledge. We have more friends around the world to understand what is happening and [our] hope to heal.”
I asked Díaz about journalistic work by the Venezuelan diaspora. He explained that for 13 years before the mass exodus, one of the projects he was involved in — Reporta Ya — trained scores of people in content creation. Many of these participants now report from their new residences in Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Panama, both of national politics in these places as well as discussing the livelihoods of their own diaspora: “It’s like the first years of displaced Irish, Armenians, Jews.”
Juliana Poveda Clavijo led a further conversation with Luis Carlos Díaz, also joined by Cristal Palacios Yumar. Poveda asked Díaz about the responsibility of journalists in generating new narratives as part of the transition process. Díaz explained that in 2004 he pursued a peace journalism approach for six years. For him, this meant telling the truth about what happened, with stories of the families of victims (while the government doesn’t recognise its role). Yet he concluded that the primary mission of a journalist is to state the truth: “to create a consensual narrative of what happened”.
Poveda remarked on how violence can be normalised in society and how working with the arts could bring out other truths. Díaz cited the peacebuilding approaches of Johan Galtung and John Paul Lederach, with the use of film (for example, Simón) and theatre in exploring trauma. He added that popular culture (such as La Cátedra del Pop, a project that Díaz directs) can be used to work around government censorship, such as using Harry Potter references to discuss the issue of crimes against humanity. Cristal Palacios Yumar (Director of Psicodiáspora, the network of Venezuelan mental health professionals in the diaspora) said that murals that the government deems contentious in Caracas are painted over immediately; such work by the diaspora community in Buenos Aires survives:
“There is a movement and agenda of building other narratives that work towards reconciliation and peaceful transition, outside of the country, in the hope that that could prepare us for a future transition inside the country.”
Professor Brandon Hamber asked about alternative approaches, if traditional media was not possible. Díaz’s response included what he described as “info citizenship” — “pundits and information junkies” creating information from what they observe. I asked Díaz how this differs from “citizen journalism” as well as to ensure the quality of the discourse, with dangers of misinformation. He replied:
“Journalists have a method to process information; citizens are using their opinions to frame their realities. They are telling the things that they feel. We need those voices. Maybe they are not objective… They are not doing journalism; they are creating public conversations. Our work as journalists is to hear those conversations… The stories are in the street, so they are a cyber-street. You need to be part of that cyber-street community to hear what is happening, what people are telling about their lives. So, we don’t need citizen journalism; we need info citizenship, because that subjective way of telling what’s happening is really nutritious to us.”
Laura Rodríguez-Davis reminded Díaz about his foray into peace journalism, of which a critique is that it doesn’t comply with the journalistic principle of neutrality: “You call yourself an activist. Do you find any contradiction in being an activist while also being a journalist?” Díaz answered:
“In fact, I stopped the peace journalism project in 2010 when I became an activist. Because at that moment, I needed to be an activist. I was working in NGOs, [on the topic of] censorship of the internet. I see myself as an activist for the freedom of speech. That is not in a fight with journalists, but I know that I have a huge pro-human rights bias. To me this is not a bad bias, but journalists see me not as a journalist like them. But that is why I am here, talking about my research in international spaces, because I don’t have my own media. But in fact, yes, [this is] a problem because you need some people who are only journalists and this is not my case.”
Luis Carlos Díaz succeeded not only in providing an overview of the poor democratic state of Venezuela, but how this affects its journalism profession, with a knock-on effect for peacebuilding professionals in gauging objective progress of their work. His was a fascinating insight into the interplay between the crucial value of a free and independent press and society’s narratives — both factual and lived experiences. Díaz was also honest about his own overlap between reporting the truth and seeking justice.