I. “You are fake news,” Donald Trump tells CNN reporter Jim Acosta during his first press conference as president elect. The cameras are rolling, and the world is watching live.
The journalist confidently insists that he wants to ask a question. But Trump, with his power, his podium and his microphone, silences him. From the audience, members of Trump's team applaud.
Some journalists could not get into the news conference “for lack of space.”
The first time I felt my mouth go dry with impotence I was standing in the Caracas newsroom of El Mundo, a Venezuelan newspaper that was highly successful under legendary editor Teodoro Petkoff, a respected former guerrilla and politician who had taken to journalism like a teenager to rock-and-roll.
That afternoon in mid-1999, Petkoff was in his office, watching the same broadcast that I, along with other reports, was watching on a tiny TV set in the politics section of the newsroom.
President Hugo Chávez, bloated with power and anger, was attacking our front page. He was taking potshots at a headline and attacking us. Yes, “us,” because he was attacking each of us.
Reporters like me had already felt the swift consequences of his pronouncements when we left our newsrooms. For his faithful followers, that was just the bait they needed to punish us for the lack of loyalty to the “revolutionary process” that was starting to paint Chavez Red every single institutional corner of the country.
We had started to remove from our cars the company logos that had once gained us entry to difficult places. We hid our press cards. Chávez's speeches were usually followed by rocks, insults and even urine, thrown at video cameramen, photographers, reporters and even drivers.
Petkoff shouted as he flew out of his office, rolled up the sleeves of his light blue shirt and walked toward us.
“Let me tell you something. I expect no one in this newsroom will even think about being intimidated or allowing themselves to be crushed by what this man is saying. No one!,” he said. “We are doing what we know how to do. We continue to be critics. Let's all go back to our jobs and continue our work as journalists.”
That day, I understood that would be our new life, our new routine with Hugo Chávez. Soon, the names of journalists would be mentioned in a macabre game that exposed reporters, especially women, to scorn as he and his cabinet ministers laughed and applauded.
II. "@politico, which is not read or respected by many, may be the most dishonest of the media outlets--- and that is saying something." (September 24, 2015)
.@politico, which is not read or respected by many, may be the most dishonest of the media outlets--- and that is saying something.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2015
That bombastic Chávez, illuminated and framed by TV cameras that he learned to control so easily – and which at times captured him reprimanding the cameramen – played with his targets like a cat and mouse. The cat steps on the tail of the mouse, allows it to run, cuts it off, paws it and pins it against a wall before biting it with pleasure and spite.
When he knew the cameras were on and the country was watching him – every station was required by law to broadcast his speeches – he would single out a reporter. "What's your name? Who do you work for?" We learned after awhile that was how he started a sadistic act of public humiliation. “I am not going to answer your question, girl, but don't get upset. Uhh. Now she's upset and she's going to say that she's just a journalist doing her job.”
The list of his attacks is long. “You're misinformed” and “You're following the bias of your medium” are just two of his accusations, which pale in comparison with his allegations of conspiring with the CIA or accepting bribes to criticize him. His ministers soon learned to brand journalists as palangristas, Venezuelan slang for a reporter who accepts bribes to favor or attack people. Chávez supporters would shout “Tell the truth” as journalists tried to cover public events.
III. "Based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record setting Trump campaign, we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post," Trump wrote on Facebook (June 13, 2016).
Later, they started to deny us access. To hospitals, to jails, to public places, to archives. At first it was an order from some official. Then came official letters prohibiting all comment and access to journalists. The Chávez government installed watchdogs in every public office and the phrase “I am not authorized to comment” became a mantra, repeated by everyone from a teacher asked about her salary to an oil minister asked about the price of crude.
Discrimination against members of the national press became the rule, and we were not allowed into the presidential palace or any other place where the president, of humble origins and military education, held one of his increasingly bizarre news conferences. Parliament and some ministries restricted reporters to tiny press rooms with TV sets that showed official comments. There were no opportunities to ask the hard questions.
IV. “One of the things I’m going to do if I win, I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposefully negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump announced at a town hall in Texas on February 26, 2016.
We learned how to dig with our hands, just like our doctors learned how to do surgery without lights, syringes or gloves because of the precarious condition of our health system. Like the shopkeeper learned to do business with nothing to sell, and families learned to clean without running water. We worked without access to public information, and then without newsprint because new currency controls gave officials a way to control the main raw material for newspapers.
Then came the lawsuits and the abuse of the judicial branch to silence and intimidate. Some media, like the
Tal Cual and
El Nacional newspapers and the Globovisión TV channel (when it was still critical) had nine lawsuits filed against them. Their directors today are detained or barred from leaving the country and suffer other sanctions that tie their hands – as well as their feet.
V. Petkoff, the man who guided us at "the beginning of the madness” (referencing the Mexican writer Jorge Volpi), is one of them. He stayed in his Caracas apartment, limited but unyielding in his decision not to appeal his sanction, not to put his knee on the ground, even though the government hit him hard when they barred him from attending important family events abroad.
I can almost hear him say it. “Let me tell you something. I expect that no one in this newsroom will even think of being intimidated.”
VI. On the morning of Feb. 16, 2005, Chávez had been in power for six year and would continue for another eight. The president of the media company where I worked assigned me a defense lawyer. He walked with me toward a prosecutor's office, between colleagues showing their solidarity and human rights activists.
Just as the elevator doors closed, a reporter who covered the prosecutor's office whispered advice: “Don't get upset, don't lose your composure, because I have seen more than one person leave here in handcuffs,” he said. I kept that in mind throughout my four-hour interrogation.
As we investigated the murder of a prosecutor, we had uncovered a corruption network within the justice system. On direct orders from the executive branch, prosecutors had begun an investigation – against the journalists and their sources. There were raids and persecutions. Some fled the country, while others self-censored.
"The Washington Post unfortunately covers Mr. Trump very inaccurately. We no longer feel compelled to work with a publication which has put its need for 'clicks' above journalistic integrity," the Trump campaign said on June 13, 2016. "The Washington Post is being used by the owners of Amazon as their political lobbyist so that they don't have to pay taxes and don't get sued for monopolistic tendencies that have led to the destruction of department stores and the retail industry."
VII. Over time, Chavez and his followers refined the ways they could censure and batter the news media. The government imposed multimillion dollar fines; closed RCTV, an important TV channel, and slapped it with an administrative punishment; filed criminal charges; beat up reporters in attacks that were never prosecuted; leaked illegal recordings of private conversations; and used state-controlled media to attack journalists.
The government tried different ways to silence the news media, and always used judicial eyewash to make everything seem legal. The strategy was effective for many years, especially among foreign correspondents who visited for three days and left without much knowledge but many opinions. In some cases, they wrote with an “even hand” that put them in the comfortable middle of a fight between David and Goliath.
Undoubtedly, however, its most effective stab was to buy the news media and establish a new editorial line in favor of the Chávez "revolution". That operation was devised when Chávez was suffering from cancer and was carried out after he died and was succeeded by President Nicolás Maduro in 2013.
Abroad, it was seen as a simple commercial deal. At home, it was a purge. We left or were fired. The reports of journalists who were quitting and TV programs that were closing “because of changes in programming” started to look like the reports of the many weekend murders in Caracas.
VIII. The media's new directors and executives were censors who didn't have to dip their hands in red – the red of a censor's pencil. The crackdown on the media found an audience that had already bought into the Chávez attacks on politics, parties and the media. It found citizens who were as faint of heart in the defense of freedom of expression as they had been with a former military officer who had first tried a coup and then won an election promising an “iron fist” to fix all the “bad things” the political parties had done.
We journalists and news media found no support in society. We Venezuelans also did not know how to defend democracy at the time when it most needed defending.
“You're attacking us, can you give us a question, sir?” CNN reporter Jim Acosta asked during a news conference Wednesday. Trump's answer: "Don't be rude. I'm not going to give you a question. No, I am not going to give you a question. You are fake news."
IX. I obeyed Petkoff's words for many years. All of Chavez' years in power, and a good part of Maduro's.
But I left Venezuela with my family at the end of 2015. The reasons, the theft of my equipment and the lack of security ... that would require whole new column.
Now I am witnessing an unprecedented transition. And maybe that's why I'm thinking back to that day in February of 1999 when a thin Hugo Chávez made a boorish comment as he was sworn in as president. “I swear, on this moribund constitution ...” It was a hint of what was coming, of what was just starting.
Trump's first news conference as president-elect also marked the start of a new road. “You are fake news”... “I am not going to answer your question, girl.” "Who do you work for?" "You don't have the right to ask more questions." "Who's paying you." "You're not ethical." "You're a liar." "You're part of the treasonous right-wing." "Tell the truth."
Chávez? Or Trump? It does not matter.
It's the breeze that portends a powerful hurricane.
“Look at the guy in the middle. Why aren’t you turning the camera? Terrible. So terrible. Look at him, he doesn’t turn the camera. He doesn’t turn the camera,” Trump said Jan. 2, 2016, at an event in Biloxi, Mississippi, in which he singled out a cameraman. “That guy right there, who do you shoot for?"
X. The end of the madness never comes.