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Maduro accused of silencing dissent as Venezuelan press runs short of paper

Strict currency controls that experts say have crippled economy are preventing publishers from importing newsprint

For the editors of Venezuela’s oldest newspaper, going web-only is not a commercial strategy to reflect dwindling circulation figures. El Impulso halved its print edition from four sections to two in October, and on Friday it will be reduced to one, because the regional daily is running out of paper.

A wave of shortages in Venezuela over the past year have left people scrambling to find anything from toilet paper to cooking oil and car parts. The shortages have been blamed on strict currency controls put in place more than a decade ago to prevent the flight of capital. Experts say the controls have crippled the economy and led to inflation reaching 56%, the highest in the world.

“We have been circulating for 110 years. We will not die for lack of paper. We will come out every day even if we are down to one page”, said José Angel Ocanto, editor-in-chief at El Impulso.

But not every newspaper has survived the newsprint shortage. According to the Institute for Press and Society, six local newspapers have shut down entirely and nearly 30 have been obliged to reduce their sizes or eliminate weekend editions and magazines. Even some of the country’s leading newspapers have warned they are weeks away from halting publication.

El Nacional, one of the two largest dailies and a critic of the administration of Nicolás Maduro, said that since May it had not received any foreign currency that would allow it to import printing paper. It said it had enough newsprint to last only until the end of February.

In an editorial on Tuesday, it accused the government of funding pro-government newspapers while slowly strangling those that had adopted a critical stance towards the government’s policies. “Those small regional newspapers that try to inform its citizens about what happens around them, but without the partisan venom, have only received from this government the aggression of their military, the insults of armed groups and the economic measures designed so they vanish and perish,” the editorial said.

Several hundred newspaper employees and media organisations took to the streets for a third week in a row to demand access to foreign currency that would allow paper imports to resume.

Several media watchdogs have said the government’s failure to disburse currency might be a way to silence its detractors. Claudio Paolillo, regional director of the Interamerican Press Committee, said the obstacles to importing newsprint, as well as recent crackdowns on reporting of Venezuela’s food shortages and rampant violence, was part of the government’s strategy to punish independent media.

“Maduro tends to admit it in his statements … when he says he will strengthen the control of media, justifying the action with the argument that it instigates violence with anti-government propaganda,” Paolillo said.

Last week Maduro threatened to impose severe sanctions on media outlets reporting on the spiralling violence in the country. “They’re going to call me a dictator, I don’t care,” he said. “I am going to have very strict rules so we end the sensationalism and the propaganda that feeds off blood and death.”

In the empty offices of El Oriental, a small journal in the eastern state of Maturin, a slimmer paper has meant staff reductions. “We lost one journalist and two of our four photographers”, said Anne Cordoba, head of information. “It’s a grave situation. It might be political, but the truth is there is no paper.”

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