World Press Photo Award Ironic in Light of Venezuela’s Lack of Freedom of Speech

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Venezuelan-born photographer Ronaldo Schemidt won the World Press Photo of the Year award last week for a photo depicting a protester on fire in one of the 2017 Venezuelan peaceful protests (turned violent due to government forces’ involvement) against Dictator Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela.

An event such as this one, where a fellow Venezuelan citizen is honored by major organizations, ignites an incredible sense of patriotic pride among other Venezuelans, myself included. I believe that Schemidt now joins the list of honored Venezuelans like the late Rafael Vidal (Olympic bronze-medalist swimmer), Miguel Cabrera (baseball player), Carolina Herrera (fashion designer) and many others. To have any sense of Venezuelan pride during a time in which my country is going through a major political, social and economic crisis is rare, so when it happens, it is one of the most amazing feelings in the world.

Nevertheless, this award is bittersweet. According to World Press, “The World Press Photo of the Year honors the photographer whose visual creativity and skills made a picture that captures or represents an event or issue of great journalistic importance in the last year.” To me, this is ironic. There is no free speech in Venezuela, and even though there is an equivalent to the First Amendment in the Venezuelan Constitution, it is not followed by the government. Images like Schemidt’s are rarely shown in national Venezuelan news. If they are, they are used by news broadcasting services controlled by the government to show how “messed up” the opposition is.

Every Venezuelan public television network is threatened by the government to censor certain content, and the events that they do show are irrelevant and lies, as they cannot show the national political crisis. In fact, Maduro has his own talk show on “Venezolana de Televisión” (VTV), a public television network dedicated to broadcasting – and I’m sorry about using this term – fake news about the Venezuelan government and how “happy” the citizens are living in a lawless nation.

I will never forget when Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), a former Venezuelan public television network, had its last broadcast on May 27, 2007. I was ten years old at the time, and I remember waking up that Sunday morning to the televisions in my house all tuned into RCTV on its last day. The moment that made me realize how impactful RCTV’s closing happened when Berenice Gómez, host of “Los Chismes de La Bicha,” came out for her last show wearing an RCTV-themed robe, and dedicated her show to calling out the Hugo Chávez Frías dictatorial government.

I recently had to go back and rewatch Gómez’s last broadcast to understand what I did not comprehend when I was younger. Gómez judged Chávez for his “21st century socialist government” (which is not at all socialism) and said “The Venezuelan wants a better quality of life. He wants equality, but an equality that leads to progress, not a society in which everyone is ‘equally poor.’ Not a society where the people see how a minority fills its pockets with the money earned by every other Venezuelan.”

RCTV was one of the last networks that broadcasted the actual national political situation. At the time, my parents had told me that the closing of RCTV meant that people in the country would no longer know what Chávez’s bad government was doing. They told me that it was possible for other networks that told actual news to disappear as well. Alas, it’s been almost 11 years since RCTV’s last broadcast, and there are literally no national networks that show the deadly conditions of my country.

I don’t remember RCTV’s last minutes on air. I had to recently look up the video to watch what happened those last minutes, and upon watching it, I cried. For those last couple of minutes, journalists and hosts said their goodbyes, encouraged the public to persist, and sang the national anthem one last time.

After the end of the transmission, when the screen went black, there were protests around the country. “I went out to protest that same night,” María Auxiliadora La Corte, my mother, said. “There were protests all over the country, but like everything else, nothing was accomplished.”

Peaceful protests organized by opposition leaders (some of whom are no longer leaders) and students happened in Venezuela in 2017, with teenagers, adults, elderly, professionals, but mainly students taking part to stop the 20-year-old dictatorship that infected Venezuela. The government’s responses to these protests were violent, so the corrupted national forces — police, army, and armed militant Chavista groups — that confronted the brave protesters, caused many of their deaths. Every time a Venezuelan participated in a peaceful protest, their survival was not guaranteed. But of course, this was never seen or spoken of in national news media.

José Víctor Salazar Balza, the man depicted in Schemidt’s photo, is one of those individuals who sacrificed their safety to fight for a better country. Salazar survived the incident with first and second-degree burns. He is now a name to remember amongst the many that are not mentioned in the media: Wuilly Arteaga, who fearlessly played his violin in the middle of protests and was then tortured; Hans Wuerich, a student who presented himself naked in front of the government’s forces and begged for the fight to stop and was later publicly made fun of by Maduro himself; and Cesar Pereira, who I remember meeting when I was little and saw grow up with me every time my family and I went to a Chinese market in town and bagged our stuff at the cashier, but who was brutally murdered in one of the protests in May 2017 when he was only 20 years old.

I sit here, writing a piece with a message that I understand many journalists in my country do not get to say, but could probably do a million times better. The fight in Venezuela is an unfair but admirable one that I wish would not have happened, and that I can only hope people know about, both abroad and in the country itself.

Congratulations to Ronaldo Schemidt for his incredibly impactful picture that definitely deserved the award, and for showing the difficult circumstances that Venezuelan protesters have undergone, which are rarely shown in media.

Oriana Gonzalez is a second-year literary journalism major and a gender and sexuality studies minor. She can be reached at orianag@uci.edu.

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