CARACAS May 26 In the mountains above Caracas,
two government officials often stand watch over the antennas of
TV news network Globovision, poised to take it off air if
regulators object to coverage of anti-government protests,
according to two station employees.
They said the 24-hour Venezuelan news station receives
regular warnings from state telecom regulator Conatel against
showing live footage of clashes between anti-government
protesters and security forces, or broadcasting terms such as
"dictatorship" and "repression."
"It's a daily threat," said one of the employees, citing
information from station managers and asking not to be
identified for fear of reprisals.
"Conatel is making decisions about coverage."
In contrast to past waves of unrest in Venezuela,
particularly during Hugo Chavez's 1999-2013 rule, the nation's
three main private television stations have provided minimal
live coverage of the latest anti-government demonstrations.
They rarely show more than a few minutes of real-time images
of protests, which range from peaceful marches to violent melees
that have left 57 people dead amid anger against President
Nicolas Maduro and frustration over the crumbling economy.
However, the private networks, including Globovision, do
give broadly equal weight to opposition and government leaders
and supporters in broadcasts - contrary to assertions by critics
that they muzzle the opposition.
"If people abroad sampled Venezuela's TV media directly, as
opposed to judging it by what is said about it by the
international media and some big NGOs, they'd be shocked to find
the opposition constantly denouncing the government and even
making very thinly veiled appeals to the military to oust
Maduro," said Joe Emersberger, a Canadian blogger who tracks
Venezuelan media and writes for state-funded Telesur network.
"Focusing on 'live' coverage is just a way to avoid
acknowledging they (protests) are being extensively covered."
Regulators do openly describe vigilance of coverage, with
Conatel director Andres Mendez recently telling state TV the
regulator was constantly evaluating Globovision and some of its
anchors. "We sometimes have pleasant conversations with
(Globovision's) president," he said.
Globovision, Mendez, Conatel, and the Information Ministry
did not respond to requests for comment.
Ruling Socialist Party officials scoff at the idea of any
censorship, insisting the government is the victim of a
U.S.-supported campaign by private local and international media
to depict it as a repressive regime and thus justify a coup.
They recall that private media openly backed a bungled 2002
coup against Chavez, and accuse media of exaggerating the
protests to weaken Maduro's government.
TURNING TO INTERNET
Unable to follow the protests live on TV, many Venezuelans
have turned to other sources of information, especially online.
"I find out what's going on from my phone and social media,"
said Claudia Mejias, who watches Colombian network Caracol via
cable at the hair salon where she works and then shares
information with friends via Whatsapp and Facebook.
Though social media platforms have to some extent supplanted
TV news, they frequently transmit inaccurate information.
And only 53 percent of Venezuelans have internet access,
according to one local research firm.
Mendez of Conatel said authorities are in the process of
acquiring technology that will regulate electronic media better.
Created during the Chavez era, Conatel's brief is to guard
against the promotion of violence and inappropriate content for
children. But opposition critics say it has instead become a
Globovision, which for years offered wall-to-wall live
coverage openly in favor of the opposition, sharply tempered its
line and cut back live coverage after a 2013 ownership change.
It was, though, subject to a Conatel investigation after an
opposition lawmaker in a January interview said the country had
become a dictatorship and called for civil disobedience.
Mendez said Globovision was being checked for transmitting
messages that "urged the disavowal of the rule of law."
The two Globovision employees said its producers were under
instruction that opposition protests should not be broadcast
live for more than a minute, and to follow that with footage of
a government minister.
Evening news broadcasts by the country's other major private
television networks - Venevision and Televen - usually include
footage of the day's protests.
But it is generally edited to avoid showing the handwritten
signs calling Maduro a dictator or people chanting slogans
against him, both of which are ubiquitous at rallies.
Employees from two of the major networks, all of whom also
asked not to be identified, said they have also been instructed
to carefully manage reporting and interviews so as to avoid
The stations did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Reporters from those stations who cover opposition marches
have been attacked by crowds accusing them of hiding the reality
on the streets to curry government favor.
Earlier this month, demonstrators doused a team of
Globovision journalists with gasoline, and separately broke the
windows of a car carrying the same team of reporters.
"It's gotten much more aggressive," said a reporter from a
private station who asked not to be identified.
Foreign television networks have also come under pressure.
Conatel in February ordered cable television services to
pull CNN's Spanish television network CNN en Español.
In April, Conatel ordered two networks from Argentina and
Colombia briefly off cable services, following accusations they
were broadcasting "unfounded and false information." Four more
foreign TV networks are being investigated, it said.
"We are constantly being monitored," said Ronald Rodriguez,
president of Venezuela's subscription television industry
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea and Liamar Ramos;
Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Tom Brown)