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Debut of Venezuela’s New Media Landscape Generates Criticism

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde

Today’s protest and speech by Leopoldo López was covered live by television news channel Globovisión. At least in part. Globovisión split their screen so that they could transmit the opposition protest and government march at the same time and also cut away from the speech before López was done.

This, however, was a significant improvement over media coverage of the violence during the February 12 march (see David’s comments in the Financial Times).

That day when the student’s protests turned increasingly violent, private television stations stopped their live coverage of the incidents. Globovisión, the news channel that used to be considered the main pro-opposition media but is now owned by a business group said to be close to the government, had initially given ample – but not live - coverage to the protests. But as soon as violence erupted in the afternoon, they switched to a fashion program.

Public television channels did not cover any of the opposition protests, concentrating instead on a government organized patriotic youth march commemorating the anniversary of La Victoria battle of the war of independence.

People with access to cable television services turned to the Colombia based news channel NTN24 for live coverage of the incidents. As violence erupted, the channel broadcasted videos reportedly filmed by protestors showing Venezuelan police officers firing on protestors. The government ordered cable providers to take NTN24 out of their grids. Viewers reported by twitter that by leaving the channel on it could still be viewed in Venezuela, but as soon as it was changed or the cable set turned off and on again, the image was lost. The web page of the channel was also blocked for access from Venezuela. But it was available live on Youtube.com.

President Maduro justified the censuring measure declaring: “a television channel [NTN24] that is trying to compete with Telesur [Venezuelan government backed Latin American news television channel], attempted to broadcast the chaos of a coup d’état…I had to defend Venezuela’s peace.” He also scolded France Presse news service for using local reporters to “harm the truth about Venezuela.”

The president of the government’s media control agency CONATEL, William Castillo, also warned via twitter against international coverage of the protests: “We call upon the international media to respect the Venezuelan people. The promotion of violence and the lack of recognition of authorities is a crime [in Venezuela].”

On the evening of February 13 twitter users in Venezuela reported that they were unable to upload images and videos to their accounts. Social media networks such as twitter had been used during the day to upload images of the protests. International news agencies claimed that the Venezuelan government had, through its web provider CANTV, blocked the service to the country. But in contrast to the way Maduro assumed responsibility for censuring NTN24, CANTV quickly denied the accusations.

Commentators have compared the February 12 coverage to the television blackout of April 12 and 13 of 2002. After the coup against President Chavez on that date, Television stations chose to broadcast cartoons instead of covering live the popular protests and military realignments and movements that eventually brought Chavez back to power.

Paradoxically that 2002 case of concerted information blackout by the media has been repeatedly used by the Venezuelan government as an argument for the need to closely control private media. Furthermore, pro-government analysts have justified the recent censorship precisely in order to preclude a repetition of the 2002 coup.

Before last week’s student protests, President Maduro had warned that private television channels were fueling criminal violence by broadcasting programs that carried “anti-values of capitalism”. He added that the new Pacification Plan would include measures to purge that “culture of violence” from the media.

On the days before the February 12 protests and the media blackout, tensions seemed to have been building up inside Globovisión. On February 11 for example, a long time leading reporter of the channel José Vicente Antonetti announced that his daily program Primera Plana had been canceled and that he had therefore been de facto sacked from Globovisión.

Then on February 13, during the protests, the channel’s information coordinator Cecilia Colmenares quit her job because of her disagreement over the editorial line and the lack of coverage of the events. Another Globovisión reporter, Betriz Adrián tweeted during the day: “several of the reporters asked that [Globovisión] broadcast what was happening in both events [government acts and opposition protests]. But it was impossible.” According to El Universal popular journalists and news anchors such as Leopoldo Castillo, Carla Angola, “Kiko” Bautista, Gladys Rodríguez and Roman Lozinski, have quit the channel because its changes in editorial line. 

On February 15, several journalist organizations held a meeting in which they analyzed the situation and called for unity among journalists and a renewed push to provide independent coverage.

On February 16 Globovisión responded to criticisms with a statement claiming objectivity and neutrality in its news coverage and adding: “We disagree with the use of broadcast media as an instrument for agitation, propaganda, or confrontation, and with its use as a weapon to attack the well being of the nation or to alter the social stability of the country.”

Pressures regarding news coverage have also affected print media. Journalists at Venezuela’s largest daily newspaper Últimas Noticias were upset on February 13 when UN did not give front page coverage to the deaths of three students. However, on Sunday Ultimas Noticias published on its web page a very detailed report describing and analyzing internet videos and pictures of the protests and the violence in downtown Caracas on February 12.

The analysis seems to corroborate denunciations of police officers of the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia (SEBIN) and non-uniformed motorcyclists firing with hand guns against the students. On a national cadena of Sunday 16, President Maduro had to acknowledge that a group of SEBIN officers did fire at protestors. He suggested that they had not remained in their barracks as he had ordered.

Filed under Venezuelan media freedom of expression

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