By Deisy Buitrago and Corina Pons
CARACAS (Reuters) – 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 politically-motivated censor.
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 state sanctions.
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 association.
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea and Liamar Ramos; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Tom Brown)