Anti-Chávez TV sees ‘death sentence’ in Venezuela’s switch to digital broadcasting

When the government announced this week it was making the switch to digital broadcasting, it touted the increased number of channels that will be available — from science and cultural stations, to one dedicated exclusively to Venezuela’s youth orchestra. But one broadcaster wasn’t invited to cross the digital divide: Globovisión.

The 24-hour news station is the only remaining channel that is openly critical of the government. Reaching some 2.5 million households, it has become a refuge for opposition voices who can’t get airtime on state-run TV.

But Globovisión was not invited to be part of the new digital television lineup. So when the government phases out analog broadcasting at some point in the future, Globovisión may disappear along with it. “They’re basically looking for another way to asphyxiate us,” said Ricardo Antela, Globovisión’s legal counsel. “This time they’re doing it through technology.”

The government hasn’t said when it will cut the analog signal, but during Wednesday’s rollout of the new standard, Minister of Science and Technology Jorge Arreaza said digital broadcasting towers already cover 13 cities and about 50 percent of the population.

Vice President Nicolás Maduro said that unlike the early days of radio and color TV, when new technology was only available to the wealthy, the government will hand out free digital conversion boxes to the country’s poorest. The system is being inaugurated with 11 stations: eight public and three private.

“This day will go down in the history of Venezuelan television,” Maduro said during the launch. “From now on, everyone will have access to the industry’s most advanced technology.”

Since taking power 14 years ago, President Hugo Chávez has built a powerful state-run media apparatus that has been emulated by many of his allies in the region. In the capital alone, the government controls eight television stations, two radio networks and three newspapers. The state also has the power to override all radio and television broadcasts to make national announcements — something the administration often does several times a week. Maduro preempted local programming Wednesday, for example, to announce the launch of the digital TV service.

But the nation is still starved for news, particularly about the health of its ailing leader. Chávez was brought into the country in the dead of night Monday after spending more than two months in a Cuban hospital recovering from cancer surgery. But he hasn’t been seen or heard by the general public since he left for Cuba Dec. 10.

Sonya Rambal, a 62-year-old newspaper vendor, said she relies on the opposition press, including Globovisión, to keep her informed. She also said that, despite government assurances, she suspects that Chávez is still in Cuba.

“If he was at the hospital here he would stick his hand out the window and wave,” she said. “He would do something so that we would know he was here. There is so much doubt about everything.”

This isn’t the first time Globovisión has found itself fighting for survival. The station has been taken to court repeatedly by the government, and is facing six open lawsuits. Last year it paid a $2.16 million fine after the government determined that its coverage of a 2011 prison riot was sensationalized. The channel is also waiting to see if it will have its license renewed in 2015.

Carlos Correa, director of the Espacio Público media watchdog group, said Globovisión is clearly being targeted for its political point of view.

“Digital television has the potential to bring us a diversified number of channels,” he said. “But what we are seeing is that they are being restricted.”

The government says 94 percent of all households have television. Converting all of them to digital could take years. But Globovisión could be silenced before that, Antela said. The station is only broadcast in Caracas and Valencia, and reaches most of its viewers through satellite and cable providers. However, the government has new rules in place that only allow cable companies to carry channels that are also broadcast. That means that once the digital switch takes place in Caracas and Valencia — two cities where the government is already broadcasting digitally — Globovisión might be pulled off of cable also.

Globovisión has reason to worry. In 2007, the government refused to renew the license of the country’s largest broadcaster, RCTV. When the channel tired to make the move to cable, the rules were rewritten to knock it off the air. But the confrontation came at a price as students took the streets to defend the broadcaster and the government faced the ire of free-speech advocates.

By phasing Globovisión out, rather than revoking its license, the government might be trying to dampen the political backlash, Antela said.

“This is a death sentence for us,” he said. “Once a person is condemned, they might be alive for awhile, but the process has begun to deny them the right to live.”

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