BOGOTA, Colombia -- In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro controls the TV remote. A week after he turned off Colombian television station NTN24, he threatened to pull the plug on CNN.
“They want to show the world that there’s a civil war in Venezuela,” Maduro told a cheering audience Thursday night. “CNN, get out of Venezuela, enough of your propaganda.”
Hours later, four of the broadcaster’s journalists had their press passes revoked.
Adding to the confusion of the past two weeks of violent protests in Venezuela is that they’ve taken place amid a broadcast brownout. As local television stations have either been unwilling or unable to take a hard-line against the government, citizens are turning elsewhere for news.
Regional cable channels like NTN24 and CNN en Español saw viewership rise as they stepped into the information breach. The fact that Venezuelans were relying on stations based in Bogotá and Atlanta to learn what’s happening down the block is a sign of how effective the administration has been at hemming in the local press.
“I would say people are completely uninformed,” said Carlos Correa, director of Espacio Publico, a media watchdog in Caracas. Because traditional outlets have largely been muzzled, “people are looking for information on social networks and through text messages that don’t have the same rigor or verification process as, say, a newspaper.”
“News right now has the same logic as a rumor,” he said.
For the past few evenings, social networks, particularly Twitter, have been on fire with shaky images of what appears to be security forces and government-backed gangs, known as colectivos, chasing opposition protesters and firing indiscriminately into crowds.
Most of the imagery is difficult, if not impossible, to verify. To complicate matters, social networks are lousy with disinformation. As the government likes to point out, images purporting to be of police brutality in Venezuela have been lifted from Egypt and Chile.
On Friday, Attorney General Luísa Ortega Diaz told Union Radio that eight people have died during the protests, including at least two government supporters — one of whom lost control of his vehicle while trying to avoid an opposition barricade. She also said 137 have been injured, including 37 government officials.
But human rights groups say much of the violence is government-generated. On Friday, Human Rights Watch said there was evidence that security forces were using live ammunition against unarmed protesters. And in interviews with more than 90 detained demonstrators, the Human Rights Center of the Catholic University Andrés Bello found that members of security forces physically abused many of the detainees or threatened them with beatings or rape. Most were held incommunicado and not taken before a judge within the 48-hour limit required by law.
But that’s not the story Maduro has been telling on national TV. Since Feb. 12, the day student protests in Caracas left at least three dead, Maduro has had seven cadenas — or “chains” where all broadcast television and radio stations are linked — that have taken up 11 hours.
During those cadenas, Maduro has pinned the violence on the opposition. After Twitter seethed with reports and photographs of coletivos breaking up an opposition protest and shooting into the air one evening, Maduro said that “right-wing fascists” on motorcycles were the real culprits and that the government had seized 105 of their vehicles.
While Maduro has 1.7 million Twitter followers, the social networking site told Bloomberg News that the government restricted the ability of Venezuelan users to send images Feb. 15.
What Maduro has shown is footage of opposition protesters pelting buses and the metro stations with bottles and rocks.
No one’s denying the opposition protesters have sometimes resorted to violence, but the government “has forgotten to talk about those who died on Feb. 12 and those responsible for the human rights violations against protesters,” said Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader. “It’s the same old script: blame someone else for the problems you can’t solve.”
The opposition is planning to hold a march Saturday to press for the release of former Chacao Mayor Leopoldo López, who was detained this week on charges of having instigated protester violence.
Controlling the message has always been part of Venezuela’s 15-year-old “Bolivarian Revolution.” The late President Hugo Chávez rolled out strict media laws and poured millions into government-controlled newspapers, television and radio stations. When he launched the regional broadcaster TeleSur in 2005, it was to fight what he saw as the hegemony of CNN.
In the past, however, the administration has tried to give its media decisions a veneer of legitimacy. RCTV, one of the country’s largest television stations, disappeared in 2010 when its license wasn’t renewed. Last year, Globovision, the last remaining openly combative television station, was sold to more government-friendly owners and its editorial line followed.
But with NTN24, there was no pretense. The station was simply taken off the air amid its coverage of the Feb. 12 protests.
“We were censored by the government for simply covering the news,” said Idania Chirinos, the station’s news director.
The government accused NTN24 of being alarmist and opening its microphones to the “coup plotting” opposition. Chirinos, who is Venezuelan, said NTN24 strives to be balanced but “one of the problems is that the government of Venezuela and its officials will not accept our interview requests,” she said.
The government went on to block NTN24s Web page and hackers have targeted four alternative pages that the company has put up, Chirinos said.
Tachira state, along the Colombian border, has seen some of the fiercest confrontations but local television stations have largely been downplaying it, locals said.
“The television has only been telling part of the story, so people were relying on online news,” said Santiago Contreras, the editor of the online newspaper www.el-informe.com.
But on Wednesday at 10 p.m, Internet service to the city of almost 650,000 was cut off. It didn’t return until Friday at 11 a.m. Officials haven’t explained the blackout by CANTV, the state-run Internet service provider, but Contreras said he believes it was to keep news about the confrontations bottled up.
At the headquarters of NTN24 in Bogotá, Chirinos said the company will keep covering Venezuela and keep putting up Web sites where Venezuelans can stream its programs. (The broadcaster gets most of its ad revenue from the United States and Colombia so it wasn’t worried about the closure from a business standpoint.)
But she doubted the station would be on the air again in Venezuela any time soon.
“If to get our signal back means we have to ease up on our coverage, it’s not going to happen,” she said. “I think as long as Nicolás Maduro is in power, we’ll be censored.”