With access to airwaves shrinking, Venezuela's opposition turns to the Web

Venezuela's opposition leader Capriles says he's losing space on the airwaves, so he's turned to the Internet to get his voice heard.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Henrique Capriles (c.), Venezuela's opposition leader and governor of Miranda state, greets supporters during a visit to the community of San Francisco de Yare, 45 miles south of Caracas, May 31. Capriles aired the second episode of his Internet program this week as part of his ongoing efforts to maintain coverage.

Claiming he's been increasingly ignored by local media outlets, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles aired the second episode of his Internet program this week as part of his ongoing efforts to maintain coverage. 

"Some are interested in blocking information and making us invisible, but here we are," Mr. Capriles told the nearly 37,000 viewers of his hour-long, weekly Web-streamed program Venezuela Somos Todos, or All of Us are Venezuela.

Capriles is the first Venezuelan politician on the national stage to follow in the footsteps of former President Hugo Chávez in creating his own show. Mr. Chávez was famous for his rambling, marathon broadcasts on his talk show Aló Presidente (Hello Mr. President), a staple of his presidency.

Despite his gift for gab, the charismatic president often clashed with private media. Dozens of radio stations and a handful of cable channels were closed following the 2002 coup attempt, as Chávez largely blamed these outlets responsible for his brief ousting.

In addition to a shrinking media market, several important outlets have recently changed hands. Venezuela's opposition leader claims he's losing space on the airwaves and has since turned to the Internet to ensure his voice is heard. Capriles may now be making headlines as Twitter's most popular Latin American politician (second only to the late Chávez); however, analysts fear that social media and Web streams may struggle to compete with TV and radio news programming dominated by the state-run media, essentially keeping opposition media in an echo chamber.

Sale of Globovisión

Globovisión, widely considered to be the last standing television station to aggressively criticize the Chávez regime, was sold last month to a group of businessmen believed to be friendly with the government.

"It's a huge loss," says Mariana Bacalao, a media expert and professor at the Central University of Venezuela. Ms. Bacalao says options are shrinking for messages that don't walk the government line.

Observers say a narrow media market is a threat to freedom of information. "Clearly, when the [media] spectrum is only filled with official voices, the public loses diversity," says Carlos Lauría, senior Americas program coordinator at the Center to Protect Journalists in New York.

Since the string of closures, Globovisión was the only Venezuelan news network to regularly broadcast the opposition party's speeches live. Especially during the most recent presidential campaign.

Underscoring the quick change in editorial line after the sale, one outspoken Globovisión talk show host, Francisco "Kiko" Bautista, claimed he was fired for airing Capriles' speeches on his show shortly after the channel changed ownership.

But concerns go beyond just losing valuable airtime. Media group, Cadena Capriles – which owns Venezuela's largest circulated print daily, Últimas Noticas – was sold to an unidentified buyer earlier this month. The sale of the conglomerate, who's founder is said to be a distant relative of Capriles the politician, has led many to fear that Venezuelan newspapers will relegate opposition coverage to the back page.

'Alternative means'

"[We've been] forced to develop alternative means to expand access to our message," Capriles told reporters in his studio following Tuesday's broadcast.

Capriles fielded questions from a panel of journalists and responded to inquiries sent to his twitter feed during the hour-long show.

"The majority of Venezuelans still rely on traditional media [print and television] for their news and information,” Bacalao says. So, though the young Miranda State governor currently boasts about 3.5 million Twitter followers, his audience is likely to be specifically seeking him out. The Venezuelan Chamber of Electronic Commerce estimates that as much as half the public lacks Internet access.

Election season

At present, the opposition may be more concerned with upcoming municipal elections than pushing back against the government for space on the airwaves. Elections were recently announced for December 2013. The opposition is now gearing up for a renewed campaign, even developing a smart phone app to help connect voters to its candidates.

Marianela Balbi, executive director of Venezuela's Institute of Press and Society, says the opposition's efforts are part of greater media shift in the country in response to the closure of many outlets. "In [Venezuelan] elections there's a push away from traditional media," Ms. Balbi says.

Pointing to polarization in the media, and utilization of social media by the entire political spectrum – Chávez started the twitter trend, constantly sending out endorsements of his party's candidates – Balbi argues that, "We're moving away from a just few outlets, to greater participation by the electorate."

She says Venezuelans are now turning more to Twitter and Facebook to form their political opinions.

While it's too soon to tell if tweets and web streams can try to compete with the presence and accessibility to Venezuelan television, Balbi says that, given its options, the opposition's Internet-based efforts "are necessary."

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