Watching freedom of the press erode, Venezuela's journalists get innovative

Government influence and self-censorship have increased over the past two decades. But amid Venezuela's political and economic crises, public demonstrations have served as a rallying call against misinformation. 

Mariana Zuniga
A group of Venezuelan journalists belonging to an initiative called ‘El Bus TV’ read the news aboard a city bus in Caracas, Venezuela, June 29. The idea: Create a new type of live newscast to bring information directly to the people.

It’s nearly 8 a.m. as a green public bus chugs along Francisco Fajardo Avenue toward Petare, a slum in eastern Caracas. Two women sit in the back, applying mascara and lipstick as the bus jerks through traffic. A young man plays with his cell phone, and another is munching on breakfast.

Suddenly, a voice from the front of the bus catches their attention. They look up.

“President Nicolás Maduro continues with his plan to rewrite the constitution without consulting Venezuelans,” a woman says, her head hovering behind a square cardboard cutout made to look like a television screen. Blue letters on top of the box read, “El Bus TV.” 

Bus TV is a live newscast on public buses that started here in Caracas, but has already spread to cities including Mérida, Valencia, and Barinas. Amid prolonged protests over Venezuela’s economic and political crises, and increasing authoritarianism, it targets listeners who may not have access to the internet or media beyond public television stations, which are under increasing pressure from the government. And it's just one of the ways that the country’s journalists are innovating in their commitment to get real news to Venezuelans.

Citizens know that news “isn’t matching the reality they are living,” says Marianela Balbi, executive director of the Press and Society Institute of Venezuela, an NGO that tracks and promotes press freedom. “There’s no news about the six-hour lines they are waiting in for food or the [...] inflation or the lack of medicine. So, many know the information they are getting is incomplete or superficial or coming from a single point of view.”

On Wednesday, for example, photos of blood-soaked opposition legislators in Venezuela’s National Assembly, who were reportedly beaten by masked government supporters, were splashed across social media networks and international news sites. But the attacks weren’t televised on national channels, and for the more than one-third of the population without internet access, they may as well have never happened.

It’s a familiar story in a country where freedom of the press has slowly eroded and self-censorship has increased over the past two decades. While security forces block anti-government demonstrators protesting widespread hunger and medical shortages, and calling for elections, national television channels can be required to air government programming. That was the case May 3, when Mr. Maduro was shown bouncing to a merengue rhythm while protesters were pelted by the National Guard with tear gas and water cannons.

Meanwhile, left with fewer independent news outlets, many Venezuelans are turning to social media to stay in the know. But rumors and false reports from perspectives on both sides of the political spectrum have further fed confusion.

The public demonstrations have served as a rallying call for many Venezuelan journalists, however. As violence ratchets up and the government doubles down, local reporters see a serious need to keep the population informed and engaged in what is going on here. It’s led to innovative approaches to telling the news in order to overcome censorship and misinformation.

“About three months ago, when the violence and the protests went up, there became a clear need to keep the population informed,” says Ms. Balbi. “These journalists decided they can’t sit still. And that’s what you want in a democratic society: distinct sources of coverage so that the population can make informed decisions.”

News on the move

Former President Hugo Chávez had a fraught relationship with the media, closing down scores of independent radio and television stations. More recently, shortages of printing paper have meant more newspapers moving online or printing fewer pages of coverage. And Maduro has carried the same torch: Over the past three months alone there have been more than 428 violations of press freedom, according to the NGO Press and Society Institute of Venezuela (IPYS).

But as the challenges mount, so do some journalists’ creativity. 

The process at Bus TV, for example, is incredibly simple: A producer steps onto the bus and asks the driver for permission to present the news. Two journalists hold the makeshift TV, while the host reads the four-minute news bulletin covering current events. They not only talk about the protests, but shortages or other daily hardships many here are experiencing. Each day the newscast is different, and although government sources are rarely made available for interviews, the reporters work to incorporate public statements from officials in order to make the newscast as balanced and professional as possible.

The idea came to reporter Claudia Lizardo in late April. The capital was overwhelmed by protests, but when she got on the bus she realized no one was talking about it. “I felt like I was in a parallel reality,” she says. “It seemed like nothing [out of the ordinary] was happening in the country.” She feared it was a matter of lack of information – or even misinformation. So she gathered a group of friends and launched Bus TV.

“This is not a protest, but it’s a form of resistance,” says Laura Castilllo, a journalist working with Bus TV. “It’s a way to counteract censorship.”

The response has been quite positive, with riders engaging with the reporters, asking questions, and treating them with kindness.

Today, the bus passengers applaud once the live “broadcast” ends, and the team jumps off, ready to read the news on the next bus that comes by. In an hour, they’ve given six newscasts.

“Good morning! This is Bus TV!” Ms. Castillo says, while climbing onto yet another bus. “In Venezuela, at least one member of each family sacrifices one meal per day in order to feed their children.”

A passenger, Mariela, nods her head. She says she was already aware of most of the information on Bus TV today, but hopes the project continues because many in her working-class neighborhood of Catia aren’t as well-informed. “You should also do this on the subway,” Mariela calls out to the team once the newscast is complete. 

Fake news

More than 400 radio, television, and print outlets are biased in favor of the government, according to IPYS. The Venezuelan state owns many of them, and others receive government funding, influencing their editorial line. Together, they give the government an unprecedented platform for its messaging, according to Marcelino Bisbal, a media expert and professor at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

“When Chávez passed away, there was already an important [government] media platform,” Dr. Bisbal says. “But, three years later, that platform has grown scandalously.”

Given the erosion of the independent media landscape, WhatsApp, Facebook Live, Periscope, and other live-transmission social media tools have become increasing popular ways to share information. But reliable and balanced information is increasingly difficult to come by.

“They have become channels to spread a great amount of fake news,” says Bisbal. “And the chaos surrounding the protests has served as a breeding ground for rumors” on both ends of the news spectrum.

In May, for example, rumors that jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez had died reached such a pitch that the government released a “proof of life” video shot with prison bars behind him. Even US Sen. Marco Rubio had tweeted that Mr. Lopez was rushed to the hospital “in very serious condition.”

But a new initiative that started in April, called “The Public Information Service,” is working to counteract widespread misinformation. A group of journalists record news bulletins as voice memos and share them through messaging apps like Telegram and Whatsapp. They only share news that they have been able to corroborate through multiple sources. 

“This is our individual contribution to combating misinformation,” says Yaya Andueza, one of the founders. “We can help lower the levels of anxiety that false news creates in the population.”

Balbi says she has faith their efforts will make a difference. “People need reliable information, even simply for public safety reasons,” she says, referring to the protests and the basic need to know whether there are clashes in a neighborhood one is traveling to, for example.

“Venezuela has a strong democratic culture, something that will be hard to repress,” she says. “A situation where democracy is at risk is serious, and that’s why Venezuelans are fighting.”

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