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Press Freedom

In Venezuela, Radio Stations are Shut Down and Information Is Just Another Migrant

Headquarters in Caracas of the state-owned National Telecommunications Commission, which has closed more than 100 radio stations this year for not complying with the requirements it has established, which NGOs criticize for eliminating windows of expression and information for communities. CREDIT: Conatel

Headquarters in Caracas of the state-owned National Telecommunications Commission, which has closed more than 100 radio stations this year for not complying with the requirements it has established, which NGOs criticize for eliminating windows of expression and information for communities. CREDIT: Conatel

CARACAS, Jan 9 2023 (IPS) - More than 100 radio stations were shut down by the Venezuelan government this year, accentuating the collapse of the media and further undermining the already meager capacity of citizens to stay informed.

In Venezuela’s provinces, “radio stations had become the last or only window for citizens to stay informed, and now they are being rapidly lost,” journalism professor Mariela Torrealba, co-founder of the media observatory Medianálisis, told IPS.

"We have a populatce that is not only impoverished, but deeply uninformed, with access mainly to the official media line, fertile ground for hoaxes or disinformation campaigns, and without the capacity to build public opinion references with other people.” -- Marianela Torrealba

The wave of closures carried out by the state-owned National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) comes at the end of what the journalists’ unions call an “information desert” – a long decade of measures that have reduced the space for the rights of expression and information, in a country governed since 1999 by a self-styled leftist government with a gradual authoritarian drift.

Most of the stations closed this year are small private or community enterprises that did not meet all the requirements set by Conatel to maintain their permits, and they were often stations with programming segments that were critical of the national or local authorities.

Venezuela, a country of 28.5 million people, most of whom live in the north near the Caribbean Sea, had more than 100 printed newspapers a decade ago. But over 70 closed down because during years of exchange controls and state monopoly of foreign currency, it became more and more difficult to import printing paper.

Several of the main national newspapers, as well as the private television news station, were sold to firms that changed their editorial line. Radio stations critical of the government, such as the pioneer Radio Caracas Radio, founded in 1930, were unable to renew their operating licenses.

A number of media outlets moved to the internet, without achieving the audiences or readership of the past, and hundreds of journalists and other media workers who lost their jobs in the cascade of downsizing of media outlets other than state-owned ones also migrated to other countries or occupations.

Venezuela has lived through a decade of crisis marked by a recession that reduced its gross domestic product by up to 75 percent, several years of hyperinflation and sharp depreciation of its currency, harsh political clashes and social crisis, which pushed more than seven million Venezuelans to leave the country.

Journalists and other press workers take part in a protest in the plains area of Venezuela over the closure of radio stations. Most of the stations forced off the air operated in western and central states of the country. CREDIT: Sntp

Journalists and other press workers take part in a protest in the plains area of Venezuela over the closure of radio stations. Most of the stations forced off the air operated in western and central states of the country. CREDIT: Sntp

 

Poor and uninformed

Torrealba said her organization holds small events with the public in the interior of the country who are asked how they stay informed, and “very few say through the media. Most of them say they use the social networks, but in a patchy manner because of weak internet access or lack of electricity.”

For example, in Yaritagua, a city in the center-west of the country, with a population of about 100,000 and an agricultural environment, 40 people, mostly older adults, were surveyed by activists in a soup kitchen in December.

Only three had email, and 14 said they had cell phones, but almost all of those devices actually belonged to a child, grandchild or neighbor.

“We have a populatce that is not only impoverished, but deeply uninformed, with access mainly to the official media line, fertile ground for hoaxes or disinformation campaigns, and without the capacity to build public opinion references with other people,” Torrealba said.

Radio Caracas Radio, a pioneer station with an editorial line critical of the government, had to go off the air in 2019 because the authorities refused to renew the frequency concession that it had used uninterruptedly since 1930. Every year dozens of radio stations in Venezuela are shut down. CREDIT: RCR

Radio Caracas Radio, a pioneer station with an editorial line critical of the government, had to go off the air in 2019 because the authorities refused to renew the frequency concession that it had used uninterruptedly since 1930. Every year dozens of radio stations in Venezuela are shut down. CREDIT: RCR

 

Goodbye information, hello music

Ricardo Tarazona, head of the National Union of Press Workers in Yaracuy, a small central-western state with some 700,000 inhabitants, told IPS that in his state “the closure of radio stations continues, with at least five this year, after 14 stations were shut down in 2014.”

“Seven of the 14 recuperated their signals and reopened, but without the news, opinion and community reporting spaces that they had before, and they dedicate themselves now to playing music and to advertising,” said Tarazona.

The remaining stations “are constantly called upon to chain themselves to the signal of VTV,” the government television station, “and no longer give space to producers and communicators dedicated to reflecting the voices of the communities,” he added.

Carlos Correa, director of the NGO Espacio Público, a defender of freedom of expression and the right to information, told IPS that many private radio stations “without needing to be told to do so by an official body, stick to the information provided by government TV.”

This is one of the explanations why the mandatory radio and television broadcasts that President Nicolás Maduro gave intensively, up to several times a week, during the first few years after he took office in 2013, have diminished. In practice, they are hardly necessary anymore.

View of the city of Maracaibo and the 8.7 km bridge that crosses the lake that bears its name. It is the capital of the western oil-producing state of Zulia, the most populated in the country, where 33 radio stations were closed this year. CREDIT: Megaconstrucciones

View of the city of Maracaibo and the 8.7 km bridge that crosses the lake that bears its name. It is the capital of the western oil-producing state of Zulia, the most populated in the country, where 33 radio stations were closed this year. CREDIT: Megaconstrucciones

 

Dollars and ratings

Correa described this year’s shutdown of radio stations as part of a broader movement of groups aspiring to open radio stations and even networks of stations, and also blamed the influence of regional or municipal political leaders who wish to have their own media outlets or stations that are favorable to them.

Radio advertising, which plummeted in the second decade of this century along with the Venezuelan economy as a whole, has revived along with commercial activity, mainly in the context of a rebound in the Venezuelan economy of up to 12 percent this year, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

The Venezuelan Chamber of the Broadcasting Industry issued a statement saying that “practically all of the radio stations closed by Conatel are clandestine,” and harm legally registered stations because they interfere with their signal.

One difficulty that dozens of radio stations have not been able to overcome, two radio broadcasters told IPS anonymously, is that Conatel sets numerous requirements and delays the evaluation of the documents presented by those requesting to regularize the use of their radio frequency.

They said that owners of closed radio stations often refrain from publicly voicing their criticism and complaints, waiting for Conatel to lift the punishment.

Correa pointed out that the technical study that radio stations are required to produce is estimated to cost between 5,000 and 10,000 dollars, a figure that is easy to cover for a station with resources but too costly for a small provincial one.

Espacio Público and other NGOs, as well as the National Journalists Association and the Press Workers Union, have criticized the fact that administrative procedures outweigh the need to guarantee the right to pluralistic information in the official evaluation of radio stations.

With the closure of radio stations, several thousands of workers have been left unemployed. For example, when Sonora 107.7 FM, which had been broadcasting for 20 years in the city of Araure, in the west-central plains of the country, went off the air on Dec. 12, 25 people lost their jobs.

Estimating the size of lost audiences is more difficult, but for example in the oil-producing state of Zulia (in the northwest bordering Colombia), home to nearly five million inhabitants and with a regional governor who is in the opposition, 33 radio stations were closed this year.

Marianela Balbi, of the Press and Society Institute, warned in a recent university forum that “total and partial news deserts have formed in regions where nearly 14 million Venezuelans live.”

The United Nations and the Organization of American States’ rapporteurs for freedom of expression also issued a joint statement on Aug. 30 warning about the situation of the media and journalists in Venezuela.

“The government-ordered closure of media outlets and/or seizure of their equipment increasingly limit citizens’ access to reliable information from independent sources, while accentuating a general atmosphere of self-censorship among the media,” they said in their statement.

 
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