Blocked From TV, Venezuelan Opposition Perseveres Online

PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles speaks during a press conference at a hotel in Lima, Peru on July 20, 2013.

Cris Bouroncle/AFP Photo

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Comando Simón Bolívar, Henrique Capriles' media headquarters, sits miles from Venezuela's major television stations, tucked away in a middle-class neighborhood in Caracas. Come campaign season, the tiny office has the makings of a news bureau with volunteers and bike-messengers bustling in and out around the clock.

Although the next election, a series of mayoral contests, is still months away, weary staffers can be seen sneaking out for a quick cafe or a cigarette between pressers and email blasts. They certainly can't be blamed for taking a break. Their job of getting out Capriles' message has become increasingly more difficult in recent days.

"It's a 24/7 job," said Capriles' social media coordinator, who prefered not to be named for fear of reprisals.

Capriles and the Venezuelan opposition recently lost much of their access to Globovisión, a TV channel that gave them considerable airtime. The channel stood as the last remaining station to be overtly critical of the government, and without it many believe that the opposition leader's chances of reaching the Venezuelan public have been greatly diminished.

After experiencing months of economic problems, heightened by strict government regulations, Globovisión was sold in May to insurance mogul Juan Domingo Cordero, who is said to have close ties to the Nicolás Maduro administration.

Following the change in ownership, several outspoken anchors critical of the government were said to have been fired or were forced to resign. After a meeting between Globovisión executives and Venezuela's vice president, reports surfaced that the channel would stop publicizing opposition rallies, and would no longer conduct live broadcasts of Capriles events.

This setback has forced Capriles to turn solely to the Internet to communicate with its followers, and the rest of the country at large. Some supporters say the loss of coverage may benefit the opposition.

"While it is tempting to be frightened at Globovisión's demise, it's possible that we may not need it in the end," wrote Juan Nagel, a popular opposition blogger. "With the advent of social media, perhaps we're all better off without our Globovisión addiction," Nagel concluded.

At the opposition's headquarters, the mood is not as buoyant, with some staffers expressing concern over the loss of access to Globovisión. Campaigners however, are trying to make the most out of the internet.

The opposition's online efforts go far beyond fan-pages for candidates and hashtags and now feature live web streams, and even smartphone apps that simulate the banging of pots and pans used at anti-government protests.

Also included is an online video channel through which the opposition broadcasts Capriles' speeches, press conferences, and now a weekly talk show called Venezuela Somos Todos or We are All Venezuela.

This online push is led by a handful of tech savvy 20-somethings – mostly journalists by trade. These staffers are often seen tethered to their Blackberries or hunched over computer screens. "Social networks don't sleep," quipped Capriles' social media coordinator, in between calls. "We're taking advantage of the tools available to us," she added. "It's a response to a government that has more and more control over the media."

Reaching Venezuelans through social media has its pluses. While only about half of the country has internet access, connection rates are growing. According to Comscore, a digital consultancy, there's been an estimated 62% increase in internet users from April 2011 to April 2012.

Still, social media campaigns do not guarantee access to most of the public. Venezuela has a population of almost 30 million people and 20 million registered voters.

Some 27 percent of Venezuelans already log on to the internet via their cell phones, according to tech consultancy Tendencias Digitales (Digital Tendencies). For the opposition, this makes Venezuelan voters more widely accessible, and at much cheaper rates, than by paying for access to a television channel.

To top this off, government statistics show that there are some 3 million Twitter accounts in the country and an estimated 9 million Facebook users. Marianela Balbi, the Executive Director of Venezuela's Institute for Press and Society says that voters on both sides of the political divide are turning to these social networks to inform themselves.

"We're moving away from just a few media outlets, to greater participation of the electorate, [through interactive media]" she said.

This means that in some ways, Venezuelan opposition activists are faced with the same difficulties encountered by activists in Egypt and Tunisia leading to the Arab Spring. These countries were confronting a media landscape heavily controlled by the state, with little or no space on the airwaves for voices critical of the government. Despite relatively low rates of internet penetration in those countries, social media still played a vital role in igniting widespread opposition to the governing regimes.

Capriles is hoping to fill the void on the airwaves with his new focus on the internet. The first few broadcasts of his Webshow, Venezuela Somos Todos, averaged some 37,000 views.

However, doubts remain about the opposition's chances to influence public opinion without regular access to a television channel.

As Mariana Bacalao, a media expert and professor at Central University of Venezuela points out, "The majority of Venezuelans still rely on traditional media (print and television) for their news and information."

Capriles social media coordinator knows this. She laments the loss of airtime on Globovision, and the changes in the channel's editorial policy.

"The government is trying to silence independent media," she said.

"In Venezuela, Comandos are usually created just for campaigns," she added. "What sets Simón Bolívar apart is we're here to stay."

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