CONATEL, Only more so

Under new leadership, Venezuela’s telecoms regulator has dispensed with all the legal niceties. The time between you criticizing the government and your station being taken off of pay TV grids is now down to mere minutes in some cases.

Two more international TV channels were taken off the air in Venezuela. Argentina’s Todo Noticias and Colombia’s El Tiempo Televisión were yanked off DirecTV’s programming grid allegedly under orders of the Venezuelan Broadcasting Authority (CONATEL).

The decisions happened in real time, amidst protests in Caracas, mere minutes after the stations’ broadcast news, which regulators considered “over the line”. Due process? Not so much.

This brings the number of international channels taken off cable TV carriers by the government to three (3), following the high-profile case of CNN en Español back in mid-February.

But that’s not all: there were some reports that the signal for Spain’s Antena 3 Internacional was interrupted for several hours on Thursday. Contrary to other versions, the channel is still available in Venezuela. Antena 3 has formally demanded an explanation in writing from CONATEL.

Why this latest crackdown? Carlos Correa, the director of the NGO Espacio Público explained the reasons in an interview with Caracas Chronicles:

“The government is interested in protecting its image overseas, but it also wants to limit access to alternative, credible information sources to Venezuelans about what’s happening in the country.”

In effect, news of this week’s protests have been entirely blacked out on Venezuela’s broadcast media. Check out what was actually airing on local television during the April 19th protests instead.

“The traditional media ecosystem in Venezuela is compromised”, says Correa. “Local outlets are heavily surveilled (by the government), so both censorship and self-censorship have become the norm.” The consequence of this is that Venezuelans are left “anxious for information.”

CONATEL’s more aggressive censorship stance coincides with the arrival in office of its newest Director-General, Andrés Eloy Méndez. Méndez is a PSUV politician, formerly a National Assembly member with no technical credentials, who is on the job entirely due to his political loyalty. What the Soviets called an apparatchik”.

Almost all the previous heads of CONATEL had links with PSUV, stretching all the way back to a time when Diosdado Cabello ran CONATEL. Only for less than a year, tho…

During his brief time on the job so far, Méndez has given up on the polite fiction that his job was technical and apolitical. The telecoms regulator now openly censors media. Though, really, Méndez is just being honest about what CONATEL has been doing for years: remember the shutdown of NTN24 back in 2014?

“Since 2014, the State has shown more aggressive dynamism (regarding the media crackdown). And that restrictive logic has extended to international outlets like NTN24 or CNN,” Correa said.

Looking through our archive, I realized Mr. Méndez has turned up here on Caracas Chronicles once before. Back in 2014 when he was Fair Prices Superintendent, we covered a TV interview where he justified the government’s policies without blinking. In a certain way, this could be one reason why he got the CONATEL job (His predecessor, William Castillo was promoted to International Communication Vice-Minister — basically, propaganda chief).

But CONATEL’s recent moves against foreign broadcasters are only part of a broader strategy of media harassment, including blocking and/or limiting the access of foreign correspondents. The latest two victims were French journalists Sebastian Perez and Didier Barral from the media production company CAPA TV, released after being detained for over a week, and then sent back to France.

The arrests of Perez and Barral got the attention of the French press, to the point thatfar left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon publicly demanded their immediate release.

“I demand the government of Venezuela release the two journalists today in prison under the pretext that they were carrying drugs, which I do not believe,” Melenchon said. (This from a politician who is running on a platform that includes having France and its former colonies join ALBA.)

The scope of CONATEL’s actions reaches deep inside the country, too: this month, eleven radio stations were shut down in Falcón State. Last month, seven stations in Yaracuy State suffered the same fate. The pretext used in those cases is “the regularization of the radioelectric spectrum.” It’s the oldest story in the book: drag your feet on issuing broadcast permits, then turn around and say “golly gee, you can’t broadcast without a permit!”

In some parts of Venezuela, local radio is the main (if not the only) source of news. And the shutdown of non-hegemony stations has been accelerating these last few years.

Now, attention turns the digital sphere, where most of the information about Venezuela is coming from. Since last year, Andrés Eloy Méndez has been issuing threats about social media:

“We cannot allow violence to reign in that sphere [social media], where violence and instigation reigns… Our society requires regulatory mechanisms and those are no different to those already established in other countries.”

The hegemony knows this: During the terrible events in El Valle, the fact that Freddy Bernal used Periscope to respond instead of using the State Media System (SIBCI) shows how ineffective it has become outside the hardcore Chavista mindset. And so, they feel they need to control them too.

https://www.caracaschronicles.com/2017/04/24/conatel-only-more-so/

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