CARACAS, Venezuela — Turn on the TV or open a paper in New York, London or Buenos Aires these days, and chances are that the latest in the showdown between socialist President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido will feature prominently, with Mr. Guaido’s return to Venezuela to resume the power struggle Monday just the latest twist in the drama.
Not so in Venezuela, where the news that local residents watch and read largely depends on the whims of a regime that would rather not have them ponder whether they truly live in the democratic workers’ paradise that Mr. Maduro’s “Bolivarian revolution” has bestowed upon them.
News coverage on Venevision or Globovision is as trite as it is predictable: “President Maduro talks with Cuba and Colombia”; “Distribution of carnival bonus begins”; and “[Former National Assembly Speaker] Diosdado Cabello* assures government had a ‘great victory’ on Feb. 23” were among the “highlights” one day last week as the government tottered, world powers weighed in, and protesters filled the squares and streets of the capital.
With independent newscasters such as CNN en Espanol long off the grid, even the Venezuela Aid Live concert on Friday proved too much for censors. The feared National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel), quickly blacked out offending cable channels’ signals.
Restrictions, favoritism and intimidation have long been determining factors in the traditional media landscape, and Venezuelans by and large now turn to social media to get a sense of what is truly happening in their embattled country.
“We all try to find a way around” traditional outlets, said Karla Salcedo Flores, a Venezuelan-born reporter now working for Colombia’s Caracol Internacional. “Through YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, wherever.”
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But Maduro loyalists and pro-government pundits are active on these platforms as well and, largely unburdened by any commitment to factual or balanced reporting, wreak havoc in ways that have warped the political debate over the best road forward.
A recent incident, though, unnerved even the most jaded observers with its brazenness.
Using a photograph that Ms. Salcedo Flores had taken of volunteers trying to extinguish the flames on a humanitarian aid truck, state-run media outlets reported that the youngsters were spraying gasoline — not water — on the vehicle, which troops loyal to Mr. Maduro had set ablaze.
Madelein Garcia, a reporter for the Telesur network, which the Maduro regime sees as a “Bolivarian” alternative to international news channels, then doubled down by concluding from her analysis of pictures of the truck’s rubble that it had been carrying arms for opposition instigators. The Caracas-based Telesur also gets funding from fellow leftist governments in Cuba, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Bolivia.
“They manipulate using a photo I took,” Ms. Salcedo Flores told The Washington Times. “I feel very powerless that the Venezuelan authorities want to squash the truth with all their might.”
A 10-year Venevision veteran, Ms. Flores ultimately left Venezuela’s oldest network still in operation because she was tired of “censorship attacks.” With Mr. Maduro’s popular backing at an all-time low, contrarian reporting hasn’t become any easier.
The press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranked Venezuela 143rd out of 180 countries in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, down six places from 2017 and the lowest score of any South American country.
Since succeeding political mentor and populist Hugo Chavez as president in 2013, Mr. Maduro “[has done] his utmost to silence independent media outlets and keep news coverage under constant control,” the group said.
“The climate for journalists has been extremely tense since the onset of a political and economic crisis in 2016, and is exacerbated by Maduro’s frequent references to the ‘media war’ being waged by national and international media outlets to discredit his administration.”
Turning to humor
At the classic bar El Leon in Caracas’ Altamira neighborhood, longtime Globovision presenter Dereck Blanco last week was toasting to his new life as a freelancer, a work status that was the result of his refusal to let the regime dictate an implicit stylebook.
“Conatel sanctioned the outlet because I called Juan Guaido ‘interim president’ on the program I used to host in the morning,” said Mr. Blanco, 35. “And they already sent me on [permanent] ‘vacation.’”
But over ice-cold bottles of Polar beer, his colleague Joan Camaro, a crime reporter for the online publication Caraota Digital, insisted there was still a place — and a need — for independent journalists inside Venezuela.
“You can’t just leave, and that’s that. You also have to fight,” said Mr. Camaro, 23. “And we — from our information trenches, as I call them — contribute a lot.”
Up to half a million Venezuelans, tired of the grinding poverty, food shortages and political turmoil, tune out their daily battles by turning to comedian Manuel Angel Redondo for a humorous take on current events and still catch up on the news.
Mr. Redondo, the host of the “Daily Show”-like “But We’ve Got a Homeland,” for four seasons has been making light of circumstances that often seem overwhelming.
“We’re a kind of path of catharsis to be able to consume this information,” he said in an interview. “It’s a little bit like playing a double agent who makes you laugh but, at the same time, wants to send you an important message.”
The public face of a 10-member crew, Mr. Redondo uses a variety of websites and social networks to distribute his show and even incorporates the popular messaging app WhatsApp to expand his viewership and offer special content.
His four writers, he jokes, often get a hand from the presidential Miraflores Palace and Guaido opposition headquarters.
“We’ve never tried to pursue a campaign … but simply try to show our country’s reality in a humorous and ironic tone,” Mr. Redondo said. “And it’s super easy for us because our scripts are pretty much written by our political leaders themselves.”
Although the young comedian tries to put a lighthearted spin on events, even humor seems to be in short supply when the stern Mr. Maduro is in charge, something Mr. Redondo experienced firsthand last year when Conatel didn’t much care for the jokes he was making on the La Mega youth radio.
“The station was on the hook for an almost inhumane amount of money [in] fines,” he said. “And the way things work in Venezuela, you don’t pay that fine but they get you some other way.”
The outcome is that live broadcasts are now off limits for the La Mega veteran, leaving a note of bitterness courtesy of a government that has also made information a hard-to-obtain commodity for the entire population.
“If you asked me what I do, I used to say, ‘Radio host,’” Mr. Redondo said. “Now I say, ‘Crazy guy from the internet.’”
*Due to an editing error, Mr. Caballo’s position was misstated in the original version of this story.