Venezuela is falling apart. But if you get all your news from local TV, you may get the impression that things aren't that bad and the revolution is alive and well.
The South American nation has been clamping down on independent media broadcasters for years, cowing privately owned television channels into not showing images of looting, protests, and food riots—all of which are becoming daily occurrences.
In response to the media blackout, many Venezuelans have taken on the job of citizen journalists by chronicling their country’s unraveling in real time. And Twitter is their main soapbox.
Last week a group started the hashtag #cumanazo after several supermarkets in the eastern city of Cumana were looted by desperate crowds who've had enough of the breadlines.
Some images captured by citizens even seem to show policemen participating in the looting.
The widespread unrest would have make headline news in other countries. But not in Venezuela. Instead the country’s main state run TV channel led its news reporting the following day with a gripping story about a planning session for military spending.
Televen and Globovision, two privately owned television stations mentioned the situation in Cumana, but referred to it as an “irregular” situation—and one that apparently didn't merit any photographs or video. Instead the coverage featured an interview with Cumana's socialist governor, who said that 400 people had been arrested and assured people that there was “peace” in the city.
The mainstream media's bland coverage of Venezuela's crisis comes at a time when the country is facing triple digit inflation (the world´s highest), widespread product shortages, and serious social unrest. Just last month, there were 36 instances of looting, and 172 protests over the lack of food in the country, according to the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict (OVCS), a human rights group.
Organization director Marco Antonio Ponce says he used to monitor local newscasts to keep a tally on the protests around the country. But nowadays he gets most of his protest news from Twitter and a national network of unions, universities, and human rights groups.
“Our job has become harder because media don’t report protests or looting,” Ponce told me in a phone interview. “So we look at what is being reported on Twitter… and verify that with our network of collaborators.”
Melanio Escobar, a Venezuelan journalist and talk show host, says images of looting and food protests simply “don’t appear” on local TV because the stations are afraid of incurring government fines, or even losing their broadcast licenses.
Since Hugo Chávez’s revolution came to power in 1999, Venezuela has shut down more than 30 radio stations that were critical of the government, as well as a major TV channel, in what the government described as a move to "democratize" media ownership.
The national telecom commission is staffed with party loyalists who have fined channels over images or stories that they claim were “generating fear” among the population.
“The law says you can’t show images that generate fear, but how do you determine that?” Escobar said. “The state is using these vaguely defined laws to control what TV channels can show.”
Many of the restrictive media laws apply only to broadcast media, giving digital outlets some breathing room.
Escobar works for VivoPlay, an online video news service with about 100,000 subscribers. He hosts a daily program called “Noti Tweets,” where he shares videos posted by users and discusses stories that are trending on Venezuelan Twitter.
“Traditional media outlets are not even bothering to look up videos made by citizen reporters,” Escobar said. “We try to take that content and put it into context, in order to help people understand why things like looting are happening.”
But now the government is trying to tighten the noose on digital outlets as well. A study published in May by the Press and Society Institute, a Latin American media owners club, found that 43 different websites were blocked in Venezuela during a two month period. The study said that 19% of them were news sites.
Venezuela's constitutional court has also turned up the pressure on the local media by banning outlets from showing images of “lynchings,” after two local websites shared user-generated videos of desperate citizens trying to take the law in their own hands.
One of the videos showed national guardsmen releasing a suspect, then standing by as another man beat him senseless with a wooden plank.
The court –which is stacked with government-appointed judges— argues that journalists' right to report on events does not give them the right to “generate fear and uncertainty among the population.” The judges determined that such violent images could not be shown because communication practices must “contribute to the wholesome development of individuals.”
Critics say that the court's decision reflects a growing tendency to censure media outlets.
“They are trying to hide problems, instead of solving them,” said Ponce, who thinks protests and citizen journalism will continue to grow so long as the government maintains policies that have led to food shortages.
And as the trend continues, more Venezuelans will be turning to Twitter for the real news.
A recent survey commissioned by Venezuelan NGO Espacio Publico already suggests that Venezuelans are among the region’s most avid social media users, with 70% of people in low income urban areas spending more than half an hour online each day to look for news.
“Twitter has become one of the best tools available to people who want uncensored information,” said Escobar of VivoPlay. “Not everyone can pay for subscriptions to digital channels, and not everyone knows how to bypass web censorship. But if you follow certain people on Twitter, you can at least stay connected to what is happening.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.