Radio silence grows in Venezuela as the government closes dozens of stations

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Officials from Venezuela’s telecommunications regulator entered the Moda 105.1 FM radio station in the northwestern state of Cojedes in July, accompanied by members of the national guard and demanding to see all their licenses.

Hours later the station stopped broadcasting, making Moda one of at least 50 stations in the interior of Venezuela that have been shut down so far this year by regulator Conatel because it says they lack valid licenses.

The accelerated shutdowns are a new step in efforts by the government of President Nicolás Maduro to control information and give state media hegemony over communications, journalists’ unions and non-governmental organizations said, continuing a policy begun by his predecessor Hugo Chávez.

“They started asking for papers and papers, that same day they closed the radio. They even went to the hill where the transmitter is and took it away,” Alexander Olvera, 43, who was a journalist at Moda radio, told Reuters.

Neither Conatel nor the Ministry of Communication and Information responded to requests for comment.

Many stations operate without the licenses required by Conatel, despite requesting them, the journalists said.

Store merchant María Jiménez, 42, listened to Moda every day and mourned her loss. Few outlets cover local news and the station was her best opportunity to stay informed, she said.

“It seems that they want to centralize what they inform us. I don’t participate in politics, I don’t like it, but this is an outrage,” he said.

More than 15 stations have been closed in October alone, almost double the nine closed in all of last year, said Carlos Correa, director of the freedom of expression NGO Espacio Público.

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“Those little windows where people can debate are closing,” said Correa. There are no longer “spaces for what would be (…) opposition media, opinion, criticism of the management of mayors and governors,” for example, she added.

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Independent Venezuelan media have struggled for years. Of the more than 100 newspapers that existed in 2000, only 12 remain, according to Espacio Público.

Large newspapers such as El Nacional and El Universal, among others, could not print for lack of imported paper, have been bought by government allies or have closed. Television stations to a large extent also toe the government line.

Of the 930 media outlets that still operate, 70% are radio stations, according to Espacio Público. The radio is cheap to broadcast and does not require internet, in a country that suffers from regular blackouts.

Only 74 radio stations now broadcast information and news, with the others focusing on music and variety shows, according to Espacio Público.

“You are leaving the government’s hands open so that they are the owners of the transmission, of the emissions, that is, a concentration of communication power in the hands of the government,” said Tinedo Guía, president of the National College of Journalists union, which has more than 26,000 affiliates.

Neither the union nor Espacio Público have figures on how many journalists have left as part of the migratory wave from Venezuela of some 7 million people, nor how many reporters have lost their jobs due to the closure of radio stations.

Pedro Márquez, 41, moved to Wisconsin after his station in the western state of Zulia, Selecta 102.7, stopped broadcasting in February 2020. “I came to the United States to make another life (…) I only had the radio,” he added.

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Conatel closed the station shortly after broadcasting an interview with two opposition leaders, Márquez said, adding that pro-government supporters broke the station’s windows.

“The reason that Conatel gave for closing was the exploitation of the frequency,” he added.

A 2001 telecommunications law required all radio and television stations to apply to Conatel for new licences. Many stations have made requests but have received no response, meaning they have no choice but to operate without one, reporters say.

“The vast majority of the media introduced the documentation and only a few had the title of the old license changed to the new one,” said Jaime Nestares, director of the Radio Caracas Radio station, which since its closure in April 2019 broadcasts its daily broadcast on YouTube.

“Most of the FM and AM radios were either without the transformed title or simply with the expired title,” said Nestares, who remarked that the lack of licenses “is a sword of Damocles.” At any moment, “the government can come and tell you ‘I didn’t renew you, you’re off the air, turn it off and let’s go,'” he remarked.

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