Venezuelan authorities take foreign cable station off the air

Bogotá, February 13, 2014–Venezuelan authorities took a Colombian news station off the air on Wednesday after the station aired coverage of anti-government protests that have left three people dead and dozens injured, according to the station and news reports.

Claudia Gurisatti, director of the 24-hour cable news station NTN24, said that the station found out on Wednesday afternoon that CONATEL, Venezuela’s telecommunications regulator, had issued an official statement ordering DirecTV and Movistar, the two cable providers that carry the station in the country, to take it off the air.

Idania Chirinos, director of content for the 24-hour cable news station NTN24 and a Venezuelan journalist, said she did not know if or when NTN24 would be allowed back on the air in Venezuela. The station’s reports are accessible in the country via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, according to Carlos Correa, director of the Caracas-based freedom of expression organization Espacio Público. Correa said the station’s website had been attacked by hackers and was briefly unavailable on Wednesday.

NTN24 is owned by the Bogotá, Colombia-based RCN radio and TV group and transmits throughout the Americas. The station provides extensive coverage of Venezuela and is often extremely critical of the country’s socialist government. “This is an act of press censorship and an abuse of the rights of citizens to be informed,” said Gurisatti in the statement.

NTN24 was the only station available to TV viewers in Venezuela that provided extensive live coverage of the protests, Correa told CPJ. Nearly all TV stations in Venezuela, which are either controlled or allied with the government of President Nicolás Maduro, ignored the street marches that were instigated by university students early this week and spread to several cities. The English-language Caracas Chronicles news website noted that while the Plaza Venezuela in downtown Caracas was filled with protesters on Wednesday, the country’s main TV stations aired entertainment programs like “La Bomba.”

CONATEL made no direct public statement about NTN24, but released a communiqué on Tuesday that said TV and radio stations covering the protests could be in violation of the country’s highly restrictive Radio and Television Social Responsibility Law, which prohibits the airing of reports or images that “incite or promote hatred” or “foment citizens’ anxiety or alter public order.”

In the past, CONATEL has focused on Venezuelan TV stations, but it has now turned its attention to foreign-owned stations, which provide independent and often hard-hitting coverage of the Maduro government, Correa said.

“President Nicolás Maduro’s government is not content to repress the few remaining independent voices in Venezuela, but is now going after foreign outlets that provide critical coverage of his administration as well,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas, from New York. “Venezuelan authorities should immediately restore NTN24’s signal in Venezuela, stop censoring news sources that counter the official narrative, and ensure that Venezuelans can get vital information about what is happening in their country.”

Protesters were alleged to have been behind some of the violence on Wednesday. Karen Méndez of Moscow’s Russia Today television was preparing for a live transmission from the roof of government-run VTV television when she had to duck for cover amid an outbreak of gunfire, according to reports. She later alleged that gunmen aligned with the opposition were firing at her.

In a statement, CONATEL said that protesters constituting a “violent horde” had destroyed the main entrance to its headquarters.

The pressure on Venezuela’s remaining independent media outlets has intensified in recent months. Maduro’s government has used a number of tactics–including limiting access to newsprint, ordering Internet service providers to block websites that provide the black market exchange rate, and suppressing reports of economic upheaval–to muzzle critical voices, according to CPJ research.