Venezuelan activists launch TV news in buses to bypass censors
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Since the end of May, a group of Venezuelans have been performing and filming their own TV news bulletins in buses in the capital Caracas. The goal of this project, called “Bus TV”, is to bring information to passengers, especially about the social crisis currently gripping the country and to circumvent tough censorship laws restricting many media organisations.
Six different people, with diverse backgrounds in print journalism, broadcast, and communications, joined forces to create “Bus TV”.
The founders of Bus TV launched the programme on May 27, the date corresponding with the tenth anniversary of the closure of the private channel "Radio Caracas Televisión". At the time, Venezuelan authorities refused to renew its licence, accusing the channel of having supported the coup that briefly troubled the rule of President Hugo Chávez in April 2002. The NGO Reporters Without Borders (known as RSF, for Reporters sans frontières) denounced what it called [link in French] “a veritable stranglehold on audiovisual media”.
"Information is tightly controlled in Venezuela"Claudia Lizardo is an editor who works at a studio that produces digital content and is a co-founder of Bus TV.
We decided to produce televised news bulletins in city buses because information is tightly controlled in Venezuela. TV programmes face even stricter censorship, which is problematic because this is the main media that people use to get their news. This has been going on for years. The result is that people still don’t really know what is going on in the country and there is a lot of misinformation.
For example, right now, there are many different protests occurring in Caracas, and some of them have become quite violent. However, on the public TV channels, you never see the police responding violently. Instead, the police are portrayed as “under attack” by “terrorists”, a term used to describe part of the opposition. The language used by TV presenters is very warlike. On the private channels, it is a bit better, but they still face a lot of censorship by the authorities. If they refer to the protests at all, it is only briefly and police repression is hardly ever shown on screen.
"Producing TV news bulletins in the buses allows us to
reach many people"
Of course, it is possible to get around this censorship by getting your news from the internet, especially social media. The problem is that about half of the population doesn’t have internet access and not everyone knows how to find information on Twitter, for example.
We also decided to present news bulletins in the buses because buses in Venezuela are run by private cooperatives. It would have been more complicated to do the same thing in the metro, for example, which is run by the state.What's more, the city buses go to all different neighbourhoods, which allows us to reach a wide variety of people.
"We focus on news that isn’t covered in traditional media"
We have a routine: when a bus stops, we ask the driver if we can get on and share information and news with the passengers. They always say 'yes' and, often, they don’t even make us pay for our tickets.
We work as a team when we present a news bulletin. One person acts as the news anchor (in the most serious, formal way possible), while another person holds up the cardboard TV that we made. A third person films with a smartphone.
Our news bulletin doesn’t go on longer than three minutes because we want to hold people’s attention. We talk about all sorts of different topics: the protests, food shortages, the economy, sports, food, and cultural events in the city.
When we prepare our news bulletins, we specifically look at information that hasn’t been reported in traditional media. For example, we already explained that a tear gas canister costs about $40, which is the equivalent of a monthly salary on minimum wage in Venezuela. But we also provide information about official declarations and share any kind of news that could be useful for people in their daily lives. The idea is to provide a message that is balanced and objective.
"People often start discussing the news they just heard"
In most cases, the passengers respond positively — they applaud and then they thank us and encourage us to keep doing it. Often, people start discussing the news they just heard with other people on the bus. However, we never join in the debate with them, because our aim is to remain neutral. Then, we get off the bus.
We produce these news bulletins about twice a week, when we have free time. We usually spend between an hour and a half and two hours performing our skit. We usually have the time to perform it in nine or ten different buses.
Since Bus TV’s launch, people from other cities in Venezuela have started working with the team in Caracas to build their own news bulletins, which they have started to perform in city buses in Valencia (Carabobo state), Puerto La Cruz, Lechería, Barcelona (Anzoátegui state) and Barinas (Barinas state).
While Lizardo and other members of the Bus TV team haven’t encountered any problems up until this point, that is sadly not the case for many other journalists across the country: more than 200 journalists have been assaulted, many of them by security forces, while covering the protests that have been ongoing in Venezuela since March 31, according to the National Union of Press Workers. More than 70 people have been killed in the protests.
Venezuela ranks 137th out of 180 countries surveyed in 2017 in a global press freedom index by RSF.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: The violinist of Caracas, playing through tear gas