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Free expression under fire as Venezuela takes CNN en Espanol off the air
Published on February 22, 2017 Email To Friend    Print Version

“Let's get rid of CNN's signal and your basic food basket will appear.” Detail from the series “Se acabaron los problemas” (The problems are over) by Eduardo Sanabria (EDO). Used with permission

CARACAS, Venezuela -- The Venezuelan government and CNN's Spanish language service, CNN en Español, clashed for a final time on February 15, when state authorities issued an official order to remove the channel from cable and satellite TV stations.

CNN says the order is a response to its story “Passports in the Shadows”, when the network presented evidence that that Venezuelan consular staff illegally sold visas and passports to Syrian and Iraqi citizens.

When issuing its order, Venezuela's National Communications Commission (Comisión Nacional de Comunicaciones, or CONATEL) did not specify the broadcast that prompted its crackdown, but censors did accuse CNN of “distorting the truth” and inciting “external attacks”:

“This decision is the result of content that CNN en Español has been systematically and repeatedly disseminating… Content that [could constitute] direct attacks that threaten the peace and democratic stability of our Venezuelan people…

“This is due to the fact that without convincing arguments they inappropriately defame and distort the truth, leading to probable incitement of external attacks against the sovereignty of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”

Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez accused the channel of cooperating with US military operations and conducting a military media campaign against Venezuela.

The blowback on social media has been significant, especially after CNN en Español announced that it would broadcast for free on YouTube. Many Internet users have described this move as a perfect mockery of the government's censorship attempt:

“Even those who didn't watch CNN will watch it now, and for free. Thank you CNN en Español for your dedication to Venezuela.”

Others have welcomed the move against CNN, expressing concerns about the consequences of some of the network's broadcasts, like the story “Passports in the Shadows.” Coverage like this, critics say, justifies suspicions that CNN was fomenting support for a foreign invasion of Venezuela.

Facebook user Luigino Bracci Roa posted the following message online:

“Friends, I know that the CNN measure might seem like an overreaction. But did you think the program “Passports in the Shadows” broadcast by Fernando del Rincón last week was no big deal? They were accusing Venezuela of selling passports en masse to Hezbollah “terrorists,” to carry out an attack on the United States… Does that not seem like a big deal to you? Don't we remember what happened in Iraq and Libya? Quite apart from the question of whether or not Trump might initiate an attack against Venezuela, it's still necessary to react against these kinds of smears.”

Another blow to the freedom of expression

For many Internet users in Venezuela, the government's actions represent just the latest attempt to censor the media and restrict the availability of news reporting.

While CNN has promised to circumvent Venezuelan television by streaming for free online, CONATEL has also announced plans to limit the network's Internet signal. Another large obstacle will be the country's generally slow Internet connection, which is an important component of national censorship and affects more than just CNN.

In fact, Venezuelans have some of the slowest and most precarious Internet connections on the continent.

Beyond censorship

The problem becomes even more complex when you consider Venezuela's complicated foreign currency exchange controls. Telecommunications companies in the country say the scarcity of dollars affects the quality of service and the companies’ livelihoods. In April 2016, telecom companies complained that foreign currency funds vital for paying connection service providers took 18 months to be approved.

The same companies also say limitations on purchases and imports make it difficult, if not impossible at times, to maintain the equipment needed to operate.

CNN's departure from Venezuelan screens further reduces the number of channels providing information that is independent from the Venezuelan government. The vast majority of Venezuelan media outlets have been nationalized, bought by entities linked to the governing party, or they reduced their informational content in order to survive the political pressures of Chavismo.

While this appears to be the end for CNN on Venezuelan television, it's hardly the first time the network and government have clashed. The cable news network undoubtedly has its flaws, but even a biased news outlet offers virtues in a system as closed and dominated by the state as Venezuela. Unfortunately, even that trace of plurality bites the dust with the decision to kick CNN off the airwaves.

This article by Luis Carlos Diaz and Laura Vidal, translated by Kitty Garden originally appeared on Global Voices on February 20, 2017
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