In recent decades, Venezuela has been subjected to a dismantling of its media ecosystem. The weakening of the conditions for the practice of journalism, whether in television, digital, print or radio media, has been evident and unstoppable under the current Venezuelan government administration.
In 2022, the attack was directed at radio stations. Organizations in favor of freedom of expression in Venezuela have recorded the closure of at least 95 radio stations. The states of Zulia, Tachira, Sucre, and Falcón were the most affected. The highest number of closures were reported in September and October, with more than 50 instances in that period alone.
"This new wave of radio media closures shows that the government persists in its goal of adapting the media ecosystem to its interests, aggravating the information deficit that exists in the country," Daniela Alvarado Mejias, coordinator of Information Freedom of the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (Ipys), told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).
Ipys is an organization at the service of Venezuelan journalists that has documented information on the systematic closure of news outlets since 2005. "These closures may have an influence in the face of possible presidential elections [in 2024] where we will only have submissive coverage...Not being able to access free news spaces, that offer a plurality and a diversity of voices, prevents information from being at the service of the people and this denies them the enjoyment of other human rights," Alvarado said.
The Venezuelan entity in charge of deciding on radio station closures is the Venezuelan National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel, by its Spanish acronym), which acts as the Venezuelan state agency that regulates, supervises and controls telecommunications.
Conatel grants concessions, associated with an administrative authorization, for the use and exploitation of the Venezuelan radio broadcast spectrum, which is a public domain asset. "Conatel does not provide public or updated information on the status of its concessions, which are denied or eliminated without procedures that guarantee due process. Generally, these closures happen when what the stations report is critical of those who yield official political power," according to the news organization Espacio Público on its web page.
Zulia state is the most affected
The radio station Radiolandia 103.3 FM had been on the air in the western Venezuelan state of Zulia since 2009. Its programming was focused on broadcasting Latin music and gaitas [traditional music in that Venezuelan state]. The station opened under the concept of community radio [characterized by the active participation of the community in the content-creation process] and had a provisional permit to operate.
According to its owner, they had already received three technical visits by Conatel to evaluate the station's equipment, operation and programming. In addition, because they are a community radio station, they carried out social work in the vicinity of the station, which was also monitored by the telecommunications agency. Therefore, they were waiting for the final granting of the concession.
However, on Sept. 6 they were forced to cut live transmissions and were threatened with confiscating their work equipment if they did not comply with the order. They did not receive any official document ratifying the closure, so they believe this was an arbitrary decision.
"The station had three technicians, a producer and a director. In addition, each announcer or independent producer depended on advertising. Some 18 people were left without a job following this closure," José Luis Vargas, director and owner of Radiolandia 103.3 FM in Maracaibo, told LJR. "The economic losses are high. Just to give an example, a transmitter costs over US$ 2 thousand dollars," Vargas said.
According to the National Union of Press Workers of Venezuela (SNTP, by its Spanish acronym), in all cases of closures reported in 2022 the absence of due process and the right to self-defense were evident. There were no written documents, citations or warrants specifying instructions or detailing reasons for closure. In addition, when any official visits the stations, they do so without proper identification and give verbal orders. According to an SNTP report, in 80% of the closures, Conatel gives instructions by telephone.
Zulia was the Venezuelan state with the highest number of radio station closures in the country in 2022. At least 30 radio stations have been closed in this state. Some of them have been: Sensacional Stereo 88.5 FM, Zulia Mía 91.3 FM, Kp 92.9 FM, Refugio 94.3 FM, Palabra 97.3 FM, High Class 98.1 FM, Destino 98.3 FM, Radiolandia 103.3 FM, and Río Stereo 107.7 FM, among others.
Weakening of freedom of information
Closing radio stations are measures that ignore the commitment made by the Venezuelan government to make progress towards achieving the sustainable development goals of the United Nations (UN). According to the National Economic and Social Development Plan, Venezuela committed itself to "continue promoting a new communication policy in the Americas, with special emphasis on new regional information systems and media, and the promotion of new communication tools."
Yet all of the radio stations closed this year are located in regions outside of the Venezuelan capital, and in many cases, in areas where there are few sources of information.
Meanwhile, representatives of the Venezuelan government have publicly denied that the administrative closure measures ordered by Conatel represent a violation of freedom of expression in Venezuela. In addition, they say the closure of these stations is due to problems with their radio broadcasting concessions.
According to Álvarado, in granting concessions, Conatel has done so at its discretion and the process has lacked transparency. "It has caused most of the broadcasting companies to have concessions that have expired, despite the fact that these broadcasters have submitted the required documentation. Even so, the broadcasters do not receive replies to their requests. This has placed them in a situation in which they are constantly at risk of having their license revoked and their radio signal suspended indefinitely."
This is what has happened in most of the cases that have been reported this year. For example, radio stations 105.3 FM and Play Top 91.5 FM, both belonging to the Unión Radio circuit in Carabobo, in the center of the country, were taken off the air last Oct. 14 alleging expiration of the concession.
"We are in mourning for the closure of the radio stations. In my case, this is the third time I go through this painful experience: RCTV, El Carabobeño and now Unión Radio Noticias Valencia 105.3 FM, where I had my show Lo de Hoy. I have no words to express this devastation," journalist Dhameliz Díaz said on Twitter. As she explained in her post, she has been forced to stop working in several news outlets due to censorship: the closing of the television station RCTV in 2007, the cancellation of the printed version of the newspaper El Carabobeño in 2016 and now the closure of the radio station Unión Radio Noticias in Carabobo.
"These arbitrary measures seriously deteriorate the citizens' right to know. This means that Venezuelan society has fewer spaces to demand, to fully exercise their human rights," Álvarado said, commenting on what the closing of radio stations means for freedom of information. "Radio news outlets have the greatest reach in the country. We have a population that is unaware of information that affects them, which is necessary for public opinion and decision-making in a conscious and responsible way."