Venezuelan turn to social media for protest news

CARACAS (AFP) - Venezuelans seeking news about the country's roiling protests are increasingly turning to social media, circumventing traditional news outlets that have been stymied by the government.

An avalanche of tweets, pictures and homemade video has been posted online since the eruption earlier this month of anti-government protests - but local networks have only offered limited coverage.

Social networking and video-sharing sites "have been playing a fundamental role, because television stations have been silenced" during the protests, sociologist Maryclen Stelling told AFP.

Near-daily rallies, some of them violent, have erupted in the capital Caracas and other cities, over what President Nicolas Maduro's critics say are deteriorating economic conditions, rampant street crime, corruption and bleak job prospects. So far, eight people have died and more than 130 have been injured, the government said on Friday.

Home video of protests

Residents have placed cameras on their balconies and are streaming video live on the Internet of the police crackdown on protesters from Caracas, to San Cristobal in the west, to Valencia in the north.

"A lot of people have not gone to work or have just stopped all outside activities, because they don't have any information (from traditional media sources) about what is or isn't going on in the country," said Mr Carlos Correa, head of the free press monitoring group Espacio Publico (Public Space).

Even though false information can circulate online, creating even more uncertainty, Venezuelans have become addicted to their smartphones, checking Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other sites.

Protesters also are using the app Zello, which allows people to use their cellphones like walkie-talkies - particularly useful for those trying to stay in touch during the tumult of a demonstration.

"I get my information mostly from Twitter and I also watch CNN, because there are no media sources that cover the news exhaustively, and there is not complete and even-handed coverage about what's going on," said one young female attorney who asked not to be named.

Official warning to networks

One day before a major student-led opposition protest on February 12, which turned deadly, state broadcasting authority Conatel warned that any networks offering coverage that violated laws by disturbing public order would be sanctioned.

CNN said on Friday that several of its journalists working in Venezuela, on both Spanish-language and English-language broadcasts, had seen their press credentials revoked or refused.

Mr Maduro had threatened to block CNN broadcasts in the country, accusing the network of inciting "civil war." Mr Correa called the threat part of a "systematic pattern of harassment that now includes measures against the international media." Another international news channel, Colombia-based NTN24, was pulled off the air last week.

Free speech advocates say that reporters have been subjected to harsh physical treatment as they attempt to cover the protests.

Mr Correa said instances of media self-censorship had cropped up as news outlets try not to incur government wrath - or hefty fines.

Media advocates have also said the Internet is not free from government intrusion, accusing authorities of censoring footage uploaded to Twitter that showed the brutal crackdown on protesters.

The drought of news from traditional outlets in Venezuela extends to the print media.

In October, the Inter American Press Association accused the Venezuelan government of financially strangling the country's newspapers by restricting their access to imports of supplies necessary for publication.

The newsprint shortage, media watchers said, has caused the temporary closure of dozens of newspapers across the nation.