Riding public transport armed with a wobbly TV-shaped cardboard frame and loud voices, a group of young Venezuelan activists have found a novel way to transmit news, in a country where space has shrunk for stories about hardship and protests.
Traditional media have become more cautious in covering Venezuela’s political crisis, and half the population have limited or no access to the internet.
So in early May, Claudia Lizardo, a 29-year-old creative director, decided to spread the word about what was happening in her country in a very direct manner.
Realizing that other passengers on the buses she travels on were ill-informed about subjects she considers important, Lizardo and four friends began boarding the vehicles and reading news bulletins, their faces framed by a mockup of a TV screen.
Despite participating in protests against President Nicolas Maduro’s government, Lizardo’s team says the goal of the project dubbed “El Bus TV” is to produce fact-based newscasts to reach people tired of the high-pitched biases in other media.
“We want this to survive, that’s why we have a respectful approach that doesn’t look for confrontation with anybody,” said Laura Castillo, one of the team “broadcasting” twice a week on buses.
Members of the team must not wear political slogans on their clothes, respond to comments from their audience, or attribute blame to either side for the violence that has so far killed 68 people in the protests since April.
Focusing on routes that wind through the poorest neighborhoods in Caracas, Lizardo’s crew talk about the protests and shortages but also report Maduro’s views, along with sports successes and recipes for meals that can be made with cheap, available ingredients.
“The reaction is overwhelmingly positive,” Lizardo said before one such ride. “For a long time in Venezuela, we have not had exposure to simple, honest information.”
The model, which harks back to the “town-criers” roots of news broadcasts, is a world away from 21st century digital social media, but its directness may have struck a chord in Venezuela.
Another group of journalists has replicated the initiative in the states of Carabobo and Anzoategui, in the center and east of the country, and BusTV, as Lizardo’s group is known, says groups in other regions are planning to follow their lead.
“It is a way of opening people’s eyes,” said Rosalba Paredes, 66, a housewife listening to the BusTV crew in Caracas.
According to a study by media freedom group Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, between 2005 and 2015 more than 100 media organizations were taken off the air or censured in Venezuela.
The government says all the sanctions against the media have been because of violations to media regulation rules such as those prohibiting the incorrect use of violent images.
And private media have a history of hostility towards the ruling “Chavista” movement, including open support for a short-lived 2002 coup against Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez.
“Clearly, the government has the upper hand in communication, it has the power, money and capacity to inform,” added Castillo, 41. “(BusTV) is a microscopic activity, but everything big starts tiny.”