CARACAS, Venezuela — Darío Chacón was preparing to go live when he saw the report. The 61-year-old newsman turned to a younger colleague.
On buses and balconies, Venezuela’s citizen reporters take news to the people
De Freitas began making calls. Chacón, waiting, walked the alleys of the Caracas neighborhood of Barrio La Cruz, calling the neighbors: “Remember — the news is about to start.” A woman handed him a thermos of coffee through the bars of her ground-floor window. “Here you go,” she said. “Your cafecito.”
De Freitas returned and showed Chacón his phone. “It’s fake!” he said. “The story about the pensions, it’s fake.”
“See?” Chacón said. “We take this very seriously.” Then he entered an ordinary green house, disappeared up the stairs and emerged on a second-floor balcony.
“Good afternoon, neighbors,” he intoned through a public address system to the audience gathering in the street below. “We are about to start. There’s the newspaper for those who want it, and a little coffee.”
With a microphone in one hand and a script in the other, Chacón began the daily roundup. He spoke of local job openings. Then he launched into national news: “The [nongovernmental organization] Vida De Nos started a campaign against child abuse — 90.56 percent of abusers are known by the children. Do you know how to identify if a child is being abused?”
This newscast is interactive: His listeners started to comment.
In Barrio La Cruz, an impoverished neighborhood on the eastern edge of the Venezuelan capital, Chacón is a celebrity: The anchor here of “La Parada,” a live — very live — news program he delivers in person twice a week.
Chacón’s is one of several such programs throughout this South American country that report and present the news independently of the state-controlled media. Some of the presenters are veteran journalists, while others are newcomers to the profession and are learning on the job. The programs have received some funding from the United States; Washington views Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, an authoritarian socialist, as an adversary.
The idea was born in 2017, when anti-government demonstrations paralyzed the country for months and left hundreds dead. As the unrest grew, Maduro’s government attacked the independent media. Its supporters bought up outlets.
The Press and Society Institute of Venezuela registered more than 500 violations of freedom of speech in 2017, as well as attacks and threats against more than 250 local reporters and 30 foreign reporters.
The country’s remaining independent media outlets have come under increasing pressure. Newspaper El Nacional lost its access to newsprint in 2018. In 2021, its Caracas offices were seized by the government as part of a $13 million defamation judgment brought by onetime vice president Diosdado Cabello, a powerful figure in Maduro’s government. Its chief rival, El Universal, was sold in 2014 and subsequently adopted a more supportive tone toward the government.
“Venezuela is formed by a society that has been silenced and censored,” said Marianela Balbi, head of the Press and Society Institute. “The fabric of independent media has been destroyed and a structure controlled by government media and its allies has been built to replace it.”
In 2022, Balbi said, the government ordered the closure of about 100 small local radio stations. “Those are the few windows the people in the countryside have to access the news.”
With independent voices being silenced, three Caracas journalists began discussing ways to carry on.
“We saw the great need for a connection between what was happening in the streets and the communities far from the daily confrontations,” Laura Helena Castillo said.
Castillo and her colleagues Claudia Lizardo and Abril Mejías came up with “El Bus TV.” For more than five years, anchors have jumped onto buses with television-shaped cardboard boxes to read news to passengers. They now cover dozens of routes in at least seven cities.
The concept expanded to “La Parada” — Spanish for bus stop — for stationary presentations such as Chacón’s. A more recent addition is “El Cafecito,” in collaboration with local coffee shops, aimed at gathering people around the reporter and creating the space for discussion to follow, cups of coffee in hand.
“We are moving toward professionalizing the way in which people listen to our coverage,” Castillo said. “We feel that one of the good things the coffee has is that it allows us to listen to your audience. A face-to-face encounter.”
The team is planning to build an agency to redistribute content.
Their effort has so far flown under the government’s radar — theirs is one of the rare independent outlets that has escaped public attack by authorities. But that doesn’t mean it’s clear of danger: Venezuela’s National Assembly is expected to approve legislation that would force hundreds of civil society groups to disclose internal financial records and donors to Maduro’s government. Those who authorities say are involved in political activities or endangering national security could be banned.
The United States and Canada, and nonprofit organizations from Britain and the Czech Republic, have provided funding to the outlet.
In La Dolorita, another poor Caracas neighborhood, María Silgado and Shelly Mendoza finish their script in the kitchen of Silgado’s home while waiting for the coffee to brew. In their politically divided community, the way they communicate is key to avoiding conflict.
“We need to be careful,” Silgado said. “We check our sources and we deliver the news.”
Like Chacón, Silgado was trained by the journalists of “El Bus TV.” At first, she saw the work as a way to approach neighbors and get to know her community. It soon became a full-time job.
With a small portable speaker in one hand and a microphone in the other one, Silgado calls neighbors to the afternoon news. People, mostly women, emerge from their houses.
Similar programs are delivered in Bello Campo, La Lucha and Chapellín, all battered neighborhoods far from the city center.
At least 14 reporters and news assistants present local, national and international news in communities that would otherwise have difficulty accessing the information.
Chacón, who worked for 23 years as a printer, never imagined he would be a news anchor. Now he was finishing his afternoon broadcast. His listeners greet him. Some ask him to stay vigilant for other problems in the community.
“They always tell me if there’s something interesting I need to investigate,” he said. “I didn’t think I could be a part of something so important for the country.”
And what’s next?
“Not much,” he said “I’ll have dinner, and tomorrow I have a few interviews to get ready for the next story.”