De Freitas started making calls. Chacón, waiting, walked the alleys of the neighborhood of Caracas in 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 coffee.”
De Freitas returned and showed Chacón his phone. “It’s fake!” he said. “The story about the pensions, it’s fake.”
“Look?” Chacón said. “We take this very seriously.” Then he entered an ordinary green house, went up the stairs and appeared on a balcony on the second floor.
“Good evening, neighbors,” he said through a public address system to the audience gathered on the street below. “We’re about to start. There is the newspaper for those who want it, and a bit of coffee.”
With a microphone in one hand and a script in the other, Chacón began the daily round. He talked about local job openings. Then he launched into the national news: “The NGO Vida De Nos started a campaign against child abuse,” he said. “The children know 90.56 percent of the abusers. Do you know how to recognize if a child is being abused?”
This was an interactive newscast: His listeners started commenting.
In Barrio La Cruz, a poor 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 that he personally delivers twice a week.
Chacón’s is one of many such programs throughout this South American country that report and present the news independently of the state-controlled media. Some are veteran journalists, while others are newcomers to the profession and learning on the job. The programs have received some funding from the United States; Washington views authoritarian socialist President Nicolás Maduro as a nuisance.
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The idea was born in 2017, when anti-government demonstrations paralyzed the country for months, leaving hundreds dead. As the unrest grew, Maduro’s government attacked the independent media. His supporters bought outlets.
The Venezuelan Institute of Press and Society registered more than 500 violations of freedom of expression in 2017 and attacks and threats against more than 250 local and 30 foreign reporters.
The remaining independent media outlets in the country are under increasing pressure. The newspaper El Nacional lost its newsprint access in 2018. In 2021, the government seized its Caracas offices as part of a $13 million defamation judgment brought by former vice president Diosdado Cabello, a powerful figure in the Maduro government. Its main competitor, El Universal, was sold in 2014 and subsequently took a more supportive tone towards the government.
“A society that has been silenced and censored in Venezuela,” said Marianela Balbi, head of the Press and Society Institute. “The fabric of the independent media has been destroyed and a structure controlled by the 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 that people in the countryside have to find the news.”
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With independent voices silenced, three Caracas journalists began discussing ways to continue.
“We saw the urgent need for a connection between what was happening on the streets and the communities far from the daily conflicts,” said Laura Helena Castillo.
Castillo and her colleagues Claudia Lizardo and Abril Mejías came up with El Bus TV. For more than five years, anchors have been jumping on buses with TV-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 a permanent presentation like Chacón’s. A recent addition is El Cafecito, in collaboration with local coffee shops, which aims to gather people around the reporter and create a space for discussion afterwards, cups of coffee in hand.
“We’re moving towards professionalizing the way people listen to our coverage,” Castillo said. “We think one of the good things about coffee is that it allows us to listen to your audience. Face-to-face contact.”
The team plans to build an agency to redistribute content.
So far El Bus TV has flown under the government’s radar – it is one of the rare independent outlets that has escaped public attack by authorities. But that doesn’t mean the danger is clear: 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 the Maduro government. Those who authorities say are involved in political activities or endanger national security could be banned.
The United States and Canada, and non-profit organizations from Great Britain and the Czech Republic, provided funding for the organization.
In La Dolorita, another poor neighborhood of Caracas, María Silgado and Shelly Mendoza finish their script in the kitchen of Silgado’s home while they wait for the coffee to brew. In their politically divided community, communication is key to avoiding conflict.
“We have to be careful,” said Silgado. “We check our sources and provide the news.”
Like Chacón, Silgado was trained by El Bus TV journalists. At first, she saw it as a way to connect with 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, Silgado calls neighbors to the evening news. People, mostly women, get out of their homes.
Similar programs are offered in Bello Campo, La Lucha and Chapellín. All hit 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.
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Chacón, who worked as a printer for 23 years, never dreamed he would become a news anchor. Now he was finishing his evening broadcast. His listeners salute him. Some ask him to stay alert to other problems in the community.
“They always tell me if there’s something interesting I need to investigate,” he said. “I never thought I could be a part of something so important for the country.”
“Not much,” he said, “I’ll have dinner, and tomorrow I’ll have a few interviews to prepare for the next story.”