Voice of Venezuelan anti-government TV station down to a whimper

Globovision, once a bastion of media opposition to Venezuela's late Hugo Chavez and now his handpicked successor, is lowering its criticism to a whisper.

Critics are bemoaning the change as a gut punch to an independent, critical media in Venezuela and paving the way for ever greater government sway over what people read in newspapers and watch on TV.

Globovision, a TV station that regularly took on the oil-rich nation's omnipresent and garrulous commandante Chavez, opened up a new programming season Monday and absent were shows that used to rail on the government.

Chavez, who died of cancer in March, loathed Globovision. In 2002, when he was briefly removed from power in a coup, Chavez accused privately owned news media including Globovision of complicity with the putschists.

Chavez was succeeded by Nicolas Maduro as president in an election in April, and in May Globovision was acquired by stock market investors and insurance interests. The opposition says the buyers are close to senior figures in the government.

A change in its editorial line was announced after the takeover. For instance, Globovision no longer runs live broadcasts of speeches by opposition leader Henrique Capriles, whom Maduro defeated narrowly in the election.

And it interviews senior people in the pro-Chavez camp. Globovision had not done that in a decade.

The weekend leading up to the new season was turbulent. Leopoldo Castillo, a veteran journalist who for 12 years hosted a Globovision show that regularly locked horns with the government resigned on Friday.

Colleagues protested on social media, some complaining of censorship. Two news readers refused to go on the air during the prime time news broadcast that night. The channel's board of directors tried to calm things promising "impartial" coverage.

Many people are unconvinced, however.

"Globovision is finished. The worst thing is that now it is going to fake a sort of lite opposition. The opposition is being made invisible so it loses the ability to influence and organize," said Carlos Diaz, a social media analyst with the think tank Gumilla.

Carlos Correa, another analyst, said the tense relationship that the government had with the media under Chavez is even more strained now under Maduro.

"A turning of the screw"

The former communications minister and current tourism minister, Andres Izarra, the only government official to comment on the changes at Globovision, said its ratings will go up now because it can be relied on "for peace and the truth."

Analysts note that the government has a bevy of media at its disposal, including at least five TV stations, some 30 community-based radio stations and several free dailies that give the government ample coverage and all but ignore the opposition.

"State media coverage is absolutely biased. They are more about propaganda than news," said political scientist Angel Alvarez of the Central University of Venezuela.

He said this process of radicalization is happening because the opposition gave the Chavez camp a real run for its money in the presidential election. Capriles still does not acknowledge defeat, claiming irregularities gave Maduro the win.

Some private media are toning down their anti-government stance or allowing themselves to be bought out.

"Private media have tamed themselves or adjusted so as not to bother the ruling elite," said Diaz.

Among media that still take on the government are the venerable newspapers El Universal and El Nacional, and a tabloid, Tal Cual.

The latter two were fined for publishing in 2010 a photo of bodies piled up in a morgue as a reflection of rampant violent crime. The government said the photo could scare children but both papers called it a case of censorship.

"There is a turning of the screw, a tightening, a dynamic that tries to restrict the media. It has to do with the close results of the elections in April," said Correa. "It is making the government pay more attention to what the media say."

Still Maduro says he is the victim.

"I am vetoed by the bourgeois press," he said a few days ago, complaining of a lack of coverage of what his government is doing to run the country.