CARACAS, Venezuela – As Gov. Henrique Capriles campaigned for president of Venezuela last April, he couldn't venture more than a few steps without being hounded by dozens of sharp-elbowed cameramen and photographers. Nearly eight months later, the visibly thinner and exhausted opposition leader is accompanied by just a handful of journalists at what was supposed to be one of the final, electrifying opposition rallies ahead of this weekend's mayoral elections.
Critics say the shrinking media coverage has been deliberate. Even while Venezuelans endure their toughest economic crisis in 15 years of socialist rule, the opposition has been largely knocked from public view by what they claim is a government-led campaign to intimidate media outlets that give airtime to the opposition and the nation's mounting woes.
Between January and September, the number of attacks on journalists, cases of harassment and reports of censorship has risen 56 percent compared with the first nine months of 2012, according to a complaint filed by press freedom groups in October to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Even more damaging has been the sale of several media outlets once critical of the government to owners who more closely follow the official line.
Capriles calls it an "information blockade," and warns that President Nicolas Maduro's alleged attempts to silence the opposition signal a more authoritarian style of rule to come unless resoundingly reject his policies at the ballot box this Sunday. The election for mayors and city councils is a dogfight in this deeply polarized country. It is also Maduro's first electoral test since he defeated Capriles in April by a razor-thin margin following Hugo Chavez's death from cancer.
"Without a doubt this is one of the toughest moments in our history to get our message out," said Capriles, who has been crisscrossing the country stumping for opposition candidates.
Yet for all the opposition complaints, analysts say the government's biggest trump card going into the vote isn't its grip on the media but rather Maduro's political instincts. Facing a steady decline in the polls, Maduro on Nov. 9 seized control of several retail outlets, arrested dozens of store managers and slashed prices on plasma TVs and fridges to strike a blow against opponents he accuses of waging an "economic war" against his government. The measures have led to a steady improvement in the president's approval rating, said Luis Vicente Leon of Caracas-based pollster Datanalisis.
The most likely result from Sunday's vote, Leon said, is the opposition winning in Caracas and other big cities while the government remains dominant in the countryside, giving each side a claim on victory.
"There's an economic crisis in Venezuela but paradoxically who has best capitalized on it politically is the government that generated it," said Leon. "They've combined rhetoric with action and, just as importantly, has managed to sell a narrative of who are the ones to blame for the economic troubles."
The government denies it is threatening journalists or forcing its viewpoint, and attributes the decline in coverage of Capriles to the fact that voters and media bosses alike were turned off by his unsubstantiated claims of fraud following his defeat in the presidential race.
"There's no campaign to make him invisible," said Igor Molina, a high-ranking official at telecommunications regulator Conatel. "Perhaps it is just that the overexposure which he was accustomed to is gone."
The most emblematic example of Venezuela's rougher media landscape is the takeover of TV station Globovision. When Chavez refused to renew the license of independent broadcaster RCTV in 2007, Globovision remained as the lone voice broadcasting criticism of the government. But after being fined $2 million last year for its coverage of the security forces' violent quelling of a prison riot, the channel was sold in May to three local businessmen with no prior media experience. Many veteran journalists were immediately fired or quit, and the channel overnight stopped broadcasting opposition news conferences and rallies.
"This is a sophisticated strategy because you're not closing down the company," said Carlos Correa, of Espacio Publico, the nongovernmental organization behind the complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. "You're simply asking someone you're close to, or have business dealings with, to do a favor and buy a media company to neutralize its coverage."
Globovision's owners haven't commented on their plans for the channel or the transaction. But last month the saga seemed to repeat itself when the editor of the country's main business newspaper, El Mundo, was fired after publishing an article on the hemorrhaging of the central bank's foreign currency reserves. Just a few weeks earlier, El Mundo's owner Cadena Capriles, the country's largest print media conglomerate, was purchased by a group of UK and Curacao-based investors. Cadena Capriles' founding owners aren't directly related to the politician who shares their last name.
In another episode with a chilling effect on coverage, Maduro in October publicly criticized newspaper Diario 2001 as "bandits" and called for it to be "punished" for publishing an article about gasoline shortages in Latin America's largest oil exporter. Within days of the tongue-lashing, federal prosecutors opened an investigation.
The government is also targeting the opposition on the Internet, until now a largely untouched forum for government criticism. Last month it blocked access to dozens of websites used to track the black market value of the nation's currency, which has plunged to 10 times its official 6.3-per-dollar value.
While coverage of the opposition is being curtailed, Maduro is making greater use of the airwaves. Data compiled by Andres Canizalez, a media researcher at Catholic University in Caracas, show the president has appeared on television an average of two hours a day, surpassing a mark left by his loquacious mentor Chavez, thanks to a law requiring radio and TV channels to interrupt normal programming to broadcast the president's activities.
It's not clear if the government tactics are actually persuading voters. While Capriles may be less visible, Venezuela's economic problems are readily apparent in most supermarkets, where staples such as milk and toilet paper are harder to find and prices for other goods have skyrocketed in line with an official 54 percent inflation rate. The opposition is hopeful that such hardships will allow it to build on the 56 municipalities that it and dissident factions of Chavismo won in the last local elections in 2008.
Follow Fabiola Sanchez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fisanchezn
AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report.