By Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Twelve years after they played a key role in a coup, Venezuelan television networks have so heavily scaled back their coverage of anti-government protests that critics are decrying a "media blackout" that helps the government cling to power.
Stations that openly encouraged Venezuelans to take to the streets in 2002 and helped trigger the coup that briefly ousted socialist leader Hugo Chavez are now offering minimal real-time coverage of nearly a week of anti-government protests.
At least four people have died.
When security forces arrested opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on Tuesday, bringing tens of thousands of supporters into the streets to block the path of the vehicle carrying him, networks that for years covered every twist and turn of Venezuelan politics offered almost no live coverage.
President Nicolas Maduro, who was elected last year after Chavez's death from cancer, scoffs at allegations that his government has restricted free speech, insisting he is simply seeking to prevent the media from causing panic.
But he drew criticism from press freedom groups including Reporters Without Borders by ordering a Colombia-based news channel NTN24 to be removed from cable signal after it broadcast live coverage of violence that started last Wednesday.
"We are deeply concerned about the attempts at creating an information blackout by threatening local media and censoring international media that provide information about events that affect the country's citizens," Venezuela's main reporters' trade union said, also criticizing NTN24's removal from cable.
The political turnaround in Venezuela's broadcast media has happened steadily over the last seven years, beginning with Chavez's 2007 move to take the fiercely critical RCTV station off the air by denying a renewal of its broadcast license.
News channel Globovision, which once focused its coverage on opposition politicians and causes, has changed its editorial line and sharply cut back live broadcasts after a change of management last year.
Twitter is now the primary source for live updates on the melees between rock-throwing protesters demanding an end to Maduro's government and security forces that fire back tear gas.
Venezuelans who grew accustomed to watching live coverage of disturbances during Chavez's rule now complain they are lost in a barrage of tweets that spread false or dated information.
Amid the confusion, rumors surfaced last week that some users connecting via state-run broadband could not see images on Twitter, leading to widespread but false reports that Venezuela had blocked the microblogging site.
When a student was shot dead last Wednesday, triggering the worst violence since Maduro narrowly won the presidential election in April, they did not interrupt their regular programming to report it.
A top Socialist Party official on state television announced the death of a pro-government activist, but those watching Venezuelan channels would not have known the student had died for nearly two hours, when it was confirmed by the top state prosecutor.
NTN24, available only via cable, reported the death of the student, Bassil Dacosta, shortly after it happened, and interviewed two opposition leaders live.
The government then ordered cable providers to cut its signal, accusing it of fomenting violence.
The communication minister said the station had been "focused on overthrowing the constitutional government and stirring up hatred and violence among Venezuelans."
Maduro, who says he will not cede even "a millimeter of power," frequently uses state media to promote his image as the heir of Chavez's self-styled socialist revolution.
He often insults political rivals over the airwaves and sometimes give lengthy addresses via "chain" broadcasts that play on all free access channels.
But live coverage of opposition leaders is now primarily restricted to Internet broadcasts over patchy broadband connections.
"Where is this press conference being shown? Over the Internet, if they haven't blocked that too," state governor Henrique Capriles told reporters on Sunday via his own website in his first major address to the country about the violence.
Globovision, which in the past showed such press conferences in their entirety, broadcast only a 2-minute excerpt of his comments, delayed by half an hour.
MEDIA'S UGLY HISTORY
Communication Minister Delcy Rodriguez slammed foreign media for slanted coverage of the violence, citing pictures of conflict in Egypt being tweeted by a news organization as if they had taken place this month in Venezuela.
"We're very concerned about images being manipulated by international media," Rodriguez told reporters.
She noted that a journalist from NTN24 had presented a picture of babies sleeping in cardboard boxes as a sign of decaying Venezuelan hospitals even though the picture had in fact come from Honduras.
Government supporters say the country's only true "media blackout" came when networks openly celebrated the 2002 coup but halted coverage as supporters and military loyalists restored Chavez to power.
Media for years ran sensationalist accounts of Chavez's ties to the Iranian government and Colombian rebels, often portraying his supporters as a mass of violent hoodlums.
Two leading opposition newspapers continue to publish defiant coverage that highlights economic problems such as inflation and product shortages.
But reporters associated with another widely read newspaper, Ultimas Noticias, wrote an incensed letter last week blasting a last-minute change to the coverage of Wednesday's violence.
The next day's front page had been drawn up to focus on the deaths during the demonstrations, but was revamped to lead on Maduro's phrase "We are facing a coup."
The journalists said media group Cadena Capriles, which owns Ultimas Noticias, "made the victims of February 12 invisible."
"The environment for the Venezuelan press is becoming more asphyxiating by the day," read the letter signed by 96 reporters. "Television and radio have become simple repeaters of the words of the government, and newspapers are on the same path." (Editing by Kieran Murray and Chizu Nomiyama)