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Disinformation and Ignorance: Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan Strategies

Disinformation and Ignorance: Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan Strategies

By Julieta Pelcastre / Diálogo
March 04, 2020

In the midst of a violent environment against the independent media in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, journalists are denouncing the interference of these regimes through social media, a tool for resistance, says Guillermo Medrano, coordinator for Human Rights at the Violeta Chamorro Foundation, a Nicaraguan nongovernmental organization (NGO) that advocates freedom of speech.

The common denominator in these countries is state censorship, authoritarianism, and aggressive measures that worsen the situation, says the 2019 World Press Freedom Index report by French NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF, in French). Systematic harassment and increased online attacks against reporters have forced them to go into exile to protect their physical integrity, the report says.

RSF indicates that Cuba is the worst country in Latin America in terms of freedom of speech. The Cuban constitution prohibits the existence of private media, and conditions freedom of speech on supporting the government’s policies. According to the NGO, in Venezuela, since 2017, law enforcement forces and intelligence agencies have intensified repression against the media, as the Nicolás Maduro regime silences any content questioning his authority.

Lacking electricity, water, and internet services, Venezuelans protest on March 9, 2019, in Maracaibo, as they call for the resignation of Nicolás Maduro, considered responsible for the political, economic, and social crisis in the country. (Photo: Humberto Matheus / AFP)

Nicaraguan reporters, for their part, experience daily harassment campaigns and death threats. “After the protests of 2018, the Nicaraguan government not only banned free movement and social protests, but also intensified aggressions against journalists and mass media,” Medrano told Diálogo. “Almost 70 percent of the media belong to — or are controlled by — President Daniel Ortega, his family, front men, or people close to him, who cater to the governing party’s interests.”

“These actions are critical, because readers and the general public don’t have access to the truth and what is really happening in their countries, in order to make any decisions or report human rights violations,” Emmanuel Colombié, head of RSF’s Latin America bureau, told Diálogo. “This results in a society that is uninformed or misinformed and that, in turn, ends up supporting or accepting any sort of behavior on the part of their authorities.”

The internet and social media are the only communication outlets where people can see the work of journalists and independent media about the oppressive role of authoritarian governments, Colombié added. “These governments do not want narratives that differ from theirs or for real freedom of speech to exist.”

Dictators often resort to shutting down the internet in times of crisis, arguing that it is necessary to prevent the dissemination of incorrect information to protect public security. These radical measures serve more as a collective punishment than as a tactical response, says the international organization Human Rights Watch on its website.

“Unfortunately, the totalitarian straitjacket of these Latin American regimes has trapped millions of people in ignorance, with no right to knowledge and no freedom of expression,” Medrano said. “One of the positive aspects of these dictatorships is the emergence of new independent media; the challenge is how these digital media either sink or swim in the face of such ongoing repression.”

To silence critical voices, the most repressive autocrats acquire social media surveillance tools that use artificial intelligence, in an attempt to silence unwanted expressions, U.S.-based NGO Freedom House says in its Freedom on the Net 2019 report. As a result, there has been a significant increase in abuses against civil liberties and a decrease of online space for civil activism, says the report.

“International organizations must work in a coordinated manner and join efforts to report these situations with greater impact,” Colombié said. “In Venezuela and Nicaragua, things will get worse with Maduro and Ortega in power. All reporters and independent media will disappear little by little.”