Venezuelans’ freedom of expression and information has been exponentially restricted in the digital environment, and the situation continues to escalate amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is not new. Several international organizations, such as the Organization of American States’ Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and the Office of the United Nations (U.N.) High Commissioner for Human Rights, have expressed concern about this issue for years.
“Internet speed has been decreasing over time, in addition to a lack of investment in infrastructure. The government has also recently blocked digital independent news portals and main social networks,” says a recent report on Venezuela by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
Voice of America spoke with Mariengracia Chirinos, a journalist and researcher on freedom of expression and digital rights, who says that one of the challenges Venezuelans face is “difficulty accessing content” both on national and international social and digital media.
“The greater the conflict, the greater the blocking,” Chirinos says, adding that according to a study in which she took part in 2019, some international media that are not permanently blocked have been subject to “highly focused, selective blocking at specific times.”
According to the digital rights specialist, blocking so far in 2020 has been “significantly less” compared to 2017 and 2019, when Venezuela went through a time of great turmoil. However, she says that the country “doesn’t enjoy total digital freedom.”
Andrés Azpúrua, head of Venezuela Inteligente, an organization that created Unfiltered Venezuela (Venezuela sin Filtro), a project that identifies, documents, and helps fight digital censorship in the South American nation since 2014, agrees on the increase in specific blocks.
“Censorship in Venezuela has definitely been on the rise. Year after year, we see an eagerness to impose internet censorship and control over internet usage,” Azpúrua told VOA.
He describes the internet censorship episodes in Venezuela as “waves” and says, “each wave has its specific characteristics.” In 2019, he says, the press was one of the main targets.
“We saw one of the strongest attacks against the press, even blocking one of the largest media outlets in Venezuela, blocking media outside Venezuela, synchronizing media blocking on the internet,” he says.
In 2019, streaming platforms and social networks that were able to broadcast live were subject to “tactical blocks,” according to Azpúrua.
These, he says, involve, “blocking the least amount of time necessary to silence news during a live broadcast, minimizing the impact […] but maximizing the opportunity to silence this news.”
According to a 2019 Freedom House report, Venezuela is one of the countries where online freedom has worsened.
A report on internet blockings and restrictions, published in late April 2020 by the Venezuelan nongovernmental organization Espacio Público, points to a 133 percent increase in the total number of computer blocks and attacks in the country, up from 48 violations in 2018 to 112 in 2019.
The document specifies that state institutions were responsible for 60 percent of freedom of expression violations on the internet.
Azpúrua reports that the national and international media continue to be the main victims of this situation, with at least 20 media outlets blocked in 2020.
“You take 20, 30 media outlets from a country and block them, and if they are the most popular ones, you are controlling almost all the news consumption in the country,” he says.