The Maduro Regime Targets Digital Media To Silence The Opposition

A Venezuelan teenager lost his sight after police fired rubber bullets at his face as he took part in a protest against the regime of Nicolás Maduro in the western state of Táchira, on July 1. Rufo Chacon, 16, had demonstrated with his mother about the shortage of basic goods in the country.
Diálogo | 7 August 2019

Transnational Threats

Protesters hold a sign that says “freedom has no censorship, hungry for truth, peaceful protest,” at a demonstration on Journalist Day in Caracas, Venezuela, June 27, 2017. (Photo: Manaure Quintero, DPA/AFP)

On July 9, Táchira state Legislative Council Deputy Nellyver Lugo, a self-described Chavista, blamed local and digital media for inciting violence among the population, encouraging demonstrations, and building an “anti-Maduro atmosphere” that led to Chacon’s injuries. Digital media must be told what is “opportune and prudent” in their coverage, Lugo argued, instead of “instigating hatred and delinquent behavior.” She called for more media oversight, asking for the National Commission of Telecommunications (Conatel, in Spanish) — a government agency that regulates, supervises, and controls telecommunications — to intervene.

Only days before, a report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the Maduro regime to “guarantee access to internet and social media, including news websites, and impartiality of governing bodies in the allocation of radio spectrum frequencies.” In a country where print, television, and radio news have been silenced, digital media has become a major source of information for the opposition — a point the government noticed. According to Venezuela’s Telecom Chamber (Casetel, in Spanish), more than 18.5 million Venezuelans subscribe to the internet — the vast majority via state-own internet service provider (ISP) CANTV.

In the first half of 2019, Instituto Prensa y Sociedad Venezuela (IPYS), an organization that defends access to information, documented 33 instances where blocking of digital platforms had occurred, as well as 22 temporary shutdowns of the internet. According to Netblocks, a research organization that tracks internet outages, platform disruptions were detected on multiple occasions during speeches by Interim President Juan Guaidó or critical sessions of the National Assembly. IPYS noted that internet censorship increased as political tensions escalated.

Experts from Access Now, a digital rights organization, and IPYS tell Diálogo that Venezuela belongs to a group of countries, including China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Sudan that aggressively censor the internet. In the case of Venezuela, content that is critical of Maduro or that references Juan Guaidó as the president of the South American country is removed, while access to social media sites is blocked in order to prevent the opposition’s message from reaching the people.

“It’s asphyxiating”

“The Venezuelan government state-owned broadcaster and ISP [CANTV] has been engaging in a targeted campaign of censorship against Guaidó and his supporters, and is blocking access to live streaming sites, social media, and YouTube during his speeches specifically,” Peter Micek, a spokesman for Access Now, told Diálogo. “It’s a unique tactic and shows animus toward this particular figure and his messages. I would say that this is showing increasing sophistication and targeting, that seems like the government is refining its censorship techniques.”

Ana, a Caracas journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, said the government’s censorship hinders her work. “My hands are tied. Television doesn’t carry his speeches, radio doesn’t either; social media was about the only outlet. Now they’re blocking that also. It’s asphyxiating,” she said.

Micek stresses that blocking access to the internet is “occurring in a situation of wider censorship in the country and should be seen as part of the Venezuelan government interference with the exercise of human rights online.”

Satellite surveillance?

Digital Watchdog groups wonder about the role Venezuelan satellites, purchased from China, play in filtering the internet. Others point to the slow internet speed despite the country’s two satellites.

“I can’t say how Venezuela may be using its satellites, but, generally, satellites are used to beam more information and bandwidth and connectivity than to somehow restrict access,” Micek said. “Surveillance filtering and censorship are very expensive.”

A Casetel member acknowledged that “some censorship is not carried out through private or public ISPs.”

“Media sites hate the internet companies because they think the censorship is our fault. But they need to know we are between a rock and a hard place,” the Casetel official said. “Conatel gives ISPs a daily list of links and say, ‘here, knock these off the air,’ and what are we supposed to do? Say no?”

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