The following article is in a series focusing on countries that restrict speech online in order to prevent “social panic” or “anxiety amongst citizenry.” The series will examine Venezuela, China, and Saudi Arabia.
Venezuela is falling apart. The Venezuelan economy, which possesses the world’s worst inflation rate, [i] struggles to pay for the paper to print its money.[ii] Murder rates in Venezuela are among the world’s worst.[iii] Basic goods, such as diapers and flour, are becoming scarce, causing additional crime. So much so, food delivery drivers are quitting their jobs due to safety concerns.[iv] Venezuelans are understandably dissatisfied with their government. The approval rating of Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro has fallen significantly from 2014 to present day.[v] Yet amongst this turmoil and hardship, Venezuelans possess a robust and vibrant online community. In 2011, Venezuela had the fifth highest Twitter penetration rate in the world.[vi]
As the social and political order in Venezuela fails, the Venezuelan media has continued to operate under considerable legal restrictions, stifling it as a potential outlet for dissent. However, Venezuela’s Internet has become a space to combat the economic and political problems that surround it. In many ways the Internet, and more specifically social media, is a liberating medium and acts as a platform to achieve information and goods otherwise not provided or allowed by the state.
The Venezuelan Media Landscape
The role that Venezuela’s Internet occupies in Venezuela’s changing societal landscape emerges out of increasing censorship and restrictions on traditional media forms, specifically print and television. Since its conception is relatively new, the Internet in Venezuela has significantly less regulations than other media, which allows for more room for dissidence with the Venezuelan government.
All Venezuelan media must act within a legal framework established and regulated by the state. The Law on Social Responsibility on Radio and Television (Ley de Responsabilidad Social en Radio y Televisión) which was adopted in 2004, outlines laws for media outlets and journalists to follow. The Law, known as the Ley Resorte, states media outlets will not be allowed to release media that “promote(s) anxiety among citizenry” or “disregard(s) legal authorities.”[vii] Media outlets face sanctions if they disobey. To implement these laws and restrictions the Ley Resorte relies on regulatory bodies, which are either part of the government or controlled by the government.[viii] In 2014, the Press and Society Institute found nearly one-third of Venezuela’s journalists “declined to report information of vital public interest” in order to maintain personal safety, and over 40% reported being pressured by authorities to alter their story in some form.[ix] In 2010, an amendment was added to the Ley Resorte to include electronic media and the Internet.
An important regulation within the Ley Resorte, practiced by both Chavez and Maduro, is the practice of the cadena, (roughly translated: broadcast or channel)[x] in combating the flow of unwanted information from being disseminated. Cadenas, which are common throughout Latin America, were initially conceived as emergency notifications. However, currently they tend to be more political. Venezuela and Argentina are the only two nations that mandate stations air these messages.
Cadenas are a popular pulpit for Maduro during elections as well as a censorship tool.[xi] Maduro’s campaign occupied 100 minutes of airtime each day leading up to the December 2013 local elections and occupied 421 minutes of airtime each day leading up to the April 2013 presidential elections.[xii] Other candidates do not have the ability to access prominent stations or equal air time. Although the number of cadenas decreased in 2014,it important to observe the timing of such broadcasts, especially since these cadenas are unrelated to elections or campaigns.[xiii] For example, in February 2014, large scale anti-government protests existed throughout the country yet Maduro released a cadena lasting for several hours that covered a pro-Maduro street rally.[xiv] This broadcast effectively makes nationwide anti-government protests invisible to viewers while Maduro simultaneously has a platform to further his agenda such as condemnation of opposition leader Leopoldo López.[xv] In addition, cadenas disproportionately affect poorer populations as consuming other media sources such as private TV stations or the Internet is a more expensive option.[xvi] Due to the current wealth disparity and less expensive nationalized media, it is likely citizens outside of Caracas are overwhelmingly unable to afford non-state-owned media outlets.
Since he assumed power in 2013, Maduro has furthered Chavez’s increasing pressure and regulation of Venezuela media and media systems. Instead of citing Venezuela’s Communication Ministry 2012 report that states 70% of radio and TV stations are privately owned and under 5% are state owned,[xvii] it is more fruitful to observe a change in Venezuelan media content as well as the industry’s reputation and image. In 2002, Chavez famously referred to the four leading television networks as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”[xviii] due to their open criticism of his policies.[xix] In February 2014, as anti-government protests began to criticize current economic policies and the declining standard of life in Venezuela, Venezuela’s National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) director announced that media outlets reporting on violence at the demonstrations would face sanctions under the Ley Resorte.[xx] Throughout 2014, Maduro enforced the Ley Resorte 103 times to interrupt regular programming on Venezuelan television and radio stations.[xxi] For example, in August 2014, CONATEL suspended a program on Radio Caracas Radio, as it alleged the program spoke poorly of Maduro, which is illegal under the Ley Resorte due to its “(disregard of) legitimate authorities.” The 22-year-old independent station was ordered off the air by CONATEL officials and members of the National Guard; within hours, a new station was broadcasting on the same frequency.[xxii]
Traditional print media is also weakened by pressure from the Venezuelan government. El Universal, the oldest newspaper in Venezuela, was mysteriously sold in July 2014 to a concealed business group.[xxiii] A media source that once was an unabashed critic of Chavez and Maduro is significantly tamer and less critical of the Venezuelan government. Since the sale of the newspaper many prominent columnists and staff members have been fired including Rayma Suprani, an award winning cartoonist.[xxiv] Suprani claims she was fired for her depiction of how the Venezuelan government handled a public health crisis.[xxv] Some free speech organizations have claimed the paper’s front page has become “a megaphone for the government.”[xxvi]
Print media independence is also threatened by currency controls and central planning, which makes acquiring newsprint difficult for publishers. El Nacional, a competitor of El Universal, claimed in January 2014 it could not acquire new paper despite placing an order in May 2013.[xxvii] In 2014, The Institute for Press and Society reported ten daily newspapers have shut down and 14 other newspapers have been forced to alter their publications’ size due to paper scarcity and currency controls.[xxviii]
In Search of Political and Economic Stability
Due to the pressure on journalistic integrity from Venezuelan authorities, the Internet, especially social media, has become a new space for political dialogue and transparency. The Internet in Venezuela is seen as a place with significantly less economic and political pressures.[xxix] Journalism, especially independent journalism, is transitioning to the Internet in search of a solution to constraints on traditional media or, as journalist Tamoa Calzadilla said, to “tell truths that power wants to hide.”[xxx] It appears Venezuelan citizens also acknowledge the role of the Internet in a censored media environment. Opinion surveys show Venezuelans are consuming less media that is sold.[xxxi] In addition to an increase in media outlets online, social media is a powerful tool for real-time reporting, by both journalists and citizens. It is understood Venezuelans will turn to social media to learn about anti-government demonstrations since traditional media outlets face tighter regulations under the Ley Resorte.[xxxii] In addition, social media is not prone to be interrupted by cadenas.
Social media is also a safer space to discuss politics. A 2013 Pew survey on emerging nations indicated that amongst the 24 nations polled, Venezuela had the largest percentage of citizens receiving political news (39%) from their cell phone[xxxiii] The same study also revealed Venezuelan social networks are most likely to reveal that an individuals’ political beliefs are different than one originally expected.[xxxiv] These findings further indicate a shift in media consumption that is likely correlated to the Internet’s emergence as a less regulated and more politically liberating medium. However, it appears Venezuelans do not think this medium is liberated enough. As part of the same 24 nation study, Venezuelans had the highest desire (89%) for having uncensored Internet access.[xxxv]
Social media in Venezuela is not only viewed as a social and political space, but also a vibrant marketplace. By way of their national identification cards, all Venezuelan adults are assigned days of the week, often two, to shop for regulated goods.[xxxvi] Due to current economic struggles and structural restraints, Venezuelans often spend countless hours waiting in lines to buy basic goods, such as flour or toilet paper, from their local supermarket. They wait assuming that goods will be available once they are at the front of the line, which is not always the case. Instead of traveling in search of essential goods, Venezuelans turn to social media to broadcast their needs or findings. Upon finding an essential good such as medication, it is common for a Venezuelan to send a tweet broadcasting to others where this good can be found.[xxxvii] This practice is widespread and has resulted in organizations and companies facilitating these exchanges. The Mercado Libre, a website similar to eBay in Latin America, has found Venezuela to be one of its fastest growing markets.[xxxviii]
Venezuela also has numerous groups across many social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to assist in exchanges amongst Venezuelans. These groups are normally denoted by the word trueque (Spanish for swap) in their titles. A listing on a trueque group will have a good for exchange, for example corn flour, in addition to what the owner of corn flour is looking for in return.[xxxix] These trueque groups are not a space for profit, but instead to benefit the community. These platforms exclusively exchange goods in what is a likely effort to effectively use what little resources are available.
A Vital, but Unstable Medium
Despite the importance of the Internet to Venezuelans as source of economic and political power, Venezuela has one of the worst average Internet speeds in the region and the world.[xl] Currently, the state manages a majority of telecommunications infrastructure and the state owned provider accounts for nearly 65% of Internet subscriptions[xli] and 80% of Internet connections.[xlii] Akamai’s “State of the Internet” report found Venezuela, in comparison to other countries in the region, ranks second to last in average speed connectivity.[xliii] More importantly Venezuela has seen a decline in average connection speeds from 2013 to 2014.[xliv] This decline in connectivity speed is likely due to poor maintenance of telecommunications infrastructure, of which a majority is state-owned. In recent years cables and other materials must be imported and paid for in dollars[xlv] as a result of the poor state of Venezuela’s economy. As the fixed broadband market has experienced slow growth, Venezuela’s steadily increasing penetration rates can best be explained by an increase in the mobile markets as now 39% of Venezuelans own a smartphone.[xlvi]
In addition to Venezuela’s poor overall Internet speed, overall penetration rates do not accurately describe the condition of many Venezuelan’s Internet connections due to income equality and geography. Since 2007, poverty rates in Venezuela have increased, most notably by 6% from 2013 to 2014.[xlvii] This calculation is not even based off of the ability to purchase Internet, but rather basic goods, which are likely significantly cheaper than the Internet. Rural Venezuelans have significantly worse access and connection to the Internet. For example, penetration in the rural state of Apure is 30%, whereas the capital city of Caracas is nearly 100%.[xlviii] Rural Venezuelans can either pay for private Internet or switch to mobile phones for Internet access. However, private Internet or mobile phones are not a likely option due to poverty levels and controls on foreign currency, which make either of these two options difficult to afford. Mobile plans are rising in price[xlix] and in June 2015, it was reported an iPhone 6 cost $47,678.[l]
A Free-ish Medium
The poor state of Venezuela’s Internet infrastructure is particularly interesting given Chavez’s investments and explicit interest into creating the Internet as a priority for the development of Venezuela. Beginning in 2000, the Internet, specifically increasing Internet access to the poor, became a part of national policy agenda as noted by Presidential Decree No.825.[li] Large public investments into increasing Internet access are illustrated by the Chinese launch of the Simon Bolivar satellite in 2008, which cost China and Venezuela collectively over $400 million.[lii] The satellite was supposed to increase Internet access in rural areas of Venezuela. The government also built public Internet centers for the urban poor.[liii] Between the years 2000 and 2011, Internet penetration rates rose from 3.38% to 36.57%[liv] and during the end of the decade social media use skyrocketed, as observed by a 1000% growth in Twitter usage in 2009.[lv] In 2011, Venezuela had the fifth highest Twitter penetration rate in the world, with 21% of Venezuelan Internet users visiting Twitter each month.[lvi]
Due to the media climate at the time, Chavez believed the Internet, and social media, could act as a medium for him to increase pro-government voices to counterbalance the opposition-dominated traditional media outlets,[lvii] reflecting Chavez’s statements describing the major television networks as the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.” Chavez encouraged pro-government voices on social media to the extent that he called to his followers to become “soldiers” and combat opposition speech online.[lviii] However, opposition figures observed, just like Chavez, this new space for political speech had significantly less gatekeepers and regulations than other media at the time. Opposition voices began to become prominent. In March 2010, seven of the top ten Twitter accounts were critical of Chavez and the hashtag #freevenezuela emerged after TV stations had been shut down.[lix] Chavez then stated, “The Internet is a battle trench because it is bringing a current of conspiracy.”[lx] He decided to join Twitter shortly after this statement in an effort to actively combat what he viewed as “conspiracy.” [lxi]
Venezuelan Government Internet Use
In 2009, after years of dedicating significant economic and political capital to increasing Internet access, the Venezuelan government began to implement more rules and practices to increase regulation of online activity. Chavez’s Presidential Decree 6649 rationalized that the Internet should be treated as a luxury in order to reduce public spending.[lxii] The Venezuelan government then nationalized CANTV, Venezuela’s largest telecommunications provider, as another way to reduce public spending.[lxiii] In 2010, the Venezuelan parliament passed a bill stating all Venezuelan ISPs must monitor Internet content in compliance with the Ley Resorte.[lxiv] The bill also approved the future creation of a Network Access Point to manage “all traffic with origin and destination in Venezuela.”[lxv] In addition, ISPs must create procedures to restrict the distribution of opinions in accordance with the Ley Resorte.
It is important to note these increasing restrictions on online activity occurred during the beginning of the 2011 “Arab Spring” in the Middle East. Most notably the bill that included the Internet and social media as part of the Ley Resorte was signed into law days after the Tunisian revolution, the first of many Arab Spring uprisings.
Chavez’s Presidential Decree, which created the National Strategic Security and Protection Center (CESSPA) in 2013 laid the foundation for Maduro to continue and further Chavez’s tightening grip on the Internet in Venezuela. CESSPA is an organization designed to “unify the flow of information on sensitive strategic aspects” in both public and private sectors by analyzing “information from the web” and “events or actions that affect daily life and the politics of the State.”[lxvi] CESSPA has no judicial oversight.[lxvii] Maduro’s furthering of Chavez’s vision of the Internet can be observed by Freedom House’s increasingly negative rating of Venezuela’s Internet. From 2011 to 2015, Freedom House’s assessment of Venezuela’s Internet has negatively increased by: 11% overall, 8% in obstacles to access, 14% in limits to content, and 10% in violating user rights.[lxviii]
Venezuelan authorities practice censorship by blocking web domains. This is not surprising as Venezuela was one of seven countries to reject the United Nation’s declaration that online access is a human right.[lxix] The content Venezuelan authorities blocked online largely consists of sites with black-market dollar exchange rates, such as el Dólar Paralelo de Venezuela.[lxx] CONATEL blocked 1,000 websites between November 2013 and October 2014 by issuing a blacklist to be observed by state provider CANTV and private ISPs.[lxxi] Although only two of these 1,000 sites were news websites, one was Lapatilla, a prominent anti-government media with thousands of daily readers. Pastebin is another commonly censored website, most notably during the 2014 anti-government protests.[lxxii] Pastebin is a website where users can store text to share with other users.
However, arguably a greater cause for concern is indirect coercion by CONATEL, which may be delivered by email or phone call.[lxxiii] In addition, journalists have asserted CANTV has the potential to block certain websites without receiving approval from CONATEL.[lxxiv] It is important to note that both indirect coercion and censorship by way of CANTV or CONATEL would not be reported.
Social Media: A Final Frontier
Unlike television, radio, or even Venezuelan web services, social media, particularly Twitter, is significantly harder for the Venezuelan government to control. Some have even claimed “Twitter is only free media”[lxxv] in Venezuela. Since social media is not a service located in Venezuela, it is not as easily susceptible to rules and regulations such as the Ley Resorte. Ultimately, the Venezuelan government holds media outlets accountable for publishing content against the Ley Resorte. However, the Venezuelan government does not have jurisdiction since Twitter is located outside of Venezuela. The Venezuelan government could take measures to block individual content on Twitter. However, this would require public resources, both human and material, to implement some form of internal monitoring. As inflation rates continue to rise, the government likely cannot afford such resources due to lack of human capital and resources. Yet, the government can and has increasingly been arresting Venezuelans over their activity on Twitter.
Although not abundant, Twitter does have limited regulations on the use of its service by Venezuelans. The only regulations on speech that run parallel to those enforced by the Venezuelan government relate to political campaigning. According to Twitter’s rules and regulations surrounding the use of its service for political campaigning, Venezuela is one of seven countries in Latin America to be allowed to use Twitter for political campaigning advertising.[lxxvi] In Venezuela, political campaigning on Twitter, similar to the language in the Ley Resorte, is unacceptable if it “promote(s) war, discrimination or intolerance” or “violate(s) an individual’s honor, privacy, intimacy, self-image, confidentiality or reputation.”[lxxvii]
Venezuelan leaders use of Twitter specifically that of Maduro, suggests an acceptance that social media is both globally accessible as well as a relatively impossible domain for the Venezuelan government to fully control. When Maduro stated in 2013 that, “if lies come through Twitter we are going to strike back through Twitter,” it suggests an acceptance of the limits of his government’s power. Similar to Chavez, Maduro uses Twitter as a pulpit, but Maduro is more aware of the magnitude and scope of Twitter. Maduro’s speeches have been live-tweeted by government officials[lxxviii] and one 2015 study found, based off of his average number of retweets, Maduro is the third most effective leader in the world on Twitter.[lxxix] Maduro also appears more cognizant of Twitter’s global reach. As of 2016, Maduro has 14 different Twitter accounts in different languages,[lxxx] such as English, French, Portuguese, and Arabic,[lxxxi] in addition to his institutional governmental accounts.[lxxxii]
Perhaps more suggestive of the lack of regulations surrounding Venezuelan social media content are examples of anti-government protests posting falsified information and images. Twitter is specifically a platform of interest due to Twitter being a medium the government has limited control over.[lxxxiii] In 2014, anti-government protests led by Venezuelan students were found to provide false images and information suggesting protestors were physically abused by Venezuelan police.[lxxxiv] The images which intended to prove oppression towards innocent Venezuelans were pulled from past protests in Syria, Honduras, Chile, and Brazil.[lxxxv] These falsified narratives are intended to showcase the limited control the government of Venezuela has on Twitter. This information is considered illegal under the Ley Resorte as it would “promote anxiety” amongst the population. However, the individuals responsible for such content did not receive sentencing and the content itself was not censored.
Due to its lack of control over the Internet and social media, the Venezuelan government has ventured into more oppressive and clandestine activities. Hackers have been suspected to be linked to Venezuelan government have attacked media outlets and journalists. N33, a hacker group, has hacked prominent Venezuelan journalists and opinion leaders. The group hacks Twitter accounts which commonly express anti-government sentiments, then uses the account to spread pro-government messages.[lxxxvi] Also, it is widely suspected that in 2014 the Venezuelan government shut off connection of the state Internet provider in San Cristobal, a regional capital in the west of the country.[lxxxvii] This resulted in loss of access to Twitter pictures and PasteBin, a text hosting site.[lxxxviii] Although no official explanation was given, the director of CONATEL said the media regulatory organization blocked links “where public sites were being attacked.”[lxxxix]
The Venezuelan government is increasingly arresting its citizens for content on Twitter. In 2014 from August to October, Venezuelan authorities, without due process of law, detained at least eight people for distributing facts, opinions, and images about politics.[xc] As of the publication of this article, those who are still detained have not been sentenced.[xci] Recently, authorities have even detained Venezuelans for attempting to take photos of protests and long lines at supermarkets with their cell phone.[xcii]
Venezuela’s Internet provides an important role for Venezuelans as it allows for space the government cannot effectively monopolize. In Venezuela, the Internet is a lifeline; just “like the scarcity of goods, information is also scarce.”[xciii] The Internet is used to access information about government activity, nationwide protests, and the availability of basic goods. Information that is often vital to survival. The weakening of Venezuelan’s Internet infrastructure is hampering the quality of life for all Venezuelans and reducing the voice of civil society. Examples of a weak Internet can be observed by Venezuela’s abysmal Internet speed, as well as Internet content itself, which is evidenced by degrading of freedom scores by Freedom House. Although it is incredibly difficult to ascertain the degree to which poor connectivity issues are motivated by the Venezuelan government as a means to limit speech or simply the result of limited resources, it is likely a combination of both. A combination that reflects a situation that is reinforced by a weak economy and complacency instead of driven by institutional malice.
One of Venezuelan’s few lifelines appears to be losing its grip on combatting the pressures that seek to forcefully confine it. Maduro’s expanding militant activities and rapidly degrading economy may be glaring issues, but so is the survival of Venezuela’s Internet. The Internet, and the politics surrounding it, will be an incredibly important issue in the near future especially if Maduro were to lose referendum this year. This would prompt a new presidential vote which has the potential to reverse the current trajectory of Venezuela and its Internet.
This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
[liv] Jairo Lugo-Ocando, Alexander Hernandez, and Monica Marchesi, “Social Media and Virality in the 2014 Student Protests in Venezuela: Rethinking Engagement and Dialogue in Times of Imitation,” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015): 3782–3802, doi:1932–8036.
[lvii] Lugo-Ocando, Hernandez, and Marchesi, “Social Media and Virality in the 2014 Student Protests in Venezuela: Rethinking Engagement and Dialogue in Times of Imitation.”
[lxviii] “Venezuela | Country Report | Freedom on the Net | 2011,” accessed August 5, 2016; “Venezuela | Country Report | Freedom on the Net | 2012,” accessed August 5, 2016; “Venezuela | Country Report | Freedom on the Net | 2013,” accessed July 21, 2016; “Venezuela | Country Report | Freedom on the Net | 2014,” accessed August 5, 2016; “Venezuela | Country Report | Freedom on the Net | 2015.”