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Venezuela

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Domain name: .ve
Population: 28,686,633
Internet users: 8,846,535
Average cost for a one-hour cybercafé connection: 1 U.S. dollar
Average monthly salary: about 550 U.S. dollars
Number of imprisoned netizens: 0

President Hugo Chávez, who is systematically covered by all traditional media, could not resist the temptation to increase his exposure on the Internet and to try to regulate this space over which he had previously eluded his grasp. He succeeded in 2010, amidst increasing tension between leaders and the opposition media. Although there is still free Internet access in the country, tools for controlling access are in place and self-censorship is on the rise. Discussion forums are being closely monitored by the authorities.

Almost one-third of the population are connected

Almost one third of the population is connected in Venezuela, making it the Latin American country with the fourth highest number of Internet users after Argentina, Colombia and Chili. Social networks are popular there. As of March 2010, Facebook had 5.3 million registered users, compared to Twitter’s 500,000 in that same period.

The government facilitated the population’s access to the Internet by setting up state-sponsored access centres. In 2009, the Canaima Project was launched with the aim of providing every primary school student with his or her own computer. To date, more than 60% of the 8.8 million Internet users originate from the working classes.

Venezuela’s leading telecom operator and Internet service provider, CanTV, which is state-owned, has a monopoly on the provision of ADSL services. Its 2007 nationalisation marked the first stage of the government’s efforts to tighten its control of the Internet.

2010: Chávez’ much-touted entry into Web 2.0

Not satisfied with his coverage in the traditional media, President Hugo Chávez threw himself wholeheartedly into Web 2.0 in 2010. Last April he created his own blog, chavez.org.ve, “a page for communicating with the world.” In this blog, he reports on his interviews with foreign leaders and the latest government statistics confirming a drop in the homicide rate, or presents commentary on sports events. The site also features speeches by the Head of State, videos, photos and a form which visitors can use to contact the president’s staff.

In April 2010, he also created his own Twitter account @chavezcandanga, which had over 1,150,000 subscribers as of January 2011. Chávez even publicly urged Cuban and Bolivian leaders to join Twitter!

Many Venezuelans have ridiculed the Head of State, wondering how such a verbose man – one so accustomed to making speeches several hours long – could limit himself to 140-character posts.

Chávez justifies his presence on social networks by stating his intention of becoming a “cybernetic activist of the Bolivarian revolution” in order to “counter the opposition’s influence on the social networks.” He joyfully announced that “the people are taking over the Internet,” stating that conspirators use the Web to try to spread false information and stir up coup d’états against him. The President still has a long way to win netizen support. Seven out of the ten most popular accounts in Venezuela are critical of Chávez, while his most fervent supporter is ranked 66th. The presidential account was allegedly hacked in September 2010.

In February 2010, the hashtag #freevenezuela used by the opposition in response to Chávez attacks against freedom of the press, was the 4th most-commented-on subject on Twitter worldwide, with over 60,000 entries. The Facebook page “Let’s see if I can find a million people that hate Chávez” has a total of nearly 750,000 fans, while pro-Chávez pages have only a few tens of thousands of subscribers .

Both the president and the opposition have been making extensive use of social networks, particularly Twitter, trying to induce Venezuelans to vote in the September 2010 legislative elections.

Chávez had accused social network users of being “instruments of capitalism.” Now accused in turn of being a capitalist, his response is that “This isn’t capitalist or socialist, technology depends on how you use it.”

Relentless attack on Noticiero Digital

On 13 March 2010, President Chávez called for criminal sanctions to be imposed on the news and opinion portal Noticiero Digital, accused of having posted false information.

Two Internet users had incorrectly announced on Noticiero Digital’s forum that Infrastructure and Telecommunications Minister Diosdado Cabello had been assassinated. According to the President, the information remained online for two days. The website managers admitted that two new members of the forum had posted these false news items and pointed out that the latter had been removed a few hours after they were notified of it. The website applies a standard procedure to all Internet forums: it does not a priori censor them, but does so if its terms of use have been violated. The website managers’ good faith is thus not in question. The forum has over 120,000 members.

After this episode, Hugo Chávez asked Minister Diosdado Cabello to “regulate the Internet.”

On 8 June 2010, acting under a presidential order, the Venezuelan Public Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalia) initiated proceedings against Noticiero Digital for allegedly “attacking constitutional order” and “supporting a coup d’état.” These new proceedings were prompted by an opinion piece posted on the Noticiero Digital website on 2 June by Roberto Carlos Olivares that discussed mobilisation efforts being made by “retired military officers and patriots” with a view to engineering a “civil-military transition” at the head of government, possibly in 2011. In this extremely vehement text, the author obviously expresses his wish to see such a “transition” succeed. However, voicing this opinion was meant to induce others to make comments and no conclusion can be made that the Noticiero Digital media was “supporting a coup d’état.”

In an interview granted to Reporters Without Borders, Noticiero Digital’s director, Juan Eduardo Smith, deplores the fact that the government’s “ever more forceful reaction to any views contrary to its own vision of the world.”

Premises of censorship? Blockings, closings and self-censorship

In the wake of the proceedings initiated against Noticiero Digital, several Internet websites decided to tighten their forum’s controls in order not to expose themselves to any judicial problems. Such is the case, for example, of Noticias24 – one of the country’s leading news websites – which has set up a system to review in advance all comments to be posted, which it reserves the right to delete, as stated in its terms of use. The website explains that it will not tolerate insults, personal attacks, racist or sexist slurs, incitements to violence or anything else which violates applicable laws.

In addition, from 26 to 27 September 2010, the leading Internet access provider, CanTV, blocked without notice some blogs hosted on the Wordpress platform. The bloggers @alfrediux, @ConIdayVuelta and @elena_victoria then stated on lapatilla.com that their blogs were nonetheless accessible from Spain or Venezuela via proxy servers.

During the same period, the National System of Telematic Incident Management (VenCERT) allegedly carried out a special surveillance operation involving 1500 Internet websites in order to supervise the publication of electoral-related contents. According to VenCERT, 48% of the sites reviewed did post illegal electoral content. The blocking of certain media and blog Web pages therefore was done “to protect the integrity and availability of public information on the official pages of the national authorities’ and ministries’ media.” VenCERT did not indicate which websites are concerned, nor what they are being charged with.

Some Twitter users targeted to set an example

Jesús Majano, an engineer with Corpoelec, Venezuela’s National Electricity Corporation, was arrested on 8 September 2010 for having circulated some tweets “instigating a murder” and “inciting the commission of a criminal offence” against President Hugo Chávez. After being released on parole, he now must continue to appear before the court every fifteen days.

Two other Twitter users, Luis Acosta Oxford (@leaoxford) and Carmen Cecilia Nares (@carmennares), who reside in the State of Bolivar (in southeastern Venezuela), over 500 km from Caracas, were arrested on 8 July 2010 and charged with “spreading false news” with the intent of destabilising the banking system and damaging the country’s economy, by virtue of Article 448 of the 2001 Banking Law.

Following a hearing on Monday 12 July 2010, the two individuals were granted parole in anticipation of a future trial. They must continue to appear before the court every fifteen days. They are also prohibited from circulating any messages on the bank issue, as provided for in Article 256 of Venezuela’s Criminal Code, under penalty of an eleven-year prison sentence.

On 30 June 2010, Luis Acosta Oxford (@leaoxford) posted the following message on his Twitter account: “Ladies and Gentlemen, so you may not say no one warned you … leave today. I assure you that there are very few days left.” [Señores para que no digan que no se les dijo retiren hoy de... quedan pocos días, se les dijo.]

Since November 2009, more than a dozen banks have been closed or placed under government control. Inquiries into the spreading of rumours and false news about the banking system began in March 2010, when the police detected the presence of a number of postings warning the public about a so-called “financial crash.”

Until 12 July 2010, Luis Acosta Oxford had 225 subscribers and had posted 201 messages, while only six people were following Carmen Cecilia Nares, who had not posted a single tweet. Their obviously limited influence on the Web belies the government’s theory that these two individuals could have been engaged in efforts to undermine the national banking system. Instead, they seem to have been assigned the role of scapegoats, while the authorities were publicly railing against their detractors’ use of the social network.

The various accusations which the government has been making against certain Internet users, the proceedings brought against Twitter users and the non-stop harassment targeting Noticiero Digital are so many phases of what appears to be an impending government strategy to take control of the Net: a prelude to imposing presidential rules.

A gag law for the Internet

On 11 July 2010, former vice-president José Vicente Rangel stated that certain Twitter users in Venezuela were devoting themselves full-time to spreading rumours. Hugo Chávez had announced during a televised speech on Saturday 13 March: “The Internet cannot be something open where anything can be done and said. No, every country has to impose its rules and regulations.”

It was in this frame of mind that, under pressure from the government, the National Assembly delivered a new blow to freedom of expression and information on 20 December 2010, by approving two bills amending the Organic Law on Telecommunications (Lotel) and the Social Responsibility in Radio, TV and Electronic Media Law (Resortemec). The latter’s aim is to facilitate Web control and surveillance, notably by setting up an Internet filtering system. The Resortemec Law provides for stiffer fines and the suspension – which could mean definitive closure for repeat offenders – for media which circulate messages (including Internet user postings) that:

1 - incite or promote hate and intolerance for religious or political reasons, on the basis of a gender difference or because of racism or xenophobia; 2 - incite or promote criminal activity; 3 - engage in war propaganda; 4 - cause panic or disturb public order; 5 - discredit legitimately constituted authorities; 6 - incite murder; 7 - incite or promote non-respect for the laws in force.

Although points 1 and 6 are admissible and valid in any legislation, point 3 – which is also admissible – will presumably not be applied to the government’s often bellicose propaganda. Points 2, 4 and 5 represent a major threat to freedom of expression and information because they are too broadly and vaguely defined. It appears that website moderators will inevitably have to close their discussion forums. Point 5 regarding the “legitimately constituted authority” also concerns the next National Assembly, which was elected on 26 September 2010. One positive aspect of the new Resortemec Law is that it no longer contains the controversial provision for a single Internet access point.

Still pertaining to Article 28 of the Law, Internet access providers will have “to establish mechanisms for restraining the circulation of messages” concerned by such prohibitions without specifying the technicalities involved. This provision is an open door for introducing a Net filtering system.

The application of this law, as well as the self-censorship momentum which could result from it, must be kept under close watch in the months ahead. Some are rightly concerned about sanctions being tailored in such a way that the electronic media and websites with close ties to the government will receive special treatment, while those of the opposition will experience a much harsher interpretation of the law, thereby extending to the Net the extremely polarised opinion already evident among the traditional media.

Considering his experience with the so-called “traditional” media, President Chávez’ latest enthusiasm for the electronic media while he is endowed with full powers may well cause concern about the future of online freedom of expression.

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