Two Twitter users who were arrested on 8 July, Luis Enrique Acosta and Carmen Cecilia Nares, appeared yesterday before a court in the southeastern city of Ciudad Bolívar and were formally charged under article 448 of the 2001 banking law with “spreading false news” with the aim of destabilising the banking system and damaging the economy.
If convicted, they face sentences of 9 to 11 years in prison – utterly disproportionate punishments for two people whose only offence was to express their views online.
Acosta, whose Twitter username is @leaoxford, had 225 “followers” as of yesterday and had posted a total of 201 “Tweets” while Nares, whose username is @carmennares, had only six followers and appeared to have posted no “Tweets” at all. Their clearly limited online presence belies the government’s attempts to portray them as two individuals bent on undermining the national banking system.
The court agreed yesterday to their conditional release pending trial but ordered them to report to court officials every two weeks and banned them from posting this type of online message under article 256 of the criminal code. Reporters Without Borders calls for the immediate withdrawal of the charges.
Meanwhile, judicial harassment of the Noticiero Digital news website is continuing. Members of its staff were summoned before the prosecutor general’s office in Caracas yesterday in connection with the proceedings initiated against the site on 8 June on suspicion of “attacking constitutional order” and “supporting a coup d’état.”
The proceedings were prompted by an opinion piece posted on the website on 2 June by Roberto Carlos Olivares that talked of moves by “retired military officers and patriots” with a view to engineering a “civil-military transition,” possibly in 2011. The site’s editor, Juan Eduardo Smith, was already questioned on 11 June (http://en.rsf.org/venezuela-proceedings-initiated-against-09-06-2010,37705.html).
Twitter users facing 11-year jail terms for criticiising banking system
Published on 12 July 2010
Reporters Without Borders calls for the immediate release of two Venezuelan users of the social-networking service Twitter, a 41-year-old man and a 35-year-old woman, who were arrested on 8 July for criticising the Venezuelan banking system. They are facing the possibility of 9 to 11 years in prison under a 2001 banking law on charges of “disseminating false rumours” to “destabilise the banking system.”
The judicial authorities have said that charges could be brought against 15 other Internet users in the next few days for similar reasons.
“After initiating proceedings against the news and opinion website Noticiero Digital for alleged disinformation, the authorities are now targeting ordinary Internet users whose only crime is to express views on Twitter,” Reporters Without Borders said. “These utterly disproportionate measures confirm that the government’s strategy is to gain control of the Internet, a space that until now had been spared its censorship.”
The press freedom organisation added: “The authorities are treating Twitter users like criminals and challenging the view of the Internet as a space where freedom should prevail. President Chávez nonetheless maintains his right to affirm his presence and his opinions on the Internet, above all on his blog and his Twitter account.”
Luis Acosta Oxford (@leaoxford) posted the following message on his Twitter account on 30 June: “Ladies and Gentlemen, don’t say you weren’t warned... Pull out today... I’m telling you, there are just a few days left.”
The police seized the mobile phone from which the Tweet was allegedly sent, together with two external disk drives and USB flash drives belonging to the two suspects. They live in the southeastern state of Bolívar, 580 km from Caracas, and their Twitter accounts do not seem to have had a great deal of impact on Venezuelan Internet users.
More than 10 banks have been closed or placed under government control since November 2009. The investigations into the spreading of rumours and false information about the banking system began in March 2010, when the police began noticing a lot of online comments warning of an imminent “financial crash.”
The head of the Department of Forensic and Criminal Investigations said that investigators were initially trying to establish whether the two detainees and the 15 other suspects were in contact with a particular organisation that was trying to bring about a banking crash.
Former Vice-President José Vicente Rangel yesterday accused some Twitter users in Venezuela of spending all their time spreading rumours. Speaking on television on 13 March, President Chávez said: “The Internet cannot be a completely free space where anything is said and anything is done. No, each country must impose its own rules.”
A proposed organic law on telecommunications, information technology and postal services that has been submitted to parliament provides for the blocking of websites and the creation of a single point of entry for all Internet traffic, which would facilitate control and surveillance.