Censorship in Venezuela

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Censorship in Venezuela refers to all actions which can be considered as suppression in speech in the country. Reporters Without Borders ranked Venezuela 137th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index 2015[1] and classified Venezuela's freedom of information in the "difficult situation" level.[2]

The Constitution of Venezuela says that freedom of expression and press freedom are protected. Article 57 states that "Everyone has the right to freely express his or her thoughts, ideas or opinions orally, in writing or by any other form of expression, and to use for such purpose any means of communication and diffusion, and no censorship shall be established." It also states that "Censorship restricting the ability of public officials to report on matters for which they are responsible is prohibited." According to Article 58, "Everyone has the right to timely, truthful and impartial information, without censorship..."[3]

Human Rights Watch said that during "the leadership of President Chávez and now President Maduro, the accumulation of power in the executive branch and the erosion of human rights guarantees have enabled the government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute its critics" and reported that broadcasters may be censored if they criticize the government.[4][5]

Reporters Without Borders said that the media in Venezuela is "almost entirely dominated by the government and its obligatory announcements, called cadenas.[6]

In 1998, independent television represented 88% of the 24 national television channels while the other 12% of channels were controlled by the Venezuelan government. By 2014, there were 105 national television channels with only 48 channels, or 46%, representing independent media while the Venezuelan government and the "communitarian channels" it funded accounted for 54% of channels, or the 57 remaining channels.[7] Freedom House has also stated that there is "systematic self-censorship" encouraged toward the remaining private media due to pressure by the Venezuelan government.[8]

Resource drains and media buyouts[edit]

Both President Chávez and President Maduro would pressure media organizations until they failed by preventing them from acquiring necessary resources. The Venezuelan government would manipulate foreign exchange rates for media organizations so that they could no longer import their resources or fine them heavily. The government would then use a front company to give the troubled organization a "generous" offer to purchase the company. Following the buyout, the front company would promise that the staff would not change but would slowly release them and change their coverage to be in favor of the Venezuelan government.[9]

Soon after Nicolas Maduro became President of Venezuela, El Universal, Globovisión and Últimas Noticias, three of some of the largest Venezuelan media organizations, were sold to owners that were sympathetic to the Venezuelan government.[10][11][12][13] Shortly after, employees of the affected media organizations began to resign, some supposedly due to censorship enforced by the new owners of the organizations.[14][15]

Following nearly 83 years of printing newspapers to the Venezuelan public, on 17 March 2016, the newspaper released its final edition of its physical newspaper, discontinuing the use of printed material. On its final front page editorial, El Carabobeño explained that the government agency that has the responsibility of distributing newsprint had not attempted to sell the necessary resources to the newspaper.[16]

Television censorship[edit]

In 2008, Reporters Without Borders reported that following "years of 'media war,' Hugo Chavez and his government took control of almost the entire broadcast sector".[17]

During the 2014 Venezuelan protests, Colombian news channel NTN24 was taken off the air by CONATEL (the Venezuelan government agency appointed for the regulation, supervision and control over telecommunications) for "promoting violence".[18] President Maduro then denounced the Agence France-Presse (AFP) for manipulating information about the protests.[19][20] After an opposition Twitter campaign asked participants of the Oscar ceremony to speak out in support of them, for the first time in decades, private television channel Venevisión did not show The Oscars, where Jared Leto showed solidarity with the opposition "dreamers" when he won his award.[21]

When a TV series portraying Hugo Chávez titled El Comandante was to be aired for the first time, the Bolivarian government censored the episode with President Maduro saying that El Comandante was "a series to try to disfigure a true leader and a Latin American and world hero", while the National Commission of Telecommunications tweeted to Venezuelans that they should inform the commission "if any cable operator insults the legacy of Hugo Chavez transmitting the series ‘El Comandante,’ ... #NobodySpeaksIllOfChavezHere".[22]

Internet censorship[edit]

In a country where all government branches act in compliance with the interests of the ruling party, ensuring a hegemonic media landscape, the Venezuelan people widely use the internet to participate in forums that allow independent expression, particularly social networks. As a result of the government’s ongoing siege against private media—which includes the takeover of newspapers by progovernment owners—traditional media outlets have ventured into the digital arena. Due to the comparatively low barriers to entry, new businesses have appeared in this environment as well. It is in this atmosphere that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and similar platforms have become the final refuge for independent voices and freedom of expression.

Freedom House [23]

In the Freedom on the Net 2014 report by Freedom House, Venezuela's internet was ranked as "partly free", with the report stating that social media, apps, political and social content had been blocked, while also noting that bloggers and Internet users had been arrested.[23] In 2014, Reporters Without Borders originally stated that Venezuela did not fit the categories of either "surveillance", "censorship", "imprisonment" or "disinformation"[24] but later warned of "rising censorship in Venezuela's Internet service, including several websites and social networks facing shutdowns". They condemned actions performed by the National Commission of Telecommunications (Conatel) after Conatel restricted access to websites with the unofficial market rate and "demanded social networks, particularly Twitter, to filter images related to protests taking place in Venezuela against the government".[25] The Venezuelan government published a statement replying to censorship allegations on Twitter and with images on Twitter, implying that it was a technical problem.[26]

Previous research conducted in 2011 by the OpenNet Initiative report said that Internet censorship in Venezuela was "non-existent"[27] In 2012, OpenNet Initiative found no evidence of Internet filtering in the political, social, conflict/security, and Internet tools areas.[27][28] Recently, OpenNet Initiative stated that actions by the Venezuelan government suggests that the government promotes self-censorship, information control and that changes in Venezuelan law may target websites in government information control efforts.[29]

In May 2015, Juan Carlos Alemán, a Venezuelan official speaking on television, announced that the Venezuelan government was in the process of removing the use of servers from Google and Mozilla and using Venezuelan satellites in order to have more control over the internet of Venezuelans.[30]

Currency exchange websites[edit]

It is disallowed for websites to publish the black market currency exchange rate,[31] as the government claims that this contributes to severe economic problems the country is currently reported to be facing.

In 2013, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro banned several internet websites, including DolarToday, to prevent its citizens accessing the country's exchange rates. Maduro, however, accused DolarToday of fueling an economic war against his government and manipulating the exchange rate.[32]

Law[edit]

In December 2010, the government of Venezuela approved a law named "Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media" (Ley de Responsabilidad Social en Radio, Televisión y Medios Electrónicos). The law is intended to exercise control over content that could "entice felonies", "create social distress", or "question the legitimate constituted authority". The law indicates that the website's owners will be responsible for any information and contents published, and that they will have to create mechanisms that could restrict without delay the distribution of content that could go against the aforementioned restrictions. The fines for individuals who break the law will be of the 10% of the person's last year's income.[citation needed] The law was received with criticism from the opposition on the grounds that it is a violation of freedom of speech protections stipulated in the Venezuelan constitution, and that it encourages censorship and self-censorship.[33]

In November 2013 the Venezuelan telecommunications regulator, CONATEL, began ordering ISPs to block websites that provide the black market exchange rate. ISPs must comply within 24 hours or face sanctions, which could include the loss of their concessions. Within a month ISPs had restricted access to more than 100 URLs. The order is based on Venezuela's 2004 media law which makes it illegal to disseminate information that could sow panic among the general public.[31]

According to Spanish newspaper El País, National Telecommunications Commission of Venezuela (Conatel) verifies that ISPs do not allow their subscribers to access content which is "an aggression to the Venezuelan people" and "causes unstabilization", in their criteria[dubious ]. El País also warns that Conatel could force ISPs to block web sites in opposition to the government's interests.[dubious ][34] It was also reported by El País that there will be possible automations of DirecTV, CANTV, Movistar and possible regulation of YouTube and Twitter.[34]

2014 Venezuelan protests[edit]

During the 2014 Venezuelan protests, it was reported that Internet access was unavailable in San Cristóbal, Táchira for up to about half a million citizens. Multiple sources claimed that the Venezuelan government blocked Internet access.[35][36][37][38][39] Internet access was reported to be available again one day and a half later.[40]

Twitter[edit]

A communication from General Director of CONATEL, William Castillo Bolle, giving the IP addresses and other information of Venezuelan Twitter users to SEBIN General Commissioner Gustavo González López.

Also during the 2014 Venezuelan protests, images on Twitter were reported to be unavailable for at least some users in Venezuela for 3 days (12–15 February), with claims that the Venezuelan government blocked them, indicating that it appeared to be an attempt to limit images of protests against shortages and the world's highest inflation rate.[41][42] Twitter spokesman Nu Wexler stated that, "I can confirm that Twitter images are now blocked in Venezuela" adding that "[w]e believe it's the government that is blocking".[43][44] However, the Venezuelan government published a statement saying that they did not block Twitter or images on Twitter, and implied that it was a technical problem.[26]

In 2014, multiple Twitter users were arrested and faced prosecution due to the tweets they made.[45] Alfredo Romero, executive director of the Venezuelan Penal Forum (FPV), stated that the arrests of Twitter users in Venezuela was a measure to instill fear among those using social media that were critical against the government.[45] In October 2014, eight Venezuelans were arrested shortly after the death of PSUV official Robert Serra.[46] Though the eight Venezuelans were arrest in October 2014, the Venezuelan government had been monitoring them since June 2014 in leaked documents with the state telecommunications agency, Conatel, providing IP addresses and other details to the Venezuelan intelligence agency SEBIN in order to arrest Twitter users.[46]

Zello[edit]

The company Zello announced that CANTV blocked the use of its walkie-talkie app which is used by the opposition.[47] In an interview with La Patilla, Chief Technology Officer of Zello, Alexey Gavrilov, said that after they opened four new servers for Venezuela, it still appeared that the same direct blocking from CANTV is the cause of the Zello outage.[48] The government said Zello was blocked due to "terrorist acts" and made statements on TeleSUR about radical opposition after monitoring staged messages from "Internet trolls" that used a Honeypot trap against authorities.[49]

Legal barriers[edit]

Law on Social Responsibility of Radio and Television[edit]

The Law on Social Responsibility of Radio and Television (Ley de Responsabilidad de Radio y Televisión in Spanish) entered into force in December 2004. Its stated aim is to "strike a democratic balance between duties, rights, and interests, in order to promote social justice and further the development of the citizenry, democracy, peace, human rights, education, culture, public health, and the nation's social and economic development."

Supporters of the law and detractors have debated its significance in terms of freedom of expression and journalism in the country. Some complained about the fact that it limits violent and sexual content on television and radio during daytime hours in order to protect children. For example, Human Rights Watch argued that these limits are not fair for broadcasters, "making it necessary for them to present a sanitized version of the news during the day".[50] It also suggested that "insult laws" in articles 115, 121 and 125 of the bill could result in political censorship.

Broadcast licences[edit]

In May 2007, controversies on press freedom were further exacerbated when RCTV (Radio Caracas Television)'s terrestrial broadcast licence expired, with the government declining to renew it. An article by Reporters Without Borders stated that:

"Reporters Without Borders condemns the decision of the Venezuela Supreme Court to rule an appeal by Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) against the loss of its license as "inadmissible". The appeal, lodged on 9 February 2007, was rejected on 18 May, putting a stop to any further debate. President Hugo Chávez said on 28 December 2006 that he would oppose renewal of the group's broadcast license, accusing the channel of having supported the 11 April 2002 coup attempt in which he was briefly removed from office. According to the government the license expired on 27 May 2007, a date contested by RCTV, which insists its license is valid until 2022. Without waiting for the 27 May or the Supreme Court's decision, Hugo Chávez on 11 May awarded RCTV's channel 2 frequency by decree to a new public service channel, Televisora Venezolana Social (TVes)".[51]

This government action fueled student demonstrations and contentious forms of political demonstrations.

After the closure of the TV station on 2007, the station launched a new channel named RCTV International that was broadcast on cable/satellite TV. Following its move to cable, RCTV relaunched itself as RCTV International, in an attempt to escape the regulation of the Venezuelan media law. In mid-2009 the National Commission of Telecommunications (CONATEL) Venezuelan state media regulator, declared that cable broadcasters would be subject to the new media law if 70% or more of their content and operations were domestic.[52] In January 2010 CONATEL concluded that RCTV met that criterion (being more than 90% domestic according to CONATEL), and reclassified it as a domestic media source, and therefore subject to the requirements to broadcast state announcements, known as cadenas. Along with several other cable providers, RCTV refused to do so and was sanctioned with temporary closure. It reopened on cable, which is widely available in Venezuela. Other sanctioned channels include the American Network, America TV and TV Chile. TV Chile, an international channel of Chilean state television, had failed to respond to a January 14 deadline for clarifying the nature of its content.[53] Cable network providers have been encouraged by the Venezuelan government to remove those channels that are found to be in violation of existing media regulations.[54]

Case studies[edit]

Ángel Sarmiento[edit]

Dr Ángel Sarmiento is President of the State Bar Association of Medical Doctors in Aragua. Besides being a doctor, he is often in the political spotlight because he is a strong advocacy of democracy.[55] In September 2014, the prestigious doctor went on the radio and pronounced eight people dead of the same unknown disease in a hospital in Maracay. All of the deceased patients exhibited the same symptoms which include, fever, respiratory problems, and a rash. Soon after his public statement he was denounced and discredited by public officials.[56] Immediately the governor of Aragua, Tarek El Aissami accused the doctor of launching a terrorist campaign fueled by anxiety. Not much longer after that President Maduro himself publicly condemned the doctor for waging biological and psychological warfare on Venezuela.[57] Both government authorities then asked prosecutors to open an investigation against Sarmiento on grounds of terrorism and for being a "spokesman of the fascist opposition".[56] The Attorney General then appointed a prosecutor for the case with the support of the National Assembly. The official statement from the government on the issue was that this was that they would condemn "media terrorism by right-wing factors of the health sector" and that "psychological terrorism would be severely punished." [58] Two days following his defamation, Dr. Angel Sarmiento fled the country and has not returned since.

Context[edit]

"Sarmiento’s statements were made at a time when Venezuela was facing a high number of cases of mosquito-transmitted diseases."[59] Amongst other shortages, medical shortages were debilitating hospitals across the country and the government was unable to provide sufficient medical attention for many patients.[60] There are depleted resources such as medical instruments, drugs, and a lack of basic hospital amenities such as sheets.[61] When Doctor Sarmiento declared the reason of death unknown for the eight deceased in the Maracay Hospital, he simultaneously drew more attention to these problems.[62] Eleven days after the outbreak, doctors were finally able to compile enough resources to discover the cause of death.[63] The death was eventually attributed to chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus that has treatable symptoms. Some officials who were investigating the deaths reported that the fatal incident was an unidentified hemorrhagic fever. However, after analyzing samples in nongovernmental labs report that there is little doubt that it is chikungunya.[64]

Social media[edit]

Social media outlets are important to democracy. They encourage dialogue about candidates and issues, prompting more people to be involved, eventually leading to a better voter turnout.[65] In recent years there has been little to no published information regarding parliamentary affairs. This includes the legislative agenda, appropriations, records of representatives’ votes, and session scripts. Aside from that, the government has classified documents and legislative records that bar anyone inquiring from seeing the actual groundwork of the assembly.[66] The administration under President Maduro has recently said that it is important for the government to keep such things classified to protect children.[67] Private and community media outlets have been barred from hosting press conferences and covering assembly activities. There is no coverage of the representative accomplishments, actions taken, or any form of news to validate their words.[68] Instead of encouraging a diverse landscape of opinion and opposition, anything published that is not aligned with government ideals is denounced and discredited, so politicians rely on social media.[69] Citizens, government officials, and media sources alike are all practicing self-censorship in fear of prosecution and ridiculous accusations. Before a tweet has been sent, the politician sending it has politically charged motivations and has to consider the ramifications if he publishes anything dissenting with the government.[70] Otherwise he could face the same fate as Sarmiento. On December 6, 2015, Venezuelans had elections for the National Assembly. For the first time in many years the opposition took majority. The new opposition majority has promised to restore transparency to the government and to limit President Maduro's ability to exercise his extensive powers.[71]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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External links[edit]