Chavismo has used two laws plus sophisticated censorship to silence and strangle the independent Venezuelan press.
By Vladimir Vásquez (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – In July 2019, Venezuelan journalist Wilmer Quintana Garcia was arrested in the Guarico State of north-central Venezuela. He was accused of “promoting and inciting hate”. His crime: posting on his Twitter and Facebook accounts a denunciation of alleged corruption. His denunciation accused the office of Guarico governor Jose Manuel Vasquez of corrupt management of basic services. Governor Vasquez is an accountant and volleyball star who entered public life in 2004 and assumed the state office in 2017.
In May 2018, fourteen months before Wilmer Quintana was detained, Twitter user Pedro James Criollo was arrested. His offense: posting on social media the route of Nicolas Maduro’s presidential airplane. The information was already public, and Jaimes got it from the online page Flightradar.com. This page displays airline routes all over the world, including the official flight paths for presidents and armies.
To accuse Quintana and Jaimes, the Venezuelan regime used the “Constitutional Law against Hate and for Peaceful Coexistence and Tolerance.” The law is commonly known as the “Law Against Hate.” Passed in November 2017, it establishes sentences of up to 20 years in jail for whoever incites hate, discrimination or violence. It also legalizes the blocking of websites that are judged “inadequate”.
The Venezuelan law has been compared with the new Nicaraguan “Gag law” approved on October 27th. Like the Nicaraguan law, the Venezuelan version has been criticized for the discretional way it can be applied. In fact, the Maduro government has applied it to cover up criticism or squelch posts that aren’t to their liking.
No opposition on television
In Venezuela, the current law had a predecessor. The 2004 “Law for Social Responsibility in Radio and Television” commonly known by its acronym: “Resorte”. Deceased former president Hugo Chavez used the law to force all the owners of media outlets to broadcast his speeches. He also used it to prevent them from transmitting news or information during prime-time hours. Their content was relegated to the hours of 11 pm – 5 am, the same hours reserved for violent or sexually explicit contents.
The “Resort Law” ran counter to the editorial stances and contents of the media outlets, as well as their business plans. They were obligated to transmit the government broadcasts. A number of ads were also relegated to the hours when the audiences were smallest.
Lisseth Boon, is a journalist with the digital site “Runrun”. She states that the law allowed the Venezuelan authorities to decide arbitrarily what content could affect children and adolescents. This was the justification used for determining what live events could be covered on television. For example, the protests against Chavez could not be shown.
“The thoughts of the opposition, or of Assembly president and designated interim president Juan Guaido have never once appeared on Venezuelan television. Never! The last opposition leader to appear on television was Henrique Capriles, a presidential candidate in 2013,” Boon commented.
From 2013 on, the official discourse has been mandatory on all Venezuela’s television screens. The opposition has been relegated to the internet, to which only 50% of Venezuelans have access.
Blocked sites and internet outages
The “Resort law” was amended in 2016 to include internet control. As a result, all the digital platforms created to escape the censorship of the traditional media were now under official control. Journalists on the different sites began to censor themselves to avoid legal consequences.
In 2017, Maduro and his cohorts decided to raise the ante. They approved the “Law against Hate”. Boon sees this as “open censorship”, since it’s utilized to justify arbitrary detention and total blackout of webpages. It has also been used at times to justify cutting off the country’s internet completely.
The Institute for Press and Society (IPYS) conducted a study of such censorship in Venezuela between January and April of 2020. They demonstrated the paths used for directly limiting certain internet media sites. The government implemented blackouts of the DNS system, as well as through the HTTP and the IP.
According to the data, of 223 tests made, the VIVOplay Roku television channel registered the greatest number of blockages. They suffered 104 DNS blockages and 76 blockages through HTTP. There was also one on the modality of TCP/IP for a total of 181. In second place for the most jamming was VPity which is a YouTube television news channel. This registered a total of 180 blockages. Finally, NTN24 was blocked 177 times, according to the document.
A long list of other digital media outlets were also jammed. These include: “Caraota Digital (154), Punto de Corte (143), Armando.Info (111), La Patilla (100), Noticia al día (91), Albertonews (90), Efecto Cocuyo (60), Aporrea (59), La Mañana (58), Globovisión (42), El Pitazo (34), Tane Tanae (30), Correo del Orinoco (26), El Nacional (26), La Prensa de Lara (25), Correo del Caroní (25), El Universal (24), VTV (24) y 2001 (18).
Armando Info investigation
“Armando Info”, dedicated to investigative journalism, was the third most frequently blocked regular media outlet during the period evaluated. Exiled Venezuelan journalist Joseph Poliszu is the founder and co-editor of the site. He told Confidencial that they’ve had to change their domain four times in order to defeat the censorship. That is, they’ve had to keep changing their web name.
“The 2004 ‘Resort Law’ seemed to us the worst thing that could happen,” Poliszuk recalls. However, after the “Law against Hate” was passed, half of the Armando Info had to go into exile in Bogota, Colombia.
The journalist accuses the Maduro regime of applying a “sophisticated censorship”. This involves limiting access to certain web pages in certain zones of Venezuela but not in others. That way “the censorship can’t be demonstrated.”
International media hasn’t escaped these limitations either. CNN, for example, is the channel that has suffered the most complete censorship. Since 2017, they’ve been unable to transmit at all in the South American country.
Marianela Balbi, director of the Venezuelan Institute for Press and Society, notes that the Chavistas have written these laws using “vague, devious and generalized” language. As a result, they can be applied with great leeway, any way the regime feels convenient.
The effect on Covid-19 reporting
Included in this informational censorship, is the increase in COVID-19 cases in Venezuela. The regime has done everything possible to avoid informing about the pandemic’s advance.
“On March 13, the Venezuelan State issued its decree of alarm due to the public health emergency. Since that time, they’ve increased the restrictions on internet access. Internet services are precarious, and there are daily blackouts in all the regions. There are also site blockages and attacks on the digital platforms of the communications media and on the press. During this period, there’ve been 39 cases where digital rights were limited. These include 17 blockages, 6 attacks on the platforms of the digital media, 14 restrictions and two cases of limiting privacy,” Balbi specifies.
Journalism remains alive
Gisela Rodriguez is a journalist with the digital media site El Pitazo. She notes that her site has also been blocked by the Venezuelan regime on a number of occasions. She also affirms that not only the media has been subjected to censorship, but also doctors, citizens and labor leaders. Such citizens have been detained for “posting on their WhatsApp status some complaint or information about the state company where they work.”
“There are independent media where we journalists continue doing our work. With difficulty, often with fear, but we continue publishing our information. Sometimes you have to use more foresight and see if something could be classed as inciting hatred. We in the digital media haven’t stopped posting information. But we take care of ourselves,” Rodriguez affirms.
Despite the restrictions and persecution from the Maduro government, citizens haven’t stopped posting criticisms of the regime. Still, the regime makes use of all possible tools to monitor, threaten and persecute.
Boon said journalists are carrying out a rigorous labor to deal with the regime’s persecution that tries to silence investigation. But it’s not an easy job. “One of the challenges we have is the sustainability of the digital media. This problem has sharpened with the pandemic,” states Boon. She wonders aloud: “What’s the best business plan to follow in a country that’s economically broken?”