Polarization between pro-government and opposition media has peaked again after many months of dormancy since the elections of April, 2013. The situation has taken a turn for the worse as the government of Nicolás Maduro has intensified a crackdown on media access in parts of Venezuela. The government has censored images on Twitter and cut off mobile internet service in a bid to mute dissent to the government. These actions by the government are not new but have increased fears of further measures to thwart protest. This has spurred savvy Venezuelans to work around the internet blocks and outages. One such means has them turning to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to skirt government censorship. Twitter has also been tweeting workarounds for Venezuelans to use SMS messaging to receive tweets on their cell phones without the internet. But cell phone service has also been targeted for shutdown by the government.
As battles on the streets between protestors and security forces continue, fresh information indicates the government is widening its campaign to throttle social media and the internet. An example is in San Cristobal, the capital city of the western border state of Tachira. It has been the scene of many protests. Internet service has finally been restored after a 30 hour long blackout. The outage also affected smartphone connectivity. Not immune to the blackout was the popular push-to-talk, ’walkie-talkie’ apps for smartphones and computers. These heretofore had been widely used in Venezuela and elsewhere. This has been confirmed by Zello, a US push-to-talk app company. It said that Venezuela’s telecom Company, CANTV (state- run), blocked access to its app this week.
Such government interference is not new to Venezuela. According to Open Internet Initiative (ONI),
Fears in Venezuela have been heightened regarding expanded government regulation and content restriction. This is as a result of the re-nationalization plans for Venezuelan telecom company, CANTV, announced in January of 2007.CANTV has held as much as 83 per cent of the Internet market since the market’s privatization. Any changes in filtering through a nationalized CANTV will have a strong impact on Internet users.
CANTV, as stated handles nearly 90 per cent of Venezuela’s internet traffic. Zello reports that it has seen more than 150,000 downloads a day during the protests this week in Venezuela. As an aside, Zello has also been the top app in the Ukraine- another country which has been the scene of demonstrations and violent protests. No wonder their push-to-talk app was targeted for blackout.
The government is aware of the enormous impact of electronic devices and the potentially devastating affect they can play in organized anti-government protests. For, according to recent Pew reports, Venezuela has a high degree of connectivity. At least compared to its Latin American neighbors. Pew points out that 83 per cent of Venezuelans have internet access using social media. Similarly 83 per cent own a cell phone and nearly a third report using a smartphone. Hence the governments targeted attempts to blunt criticism of it and its policies.
These government actions were anticipated a couple of months ago by Reporters Without Borders. They urged media freedom and pluralism in an open letter to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in February of this year. ’News and information…circulate in Venezuela, but in a polarized form. The end of government control of news and information is one of the leading demands of the protesters. We ask you to appreciate the importance of what your compatriots are asking of you.” The pleas thus far have fallen on deaf ears it would appear.
It should be noted that the new media is not the only form of electronic media to feel the government’s wrath. According to CNN, it was threatened with expulsion from the country by President Maduro. On television Maduro said, ’ enough war propaganda. I do not accept war propaganda against Venezuela. If they do not rectify things, get out of Venezuela, CNN. Get out”.
Indeed CNN International and CNN en Espanol had their press credentials revoked and they were asked to leave the country. Such is the state of affairs in Venezuela. Fortunately, the media is still able to monitor the situation there. And fortunately there are options such as VPNs to help the citizens keep abreast with developments in their own country.