Online penetration in Venezuela has increased in recent years, with 40 percent of its population online, according to the International Telecommunication Union. A significant amount of activity takes place on Twitter, where Venezuela has the highest penetration in the region after Uruguay, according to local research company Tendencias Digitales. President Hugo Chávez Frías, who has more than three million followers on Twitter, uses the platform regularly to convey official news–as he did on Tuesday when a raging fire at an oil refinery was extinguished, leaving 48 people dead, according to a report on EFE.
In June, a 19-year-old who happened to become Chávez’s three millionth follower was rewarded with a new home. The Bolivarian leader has reportedly hired a staff of 200 to handle his burgeoning account–second only to United States President Barack Obama among world leaders. It’s no wonder, then, that Venezuelan politics have heated up on social media, with both Chávez and his opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, waging a serious digital campaign in the lead-up to the country’s October 7 presidential elections.
Venezuelans have increasingly taken to the Internet to pass on information that the government seeks to obscure, such as power outages and oil spills, CPJ found in a newly released special report. It is no surprise, then, that abuses of press freedom in the country–perpetuated by a government that has imposed restrictive legislation, public harassment of critical journalists, and a vast state media empire–have now extended to include online attacks. The result: censorship on issues that affect the daily lives of Venezuelans, including rampant violence, water contamination, and an ongoing prison crisis that recently left 25 dead in a riot.
As the presidential contenders wage an electoral battle online, the accounts of critical journalists are being hacked and used to promote pro-government messages. A group that calls itself N33, which claims it was formed to wage cyber-attacks against Chávez’s critics, has taken credit for some of the online targeting of journalists. At least 30 online attacks against journalists occurred in 2011, and although hacking is illegal in the country, CPJ research shows there have been no convictions.
This trend of aggression and intimidation on one of the last platforms considered free and accessible opens a new front of vulnerability for the press and for Venezuelan citizens. Regardless of who emerges the victor of these elections, reversing a decade of media repression and fostering an open and tolerant environment will be the key challenge for the administration.