One of the world’s biggest news stories on March 4 was the daring return to Venezuela of opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó, who faced possible arrest by the authoritarian regime of Nicolás Maduro. But most Venezuelans were unable to follow his homecoming.
The bulk of Venezuela’s TV and radio stations, which are controlled by the government, ignored Guaidó. Meanwhile, the London-based digital rights group Netblocks reported that Venezuela’s dominant state-run internet service provider (ISP) had temporarily blocked Twitter, streaming portals including YouTube and Soundcloud, and numerous websites that are among the only sources of independent news.
As a result, news coverage of Guaidó’s arrival at the international airport, his climbing atop a vehicle to greet supporters lining the highway, and his fiery speech in a Caracas plaza were largely blacked out.
“It was very precise,” Andrés Azpúrua, director of Venezuela Inteligente, a local watchdog group that monitors internet censorship, told CPJ. “You would see Guaidó starting to speak and then websites would be blocked almost immediately.”
Although the Venezuelan government has sporadically interfered with the web since 2007, internet activists say that online censorship has increased dramatically since January, when Guaidó swore himself in and was recognized as the country’s legitimate president by the U.S. and about 50 other countries.
News websites and internet users often figure out techniques to evade government-imposed firewalls. Still, analysts told CPJ that censorship combined with poor infrastructure–including frequent blackouts and one of the slowest internet speeds on the continent–mean that it’s getting harder for journalists to do their jobs and for Venezuelans to stay informed. Another problem amid the economic meltdown and the collapse of the currency is cost. Although fixed and mobile services may average a few U.S. dollars per month, the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela has shrunk to about U.S.$6, Azpúrua said.
The impact is a decline in the country’s internet usage via fixed line and mobile devices, a 2018 Freedom House study found.
All this strengthens the Maduro regime, according to Iria Puyosa, an independent Venezuelan internet access consultant. Maduro makes heavy use of state-run TV and radio, but Puyosa said that opposition leaders rely almost solely on the internet to transmit news and information about upcoming demonstrations and activities.
“The government thrives on disconnection because it makes it harder for the opposition to mobilize people,” Puyosa told CPJ.
In a report this month, the Caracas-based Institute for Press and Society (IPYS) said that so far this year, 25 websites have been blocked during events of public interest, such as last month’s Venezuela aid concert on the Colombian side of the border and efforts by opposition leaders to move humanitarian supplies into the country.
Blocked domains included widely read independent news websites such as Efecto Cocuyo, El Pitazo, and Caraota Digital, as well as YouTube and Instagram.
“Most websites with anything valuable to read get blocked,” Azpúrua said. “Live coverage of anything that is newsworthy is censored.”
The IPYS report said that Conatel, the state telecommunications regulator, ordered the blocks, which are then usually put in place by Cantv, a government-run ISP that controls 80 percent of the Venezuelan market. The report added that Conatel also ordered privately owned ISPs, such as Movistar, Digitel and Inter, to block websites and streaming services. Failure to comply could lead to heavy fines or the loss of operating licenses, Azpúrua said.
Luis Carlos Díaz, a Venezuelan journalist and internet activist who was briefly detained last week, told CPJ that the online blockages were arbitrary and often carried out at the behest of a government official rather than through the judicial process.
Cantv, Conatel and the government’s Communications Ministry did not respond to calls from CPJ seeking comment.
There have been other forms of state interference. Since January, the government has blocked the encrypted Tor network, which allows users to browse the web anonymously and evade censorship, Azpúrua said.
Due to attacks on its server in recent months, the investigative outlet Armando.Info has been repeatedly forced offline through digital denial of service (DDoS) attacks. The IPYS report said the attacks may have originated in Russia and that during a one-hour period on March 3, there were more than 9 million attempts to access Armando.Info. “This really hurts us,” Roberto Deniz, an Armando.Info editor, told CPJ. “It’s a big deal because it affects our traffic.”
All the while government trolls are sending out of bogus Twitter hashtags and fake online news to confuse people, Deniz added.
César Batiz, director of El Pitazo, said that his website has had to change its domain name three times due to Conatel-imposed blocks. Readers can still connect to the site but amid the confusion, daily page views have dropped from 70,000 to 25,000. The blockages “totally destroyed our analytics,” Batiz told CPJ.
But he and other journalists say they are adapting.
To reach a broader audience, El Pitazo, Armando.Info and other sites are sharing content. They use Twitter to redirect readers to alternative domains when their websites come under attack. They are condensing news, graphics, and video into smaller chunks that can be shared by WhatsApp groups, one of the most popular ways for Venezuelans to get news. In addition, news websites and press freedom groups, like Espacio Público, are advising readers on how to use VPNs (virtual private networks) and other tools to skirt online censorship
Díaz, the internet activist, said that one reason why he thinks the Maduro government hasn’t taken more drastic steps, like permanently blocking WhatsApp or Twitter, is because these services are popular among its own supporters.
But Puyosa predicts a broader internet crackdown should political and economic conditions worsen and the Maduro regime become more desperate. She said the dominance of Cantv, the state-run IPS, would facilitate broader censorship. “It would be scorched-earth tactics,” she said, “but the government could opt for a massive blockage.”
[Reporting from Bogotá]