People walk past an office building of Venezuela's national telecommunications company CANTV in Barinas, Venezuela on September 24, 2018. (Reuters/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez)

How Venezuela’s government uses private internet providers to restrict access to the news

After seven years of painstakingly building up its audience, Crónica Uno, one of the only high-quality news websites that caters to poor and working-class Venezuelans, was recording up to 15,000 unique page views per day. But after private internet service providers (ISPs) teamed up with Venezuela’s authoritarian government in February to block Crónica Uno and three other independent news websites, that figure plummeted to 5,000 overnight.

“This has had a huge impact,” said Carlos Correa, director of the Caracas-based press freedom group Espacio Público and editor of Crónica Uno. Internet blocks “can easily reduce your traffic by half.”

Since Venezuela began cracking down on independent media in 2007, most internet blockages have been conducted by CANTV, the state-run ISP that now provides two-thirds of residential connections. But journalists and internet experts told CPJ that President Nicolás Maduro’s government is increasingly forcing private ISPs, which dominate the mobile phone market, to carry out press censorship by blocking Venezuela’s few remaining independent news websites.

The flurry of blockages in February stood out because, along with CANTV, they were carried out by the country’s main private sector ISPs: Spanish-owned Movistar and locally owned Digitel, Inter, NetUno, and Supercable, according to Venezuela Sin Filtro, a watchdog project that monitors internet censorship. Besides Crónica Uno, these ISPs blocked the influential news websites Efecto Cocuyo and El Nacional, along with streaming station EVTV Miami.

During the regional elections last November, private ISPs blocked 35 independent news websites, prompting criticism from the U.S.-based Carter Center and the European Union, both of which sent teams to Venezuela to monitor the fairness of the electoral process.

“While government-aligned news websites…were constantly accessible during the campaign in every state and through any Internet provider, websites of independent online media…were very difficult or impossible to access in 16 of the 23 states,” the EU observers wrote in their post-election report.

Venezuelan news organizations have responded by setting up replicas of their original domains, known as mirror websites; distributing written and recorded-voice news dispatches on WhatsApp, Telegram, and other social media platforms; and urging their audiences to set up virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent the blocks.

Even with these measures, the blockages make it much harder for Venezuelans to stay informed and hurt the ability of news websites to build their brand and secure funding through advertising and donations, said César Batiz, editor of the Venezuelan independent news website El Pitazo.

He told CPJ that for the past five years El Pitazo has suffered on and off blockages from both CANTV and private ISPs. When the website was first blocked in 2017, El Pitazo’s traffic fell from 115,000 daily page views to 11,000. El Pitazo gradually recovered its audience thanks, in part, to the growing number of Venezuelans living abroad.

Batiz accuses private ISPs of doing the government’s dirty work and says they should be forced to pay damages to affected websites. He and other journalists are especially disappointed in Spain’s Movistar, the only international ISP in Venezuela. They say that Movistar, which dominates the market for mobile phone service, has more resources than Venezuelan companies and therefore more room to maneuver and resist government pressure.

“What I can’t understand is how a company with corporate governance and an ethics code that operates under the European Union principles of free expression is doing what it’s doing in Venezuela,” said Batiz, who in 2019 led a protest at Movistar’s Caracas headquarters.

Luz Mely Reyes, the top editor of Efecto Cocuyo, which is scrambling to recover readers after Movistar and other ISPs blocked the website in February, added: “Movistar should not serve as a tool for a government that doesn’t respect democratic norms.”

CPJs calls to the Caracas offices of Movistar, Digitel, Inter, NetUno, and Supercable were not answered. CPJ emailed the press department of Telefónica, Movistar’s Madrid-based parent company, but received no response. Pedro Marín, president of the Chamber of Telecommunication Service Companies, an industry group that represents Venezuelan ISPs, told CPJ via a spokesperson that he was too busy to talk.

Luis Carlos Díaz, president of the Venezuelan chapter of Internet Society, a global advocacy group that promotes unrestricted access to the internet, said it would be a mistake to come down too hard on private ISPs. He told CPJ that, like the news websites they block, these companies are also victims of government repression.

Rather than a formal judicial process, Díaz said private ISPs receive orders from the National Telecommunications Commission, known as CONATEL, to block websites. He described these orders as arbitrary administrative decisions with no legal recourse and noted that ISPs could face stiff fines, expropriation, or worse for ignoring them.

Over the past two decades, Venezuelan authorities have forced dozens of independent radio and TV stations off the air for criticizing the government, Díaz said. Last year, government officials seized the assets, including the printing press, of the independent newspaper El Nacional. In 2020, AT&T’s DIRECTV pulled out of Venezuela after it was ordered to carry two pro-government TV stations as part of its service and three of its sales executives were jailed for two months on charges of fraud and trying to destabilize the economy.

Private ISPs, Díaz said, “have a gun to their heads.”

CONATEL did not respond to CPJ’s phone calls and an email seeking comment. One industry insider, who was not authorized to talk to CPJ about censorship and therefore requested anonymity, said CONATEL nearly always relays its blockage orders to private ISPs over the phone to avoid leaving a written record.

“The companies want people to have access to all internet websites but if they receive a government order, they have to follow it,” the source said.

In 2019, El Pitazo gained access to an email in which CONATEL ordered the blocking of its domain. The Carter Center report on the November elections stated: “CONATEL has issued directives to black out and censor digital media.”

The only time the Venezuelan government has publicly acknowledged internet censorship came during a 2015 meeting with the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. William Castillo, who was then director of CONATEL, said that it had ordered the blockage of 1,060 web pages, including news websites, to “protect society.”

Andrés Azpúrua, coordinator of Venezuela Sin Filtro, told CPJ that private ISPs should be more transparent about why they are blocking websites, like the way Google notes when material is removed from its YouTube platform for copyright infringement. Instead, he said many Venezuelans remain in the dark about censorship, blaming the country’s notoriously slow internet speeds for their inability to access the news.

Díaz, of Internet Society, says the U.S. and other governments should consider sanctioning CONATEL officials, as he and other experts point out that there’s only so much private ISPs, which have struggled to survive amid Venezuela’s ongoing economic crisis, can do by themselves. If private ISPs take a bold public stand for free expression by defying government orders, they say, it almost certainly guarantees their shutdown – and less internet access for Venezuelans.

In the words of Azpúrua: “It’s better to have a censored internet than nothing at all.”