Image: Global Revolution/Twitter
It's a familiar narrative at this point: governments facing mass protests tighten their grip on state-run media outlets and internet providers to keep a lid on incriminating information they'd rather not have broadcast to the entire world.
In Venezuela right now, where protests over food security and the poor economy have snowballed over the past week and become violent riots that have left at least five dead, socialist President Nicolás Maduro’s government is ramping up censorship. Authorities reportedly shut off internet access to a major city and its surrounding area, according to reports collected by EFF last night.
Venezuela’s state-run ISP, CANTV, which controls the majority of the country's internet, cut off traffic to San Cristóbal, the capital city of the state of Tachira and one of the centers of the protests, wrote EFF. I spoke to Marianne Díaz, a lawyer and founder of the activist group Acceso Libre, who said the connection was down throughout the capital and most likely the entire state—a population of over a million.
"We know it was a government mandate because last night, President Maduro gave a speech (a mandatory broadcast in all radio and TV stations) where he (amongst many other things) threatened Tachira, saying he would 'go all in' and that we 'would be surprised' of what he would do, and then internet was cut and tanks went in," Díaz told me over email.
Throughout the last week the government has also restricted TV networks throughout the state, put out fraudulent newspapers promoting the state, and blocked parts of Twitter, Facebook, news sites, and websites of all sorts.
Venezuela has “a pretty tight control over the Internet compared to other countries," Bill Woodcock, an internet traffic expert, told the Washington Post. "Not as tight as Cuba, but probably tighter than anybody else.”
As the protests escalate—exacerbated by a spate of shootings and arrests by regime officials, most notably, Tuesday’s arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez—the government is increasingly exercising that control.
The state announced it will expand the "Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Fatherland" or CESPPA, a potentially unconstitutional government institution with the broad powers to monitor and censor any online communication it deems a national security threat. It's like the Venezuelan version of the NSA, if the NSA had the power to block the internet as well as spy on it.
"[CESPPA's] structure includes two new Directorates: the Directorate of Information and Technology Studies, which will be in charge of 'processing and analyzing information from the web'; and the Directorate for Social Research, intended to 'neutralize and defeat destabilization plans against the nation,'" EFF wrote. "Whatever that means," Díaz said. "They're there to monitor web content, and censor it as they see fit."
Unsurprisingly, the agency has already drawn the ire of press freedom activists. But to hear Maduro and his administration tell it, footage of the demonstrations constitutes a destabilizing threat; he accused the news media of inciting hatred and trying to overthrow the government, and called protesters "neo-fascists."
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets after opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez's arrest. Image: Imgur
State TV and radio have broadcast almost no coverage of the political unrest, and authorities shut down a Colombia-based channel, NTN24, after it reported the death of a student protester. This left opposition groups relying on social media for news updates and to share information, to which the government responded by blocking images on Twitter—specifically, the image server website twimg.com and file-sharing site Pastebin. (Hacktivists then retaliated by attacking various Venezuelan government websites.) According to reports collected by Global Voices, police were also seizing demonstrators' cell phones. The government says it's specifically targeting "violent content."
"However, the controls on the Internet are still dubious," Díaz explained. "A lot of people think that, for instance, the government is purposely slowing down connections in order to disallow video streaming and pictures. Being that the protests aren't being transmitted on TV (there's a prohibition of sorts on that content), people are resorting to videostreaming the protests and the subsequent repression. A particular streaming, days ago, reached at some point 100,000 simultaneous viewers."
It's not the first time web censorship has been used to quell social unrest, and surely won't be the last. But the irony is, the strategy doesn't work very well. As I wrote last year when the president of Sudan abruptly cut the country off from the World Wide Web, it tends to make mobs even more angry, hurt the economy, and demonstrators will always find a way to circumvent the censorship anyway.
In Venezuela’s case, the media crackdown is arguably bringing even more international attention to the unrest. As Foreign Policy pointed out today, trying to block information is a terrible PR tact. It has a tendency to attract the attention of foreign press that might otherwise ignore the protests, and provoke sympathy for the opposition. There's a case to make that the more Maduro tries to hide what's going on, the more the world will conclude that there's something to hide.