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Venezuela: Concerns About Controls on the Internet

Debate is heating up in Venezuela after a series of decrees and statements from President Hugo Chávez, who questioned how the Internet is being used in the country. Many are interpreting these statements and policy proposals by the Assembly that there is the desire by the government to control the Internet in Venezuela.

After almost a year of discussion regarding the decree that questioned the Internet as a priority, these concerns are appearing once again online. Much of the government's concerns were demonstrated when a bit of news was falsely declared in the forums of the site Noticiero Digital, an online Venezuelan newspaper that Diosdado Cabello, the Minister of Public Works and Housing had died. The false information remained published for two days, and was picked up and republished on other blogs. It was two days until the site's administrators took the information down and made the correction.

This was one more example for the Chávez government to say that there should be some controls on what can be published online. He declared on television that the Internet should not be an open place where everyone can publish whatever they can, with no control whatsoever. He argued that every country should put its own norms and rules to avoid spreading false information and create uneasiness.

As usual, online movements are trying to figure out the future consequences and to clearly understand the intentions of the government, as well as the reactions of the people. As it has become a tradition in Venezuela's political dynamics, a great number of voices try to identify the problem and either clarify the real objectives or fight against them. For some, this is a misunderstanding caused by manipulation in media. For others, it is the approach of a dreaded shadow of repression already seen in Cuba and Iran, two of Venezuela's government's closest allies.

According to Reporters Without Borders [es], applying restrictions will not be a solution for false news over the web. They also argue that this is an excuse to control a space that the government has not been able to control before.

To respond to the legal maneuvers that have been taking place, the group Tod@s en Red [es](Everybody Online) created a document in which several points of discussion are suggested in order to underline the basic importance of the access to Internet. Their main goal is to circulate the document on the web and discuss it. They also suggest to spread the ideas through Twitter, Facebook, and also sign and comment on the site. Some of the points they underline are:

* Reivindicar la info-alfabetización como un derecho social, dado que el desarrollo de destrezas informáticas que le dan al ciudadano mayores posibilidades tanto para aprender autónomamente, como para colaborar en proyectos colaborativos o colectivos.

* Demandar los aportes del Estado y la contribución del sector privado para el desarrollo de infraestructura de red y ampliación del acceso a la conectividad para superar la brecha digital que aún persiste en Venezuela.

* Reconocer que Internet no es un lujo sino un recurso clave para el combate de la pobreza y el logro de los objetivos nacionales de desarrollo.

* To promote information literacy as a social right, since the development of skills in computers gives the citizen new possibilities to learn by him or herself and also to collaborate in group projects.

* To ask the State and the private sector to contribute to the development of infrastructure in order to amplify the access to technology and overcome the gap that is still existing in Venezuela.

* To recognize that Internet is not luxury, but a key tool to fight against poverty and to reach national objectives in development.

On the blog Webarticulista [es], Juan Páez Avila discusses:

(…no se puede) responsabilizar a la red de redes que se utiliza en el mundo civilizado no sólo para informar de lo que pueda interesarle a un forista bien o mal intencionado, sino para impulsar el desarrollo integral de las naciones. (…)

Y aunque el caso podría limitarse a la investigación del forista, porque la Constitución Nacional prohíbe el anonimato, lo grave del mismo es que el Comandante en Jefe adelantó opinión y solicitó que además de investigar al noticiero se piense en regular el funcionamiento de Internet en nuestro país, lo cual, según la experiencia conocida constituye una orden para que se proceda a censurar al medio o a provocar la autocensura.

It's impossible to hold the web responsible for this. It is a tool used not only to inform a good or bad intentioned forum participant, but also to favor the development of nations.

Even when the case could be limited to investigation around the forum participant that made the comment (since the Constitution forbids anonymity) what is alarming is that the President made a point and suggested not only an investigation, but also to think about regulating how the Internet works in our country. This, according to already known experiences is an order to censure an specific media or cause self-censorship.

From the other side, Pascual Serrano discusses the real implications [es] of the President's speech.

En realidad el presidente venezolano denunciaba informaciones falsas (…). Chávez afirmó que los medios “no pueden ser libres para decir lo que te de la gana, hay que cumplir las leyes y la Constitución”, y pidió que la fiscalía actúe contra los medios que difundan falsedades en internet, tal y como sucede en países como Estados Unidos, España o Colombia.

La corresponsal de El País en Caracas, Mayte Rico, tituló “Chávez dice que Internet ‘no puede ser libre’”, en un claro ejemplo de manipulación. Hagamos el siguiente ejercicio. ¿Pensamos que los ciudadanos pueden ser libres para asesinar a sus vecinos que no les caigan bien? Evidentemente, responderíamos que no. ¿Eso quiere decir que pensamos que “los ciudadanos no pueden ser libres”?

What the Venezuelan president was actually condemning was the publishing of false information. He argued that media “can't be free to say whatever you feel like. It is necessary to follow the rules of the Constitution”. He also asked the Public Prosecutor's Office to act against media that publishes false information online, as it happens in the United States, Spain, or Colombia.

(Nevertheless), the correspondent of El País in Caracas, Mayte Rico titled the story “Chavez says Internet ‘Cannot be Free'”. This is a clear example of manipulation. Let's think about it. Here's an example: Do we think that citizens can be free to kill their neighbors if the don't like them? Of course not, “no”, will be the answer. Does that mean that we think that “citizens cannot be free”?

To prove his point, Pascual shares the link in which Chávez explains his reason in the video [es] with the source.

Mercedes Chacín also argues that there is a lot of manipulation and says [es]:

Hasta ahora, ningún país del mundo se había llevado una sola línea en la prensa internacional por implantar este tipo de soluciones. Sin embargo, Venezuela ha conseguido incluso portadas y primeras páginas (…) solamente por tomar las mismas decisiones que otros países, absolutamente justificadas y encaminadas a aumentar la eficiencia y la seguridad en sus comunicaciones.

(Según la prensa, Chávez) No solicita, no declara, no pide, no opina, el Presidente “ataca”.

Until now, no country in the world had been able to get a line in the international press for putting in practice this kind of solutions. Nevertheless, Venezuela receives headlines and front pages (…) just because they did what other nations, completely justified and in order to improve communication efficiency, chose to do.

(According to the press, Chavez…) doesn't ask for, doesn't think, doesn't declare; the President “attacks”.

From another point of view, César Carrillo underlines how important the Internet and free connection is vital for Chavez's project in his post “Revolution and Internet: Doubling the Score”,

(En internet) no existe la primera figura del actor, allí todos somos protagonistas, pero eso no quita que aquellos que hacemos vida de internauta en las redes interlazadas de alcance global, estemos exentos de una buena cuota de responsabilidad de orden jurídico (…)

Se especula sobre un supuesto sensor (sic), mordaza o filtro a Internet dentro de la jurisdicción soberana de parte de nuestro gobierno revolucionario, de materializarse sería un craso error. Esta medida para nada favorece a nuestro proceso y eso antes de sumar, resta.

(On the Internet) there's not only one main actor. We are all the main character. But it does not mean that all of those that participate actively as web-surfers online connected to one another in a global reach and perspective can't be responsible according to the Law.

There are people speculating about a possible censor, a gag law, or a filter within the sovereign law from our revolutionary government. If that happens, it will be a terrible mistake. That measure won't favor our process. That doesn't add up, it subtracts.

In addition, Tomás Horacio Hernández reacts to the opinion of one of the government's spokespersons:

Que la defensora del Pueblo, Gabriela Ramírez afirme que: “Los portales web que se generen para la libre opinión deben estar plenamente apegados a la Constitución y la ley, a fin garantizar que no atenten contra la paz y el estado de derecho” es tan absurdo y tan contradictorio como decir que uno como ser humano es libre ser, siempre y cuando el estado te lo permita. ¿Por que alguien me tiene que obligar a leer algo, imponerme lo que debo pensar al respecto y responsabilizar al medio si uno dice lo contrario al libreto?

The Public Ombudsperson, Gabriela Ramírez, says that “Websites made for the expression of free opinions should be closely attached to the Law in order to avoid disturbance of the peace” and the rule of law is as absurd and contradictory as to say that human beings are free, as long as the State permits it. Why should anyone has to force me to read something, impose me what I have to think about it and make that media responsible if I don't act according to the script?

The sources of most part of the debate are located in the documents in which the projects and decrees have been written. The group Todos en red has a space called “Papeles para el debate” (papers for debate) in which the main documents can be found.

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