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‘We Need to Be Careful Even of What We Think': Self-Censorship in Venezuela

Kilmainham Gaol cell door peephole, Dublin, Ireland. Photo by LenDog64 via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Kilmainham Gaol cell door peephole, Ireland. Photo by LenDog64 via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Loud knocks on the door of my apartment woke me up at 6am one morning. I live in a very quiet building, and I have a doorbell. But these were not normal times. It was March 2014. For a month, people had been marching on the streets, demonstrating against our government, all across Venezuela. 

When the protests began causing clashes with police and blockages on major public roads, citizens turned to social media to learn about the events. Venezuelan broadcast television and radio suffer heavily from self-censorship and offered little coverage of what was happening on the ground. Whether intending to participate or just to find out if they would be able to get to work that day, people who ventured out to the streets ended up broadcasting the police attacks from their mobile phones. 

Some claimed Internet connections were slower at the peak moments of the protests, accusing the government of throttling the connections. Some said that police brought cellphone signal blockers when they came in to suppress the protests. A Colombian TV channel documenting the protests was taken off air and their web stream was blocked inside Venezuela.

Since the start of the protests, I had been mapping online censorship and helping people learn to use encrypted communication tools. So that morning when the knocks startled me awake, I got up, scared to the bone. I became even more frightened when I peered through the window to the parking lot and saw several men with long weapons and bullet-proof vests circling the building as if it were a SWAT operation. My boyfriend tried to look through the fish eye of our door, both of us making as little noise as possible. The police were raiding the building.

When they came to our building, the police were not looking for us, but amidst the fear and confusion there was no way to know for sure. A few days later, the home of Mildred Manrique, a journalist for the national newspaper 2001, was raided and Mildred taken in for interrogation. There were raids and arrests all over the country, carried out without court orders or any evidence of a crime being committed.

Inside my apartment I stood still and did not open the door. Eventually the police left to knock on the doors of other apartments, because it was not us they were looking for. At Mildred's, no one opened the door either. But the police broke it down with a battering ram. They found a bulletproof vest (which reporters are required to have, in compliance with safety regulations) and a computer “containing material against the government.” That was enough to cause them to take her in for questioning. 

A few hours after the raid, I posted on Facebook a jittery, anxious status update on what had happened. My mom scolded me on the phone: “You will get into trouble for doing that.” I usually disregard my mom's warnings—I think she’s overprotective—but I could not shake the feeling that in this case she was right.

There is no coherent policy for online content regulation in Venezuela. Instead, there are waves of detentions and online censorship. Myriad websites have been blocked on and off by the government since 2007, sometimes officially through the telecommunications commission, other times indirectly through CANTV, the state-owned ISP that controls at least 80% of the national market. Not once in the case of any of  these blockages, some of which persist, was a trial conducted.

Online content that “promotes, justifies or incites public disturbances,” to quote an example, is banned, and these sorts of vague definitions have been used to criminalize all kinds of online activities. An e-commerce bill, on the verge of being passed as I write these lines, would forbid the electronic sale of pornography, medicine, basic food items, and several other goods.

Arguments from advocates for free expression and an open Internet largely fall on deaf ears. The concept of net neutrality has been rejected by Venezuelan government officials, who say that “neutrality does not exist, because technologies are not neutral.” Indeed, neutrality is a foreign concept for Venezuela, where everything has a political subtext, even the coffee brand you choose or the color you decide to wear on any given day. And the public politics of the Venezuelan government regarding the Internet, and specifically social media, are not neutral at all. The state has created a “communicational guerrilla”, designed to “combat the lies and misinformation spread by private media” and devoted to creating trending topics and harassing people on social networks. This year, they established a “Deputy Ministry for Social Networks, the true role of which is yet to be seen.

The government has established a stronger and stronger presence in social networks in an attempt to “gain terrain” in the proverbial “ideological battle” in which it is entrenched. Diosdado Cabello, one of the strong men of the late president Hugo Chavez, said in 2010 that “The opposition believes itself to be the owner of social networking,” and claimed they would “assault social networks to counter the views expressed by [their] opponents.”  

People have been detained for tweeting indelicate comments about President Hugo Chávez's death. They have been detained over tweets about banking rumors or for posting fake pictures. Twitter users with fewer than a hundred followers have been detained, accused of “destabilizing the country”. These obviously disproportionate measures are not intended simply as a punishment for the perpetrators, but also as a warning sign for everyone else. Moreover, those who voice dissent are portrayed by state media as “traitors”, “rioters” and “destabilizers”, which means that when you voice unpopular opinions in a public environment (like a social network), you could be subject to attacks, not from the government, but from your peers. Your political opinions come into play when you interview for a new job, when you buy from a state-owned store, when you try to take advantage of any financial assistance provided by the State to study, work or purchase goods. This, in turn, becomes yet another reason to self-censor. 

There were people arrested, both in 2014 and previously, for comments they had posted online. In 2013, Andrés Rondón Sayago was detained for allegedly spreading fake photographs of burning ballots, and was later made to record a video (uploaded to the YouTube channel of “Venezuela Full of Life,” a government program intended to reduce crime) in which he declares that he published the picture “by mistake” via Facebook, and asks people to “stop publishing this kind of material” and avoid situations of “terrorism”. In the video he is trembling, his voice shaking with fear. 

I still cannot watch that video without feeling like crying. That fear, so exposed in Rondón Sayago, lives within each one of us who dares to dissent. We were then, as we are now, afraid to up. And I think this is the most pervasive form of censorship: the one that places the censor inside your own head and makes you review every thought at least twice to make sure that it is something you can say in public. 

After the protests, at a meeting regarding the state of the net, someone actually said to me that we need to be careful even of what we think. After all, she reasoned, we say everything we think when we’re online. There's nothing that frightens me more, as we give in inch by inch, than the fact that we are getting used to living with that fear, adapting ourselves to the size of the container in which we have been confined to live. 

This essay won second prize in the #GV2015 Summit competition, “How Do Internet Policies Affect Your Community?” Marianne Díaz is a Venezuelan lawyer and fiction writer. She works with Acceso Libre and serves as the Creative Commons lead for Venezuela. She joined Global Voices in 2010.

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