No paper, no electricity, no news: Information controls keep coming in Venezuela

Detail of illustrator Eduardo Sanabria's image alluding to media censorship and self-censorship in Venezuela. Used with permission.

Amid widespread protests in response to Venezuela's social, political and economic crises, state control over information has reached new heights.

In June 2018, Venezuelans have seen online newspapers, pornography sites, and the Tor network blocked, in what appears to be the latest move in an ever-evolving strategy to limit access to information for the general public.

The road has been long and steady. What began with limitations on access to radio and television spectrum during the administration of deceased former president Hugo Chávez has since expanded, under president Nicolás Maduro, with many once-privately run broadcast and press outlets having transitioned toward a model wherein the state has either explicit or soft power over editorial and commercial activities.

Also, in 2017, Venezuela's National Constituent Assembly (ANC) – which had assumed all legislative powers that had previously come under the purview of the National Legislative Assembly- passed a controversial law that would regulate social media and sanction or pull out of the air any outlet “promoting hate”. The measure seemed to had been already in practice, given the cases of people that have been put behind bars because of a tweet.

Since 2014, the ongoing crisis has generated chronic shortages of basic goods and services, like paper, electricity and broadband internet. These shortages combined with political efforts to limit public access to information and news have created a tense and highly controlled landscape for communication and the sharing of information.

Newspapers are moving online…and then they're being blocked

With the cost of newsprint rising rapidly and the paper itself almost non-existent, local newspapers (especially those critical of the government) were forced to close down or move online, where they had no guarantee of maintaining an audience. In early 2018, one journalist tweeted:

There are reports of newspaper El Nacional being blocked in many areas of Venezuela

I'm seeing now that [daily newspapers] El Nacional, La Patilla and other “annoying” sites for the dictatorship are blocked in my computer. Are others having the same problem? We should report the cases.

Months later, in early June, El Nacional, one of the most important newspapers in the country, was reported to be blocked again both by journalists on Twitter and in other news outlets:

This how El Nacional looks like in CANTV (the most important Internet provider) servers

‘It's not about porn, it's about blocking’

Espacio Público, an organization defending free speech and access to information reported through their Twitter account that public internet provider CANTV had blocked the access to sites with sexual content like Pornhub and Youporn.

The measure caught the attention of the public and the press, inside and outside the country. Media workers shared their impressions of authoritarian views on morals and decency:

La pregunta a hacerse aquí es, ¿cómo es que se llegó a este punto? Cualquiera por lógica diría que el chavismo es un régimen que lento pero seguro, se mete con todos los sectores de la sociedad. Así no sean numerosos, los quita del camino para completar su dominación social.

The question here is: how did we get to this point? Anyone being logical would say that chavismo is a system that, slowly but surely, meddles with every aspect of society. Even if some of these aspects are not big in number, they put them away to complete their social domination.

Other users have been quick to analyze the actual reach of the move and its close link with online censorship, a concern present not only in Venezuela:

The problem here is not the fact that they're blocking porn webpages -which is already a disaster-, the problem es that it will go further to other pages. What do they gain from blocking porn webpages? Try blocking pages, maybe Youtube will come next.

However, other users suspect that is neither about porn, nor censorship. For them, the problem is bandwidth, and the impossibility of paying for it:

CANTV's [Venezuela's national internet and phone provider] blockade to porn webpages is not about being prudish, or about the government wanting to protect the children. It's basically because Venezuela doesn't have money to pay the for bandwidth that those pages need charging $0.30 for an internet connection.

What are the alternatives? Perhaps Tor can help… or not

Tor, the free software used to surf the web anonymously that has allowed many to use internet safely has also been blocked, according to different reports online.

The blockages of different nodes in the Tor network seems to be happening intermittently, and are thus not completely effective. Nevertheless, organizations like Acceso Libre or VE Sin filtro have confirmed Tor being blocked and proposed solutions to curb the limitations:

We can confirm Tor as blocked (in direct connection). You can use @torproject with the bridge (pluggable transport).

Blocks to @torproject network are being reported in Venezuela. Here's how you can bend it configuring Tor to use bridges.

Given the context and the background, the prognosis for freedom of speech and access of information in the country looks grim. Many Venezuelans are wondering which media space or communication tool will be censored next…and what they can do to outsmart the government's efforts.

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