Venezuela

Not Free
34
100
A Obstacles to Access 5 25
B Limits on Content 16 35
C Violations of User Rights 13 40
Last Year's Score & Status
37 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Key Developments, June 1, 2017 - May 31, 2018

  • Telecommunications services continued to deteriorate with the country’s deepening economic crisis, as users experienced frequent failures and blackouts. In November 2017, internet service providers were able to increase tariffs, but this remained insufficient to cover demands (see Availability and Ease of Access).
  • A wave of blockings targeted online news sources during the past year. In June 2017, users from various cities in Venezuela reported that several social media platforms —including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Periscope— were temporarily inaccessible (see Blocking and Filtering).
  • A vaguely worded “Law Against Hatred” introduced hefty prison sentences for inciting hatred, including on social media, and established that intermediaries can be fined if they do not remove offending messages within six hours of their dissemination (see Legal Environment).
  • Social media users experienced the first series of arrests under the new anti-hate speech law. In January 2018, three teenagers were detained by intelligence agents, accused of inciting hatred via chat groups and social networks calling for protests against the government (see Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities).
  • Arbitrary arrests, harassment, attacks and confiscation of equipment belonging to media workers continued to be reported. In November 2017, a reporter for the website Dolar Today went missing after publishing a piece about irregularities in a penitentiary center. He reappeared a couple of days later, half naked and with signs of physical violence (see Intimidation and Violence).

header2 Introduction

Venezuela’s internet freedom further deteriorated during the past year due to declining internet connectivity, bolder online censorship, and reprisals against critical news reporters and social media users.

Political changes aimed at strengthening the government in power, such as the installation of a new National Constituent Assembly in August 2017, were accompanied by new laws curtailing freedom of expression and privacy. The Law against Hate for Peaceful, Coexistence and Tolerance (Law Against Hatred) imposed harsh prison sentences of up to twenty years for inciting hatred, including on social media. A regulation issued by the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) expanded registration requirements for fixed and mobile telephone users, obliging operators to keep records of user data and provide them to state security agents upon request, without a judicial order.

In the lead-up to presidential elections in May 2018, suspicions surrounded the massive implementation of the “Carnet de la Patria” (the Fatherland Card), an electronic identification document to channel social aid, as statements by government officials ─President Maduro included─ implied that data collected through the system would be used to monitor and pressure voters.1 The dedicated portal patria.org.ve became the fifth most consulted site in Venezuela, according to Alexa,2 and a study showed that the Twitter account @CarnetDLaPatria was used as a channel to promote Maduro’s candidacy.3

The deterioration and low quality of telecommunications services continued to severely limit broad and unrestricted access to the internet in Venezuela. Proactive measures to limit access to sites critical to the government have also impacted the online sphere: websites continued to be selectively blocked during specific events and independent digital media and social media accounts continued to experience frequent cyberattacks.

Digital media reporters frequently faced threats, attacks, arbitrary detentions and the theft and confiscation of their equipment while covering political events or protests. Three editors and a journalist from Armando.Info investigative website left the country after receiving threats and being sued for publishing a report that revealed a case of corruption.4 Braulio Jatar, editor of the news website Confidential Report, was seized in September 2016 and remained under house arrest since May 2017. Although two Twitter users imprisoned since 2014 were released with precautionary measures,5 this type of arbitrary detention continues.6

A Obstacles to Access

Internet and mobile subscriptions have dwindled with Venezuela’s economic crisis. Frequent internet service failures and poor-quality connections also continued to hinder reliable access to the internet. During the coverage period, users in different states reported service breakdowns that lasted for several hours. Users also reported problems in accessing certain social media sites in June 2017, and again in January 2018. In November 2017, internet service providers were finally authorized to increase tariffs, but this hike was insufficient to cover its demands and to maintain the infrastructure.

Availability and Ease of Access

Venezuela’s economic crisis, marked by foreign currency controls and hyperinflation, has hindered the country’s telecommunications infrastructure and the quality of internet access. Internet adoption in the country has practically stagnated during the last four years.1

For the first time in 2016, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recorded a decline in the percentage of individuals using the internet, dropping to 60 percent.2 According to official figures, around 62 percent of Venezuelans used the internet in 2017. Mobile penetration figures have also declined, dropping from 102 percent in 2012 to 81 percent in the third quarter of 2017.3 Differences in internet access between the capital and rural areas have reinforced a significant digital divide in Venezuela. States such Nueva Esparta have seen penetration decline by at least three percentage points.

Average connection speeds remained stagnant. According to ECLAC, the countries with the lowest percentage of high-speed connections in Latin America are Paraguay and Venezuela with around 0.2 percent of connections of more than 10 Mbps and around 0.1 percent of connections above 15Mbps.4 Some providers, such as IPNet, offer speeds up to 100 Mbps in certain areas of Caracas. Among this elite minority with access to superior connections, small online TV initiatives such as Vivo Play and VPITv have also gained users.5

Users continued to denounce recurring connectivity problems.6 Small provincial cities have been particularly affected, with blackouts lasting several days.7 Since materials such as cable and copper are sold in the international market at high costs, companies have faced theft and vandalism at their stations with high equipment replacement costs.8 In August 2017, state-owned company Movilnet reported that some 7 million mobile subscribers were affected by failures over the course of 36 hours. The president of Movilnet blamed such failures on acts of sabotage intended to destabilize the country, though security agencies had yet to report any arrest for this case.9 In January 2018, a general failure of telephone and internet services was reported in at least 12 states simultaneously.10 In a period of just 10 days during March 2018, the press freedom monitoring group Ipys Venezuela received 198 reports of internet and mobile phone failures in 22 states. State-owned internet service provider CANTV was the operator with the most failures.11

The country’s electricity crisis has also resulted in power outages and rationing that affected internet connectivity.12 At the beginning of 2018, two power cuts impacted the capital city of Caracas.13 In April, Venezuela’s second largest city, Maracaibo, suffered failures of up to 14 hours for several days.14 While critics maintain that they stem from a lack of investment and poor planning,15 the government has blamed some of these blackouts on acts of sabotage against the electrical system.16

Public networks, such as those of state universities, also faced difficulties in maintaining internet services due to budgetary shortfalls.17 Connectivity challenges were particularly acute for small universities in provincial cities. For example, one university spent two years without electricity and internet services due to the theft of underground wiring.18

Although the main ISP, state-owned CANTV, stopped publishing its rates on its website,19 in November 2017, it announced a price hike of 350 percent for its most popular fixed broadband service (ABA) of unlimited 1.5 Mbps. It went from VEF 792.68 to VEF 3,462.00. The most expensive plan of 10 Mbps saw a price increase close to 100 percent, going from VEF 7,791.66 to VEF 15,702.40.20 The cheapest plan represented 3 percent of the minimum wage at that time (VEF 136,543.40),21 while the most expensive plan exceeded 10 percent. Movilnet’s cheapest mobile telephone and data plan increased by more than 2,000 percent, from VEF 288.60 to 6,781.00.22 Despite the increases, Digitel eliminated some data plans in March 2018. According to a company representative, they were selling services at US$ 0.0006 which cost them $5 a month.23

When considering these figures in dollars, at the exchange rate of that moment, when the old DICOM rate had already been eliminated24 and the only reference was the black market one at VEF 44,347.76 per dollar,25 both plans would represent US$ 0.078 and US$ 0.35 monthly respectively. In addition to the black market rate, in early 2018 Venezuela’s new DICOM rate (known as “DICOM II”) became the only “official” floating exchange rate, yielding an exchange rate of approximately VEF 25,000 per dollar in its first auction.26 The gap between the new rate and the black market rate remained significant.27

A decline in purchasing power due to the economic situation had also affected ICT consumption.28 While accurate calculations are almost impossible to make in an economy with exchange controls and hyperinflation, smartphones, laptops, PCs and other ICT devices are prohibitively expensive for most of the population. The cheapest cellular phone costs three minimum wages; the most expensive costs 66. It has been calculated that to buy an iPhone, a Venezuelan needs 12 years-worth of minimum wage.29 Shortages of ICT devices prevail and the few products that end up on the market are priced at the free dollar rate, which was more than VEF 1,253,684.21 to US$ 1 in May 2018. On the other hand, despite the shortage of equipment, government officials have given away thirty thousand smartphones "to disseminate information on the social management of President Nicolás Maduro."30

Bianile Rivas, “Gobernador entrega 350 teléfonos de Movilnet a brigadistas de Somos Venezuela en Portuguesa,” El Pitazo, February 20, 2018, http://elpitazo.info/ultimas-noticias/gobernador-entrega-350-telefonos-…

In October of 2017, China launched the third Venezuelan satellite “Antonio José de Sucre,” joining the "Simón Bolívar," launched on October 29, 2008, and the "Francisco de Miranda," launched on September 28, 2012. While the new satellite’s purported functions include disaster monitoring and urban planning, observers have raised concerns about the lack of transparency and oversight of such projects.31

Restrictions on Connectivity

The state owns most the national backbone infrastructure through CANTV.32 The government discussed plans to establish an internet exchange point (IXP) in 2015 but has not indicated whether it will move ahead with this plan in the future.33

While deliberate shutdowns and throttling may seem practically unnecessary given the state of the country’s infrastructure and the theft of copper wiring and fiber-optic cables (see “Availability and Ease of Access”), users reported temporary problems in accessing certain social media and video streaming platforms during this report’s coverage period. On June 28, 2017, users in several cities reported that platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Periscope, and YouTube were inaccessible for approximately one hour. NGO Venezuela Inteligente noted that CANTV’s DNS servers were not responding to DNS requests for these sites, and that Movistar also began to block Twitter briefly.34 Also in January 2018, CANTV and Movilnet users reported problems in accessing Instagram and certain news websites (see also “Blocking and Filtering”).35

ICT Market

Although there are private providers, the state dominates the ICT market. As a governmental policy, one of the objectives of the Second Socialist Plan for the Economic and Social Development of the Nation (2013-2019) is for Venezuela to reach “non-vital levels” of connections with communication and information networks “dominated by neo-colonial powers.”36

Telecommunications companies have struggled to remain financially sustainable during the economic crisis, a situation which risks deteriorating even further according to representatives of the Chamber of Telecommunications Services Companies (CASETEL). Foreign currency controls have prevented private companies from repatriating their earnings and accessing the foreign currency necessary for investment, which has led to a deterioration of their services. It also created a substantial barrier to new firms that might seek to enter the market. In addition, a lack of dollars to pay for imports has contributed to a rampant equipment shortage. Telecommunications services, in turn, suffer from highly distorted prices.37 In July 2016, the government suspended an increase in rates for telecommunications services;38 the same occurred in August 2017.39 While ISPs were finally authorized to increase their prices in November 2017,40 experts contend that these increases are insufficient to improve infrastructure and growth.41

According to official figures almost 69 percent of users access the internet through CANTV’s ABA (Broadband Access). The rest of the population accesses the internet through one of several private telecommunications providers. Representing almost 9 percent of the market, Inter is the second most widely used ISP, though it offers services only in major cities. Three major players dominate the country’s mobile internet market: state-owned Movilnet (29 percent), Telefonica’s Movistar (54 percent), and locally-owned Digitel (17 percent).42 Digitel and Movistar are the leading LTE network operators, a technology that has not been fully utilized due the shortage of smartphones.43

Regulatory Bodies

CONATEL is the entity responsible for regulating and licensing of the telecommunications sector and is administratively dependent on the Ministry of Information and Communication. The Law on Social Responsibility on Radio, Television, and Digital Media (Resorte-ME) grants the regulatory body the power to make decisions on the blocking or deletion of content, and to sanction service providers—an ability it has exercised without granting due process to the affected parties (see “Blocking and Filtering”).44

During the report’s coverage period, President Maduro appointed a new Minister of Communication and Information, Jorge Rodríguez, who served as Mayor of Caracas and previously held the positions of Vice President of the Republic and President of the National Electoral Council (CNE). Maduro also appointed a military man, the colonel of the Bolivarian National Guard Jorge Elieser Márquez as the new director of CONATEL.

While Article 35 of the Organic Law of Telecommunications provides for CONATEL’s operational and administrative autonomy, Article 40 states that the president has the power to appoint and remove the agency’s director and the other four members of its board,45 highlighting CONATEL’s lack of independence from the executive.

B Limits on Content

Extended in May 2017, the state of emergency deepened concerns about increasing restrictions on online content in the midst of political turmoil. A new wave of blockings targeted online news sources during the past year, and social media platforms were also temporarily targeted. Blocking procedures lack transparency and avenues for appeal, and digital rights groups suspect many more sites are blocked. Meanwhile, a new anti-hate speech law makes intermediary platforms and websites responsible for content posted by third parties, requiring them to remove content containing hate speech within six hours of being posted or face fines.

Blocking and Filtering

While websites of various advocacy and human rights organizations are mostly accessible, a new wave of blockings targeted online news sources during the past year. Digital rights organizations as well as deputies of the National Assembly have denounced the lack of transparency of blocking procedures that are not made public nor provide avenues for appeal.1

See also: Andrés Azpúrua, “Solicitamos transparencia en los bloqueos en #internetVE,” April 24, 2017, Medium.com, https://medium.com/@andresAzp/solicitamos-transparencia-en-los-bloqueos… Blocking has been implemented by state-owned providers CANTV and Movilnet, but also by private companies such as Movistar and Digitel.2

Data presented by Venezuela Inteligente shows that blocked sites include those related to foreign exchange rates (36 percent), media outlets (32 percent), gambling sites (16 percent), social media and communication tools (12 percent), and blogs (4 percent).3 In June 2018, three big pornography sites were also blocked,4 a measure that some analysts say could be to reduce the consumption of bandwidth, or to test blocks for other sites.5 As a result of such blockings, users have increasingly turned to tools to help circumvent government censorship. In late June 2018 however,6 reports emerged that CANTV had blocked access to the Tor network, a tool that enables users to browse anonymously.7

On January 15, 2018, social media users reported that digital media such as El Nacional, El Pitazo and La Patilla, were inaccessible through CANTV and Movilnet.8 This incident coincided with a police operation against rogue former policeman Oscar Pérez.9 During the raid that ended in a deadly shootout, Pérez was publishing the incidents on Instagram, which was also reportedly inaccessible.10

The New York Times, January 21, 2018, https://nyti.ms/2Sg92ta; Luz Mely Reyes (Tweet, January 16, 2018), “Lo que ocurrió ayer nos marcó. Una matanza de la que da aviso la víctima al publicar vídeos en las RRSS, con espectadores y comentaristas. Todo de una crueldad extrema. Y nunca la Fiscalía ni la Defensoría se dieron por enterado. Fue un acto de tortura contra todos,” https://twitter.com/LuzMelyReyes/status/953477757526212609?s=03,; ”Las últimas palabras de Oscar Pérez,” Efecto Cocuyo on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBRwLOfnvJA&feature=share Pérez had been wanted after hijacking a helicopter and firing at the Supreme Court of Justice in June, calling for an uprising against the government.11

Some media outlets such as El Pitazo suffered recurring instances of blocking in parts of the country. On April 10, 2018, IPYS Venezuela and OONI confirmed that two domains associated with El Pitazo were blocked by at least five ISPs on fixed and mobile networks, in at least 15 states of the country. Previously, in September 2017, CANTV and Digitel had prevented access to the original domain of the news site (elpitazo.com). Movistar joined the measure in November 2017.12 In both cases they used DNS blocking with neither any known court order nor an administrative procedure.13 While sites have been found to be blocked primarily by means of DNS, on June 6 and 7, monitors detected a new form of censorship – HTTP blocking – targeting the outlets La Patilla and El Nacional.14

Social media platforms were also temporarily targeted on June 28, 2017. Users from various cities in Venezuela reported that several social media platforms — including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Periscope — were inaccessible for approximately one hour. Tests by IPYS Venezuela and Venezuela Inteligente confirmed DNS blocking affecting both CANTV and Movistar users.15

Content Removal

While transparency reports produced by Twitter, Facebook and Google did not show significant numbers of removal requests by Venezuelan entities during this coverage period, several laws provide avenues for limiting speech by making intermediary platforms and websites responsible for content posted by third parties. This legal framework has resulted in self-censorship and preemptive censorship (See “Media, Diversity and Content Manipulation”).

Promulgated in November 2017, the Law Against Hatred notably establishes that intermediaries must remove content containing hate speech within six hours of being posted or face fines. The law also empowers authorities to block websites when, in their opinion, they promote hatred or intolerance.16 The Law on Social Responsibility on Radio, Television, and Electronic Media (the Resorte-ME law) also establishes that intermediary websites can be held liable for content posted by third parties, and grants CONATEL the discretional capacity to impose severe penalties for violations. Its provisions notably forbid messages that promote anxiety among the population, alter public order, disregard legal authorities, or promote violation of existing laws.

Media, Diversity, and Content Manipulation

Compared to traditional media, the digital sphere presents a more vibrant space for political and social expression. Newspapers have migrated to the web due to restrictions on print, while broadcast media have also forged an online presence. Social networks such as Twitter are popular platforms for users seeking information at crucial moments. Politicians and social leaders also actively use them.17 Faced with a shortage of cash, Venezuelans have also increasingly resorted to online bank transfers, and electronic payment applications have emerged.18 As a result, online banking services such as Clavenet receive even more visits than Facebook in Venezuela.19 On the other hand, connectivity problems and poor service quality present serious constraints for accessing information online.

Legal restrictions on certain forms of online speech have encouraged self-censorship and preemptive censorship, as webmasters and editors might avoid publishing information that contradicts the government. In a survey of almost 400 journalists belonging to digital, print, radio and television media outlets in the country's eight main cities, 37.4 percent admitted to receiving instructions to change the wording and stop covering specific topics. Some 55 percent of respondents admitted they had limited their content, either out of self-censorship and or self-regulation.20 In a leaked memorandum, newspaper El Universal forbade its journalists from disseminating political content via social networks, unless previously approved.21

The government has sought to expand its influence online, using state-controlled media and progovernment trolls, and encouraging loyal social media users to harass those with opposing views.22 Progovernment media have also published false information to discredit independent digital media as well as NGOs that defend freedom of expression.23 With a high number of politicized users, Twitter has been used frequently to spread disinformation.24

The government regularly uses fake accounts and bots to boost the government’s popularity and promote favorable views on social media. According to the founder of Trendinalia Venezuela, a site that tracks Twitter trends, when the government decides to promote a word, phrase or hashtag to Twitter Trending Topics, it relays key messages and labels to disseminate within its network of operators.25 This strategy of online manipulation was widely employed during the 2017 election of the Constituent Assembly. An analysis found that 51 percent of accounts promoting the hashtag #SoluciónConstituyente (Constitutional Solution) in June 2017 had been created that same year.26 In June 2017, President Maduro claimed that Twitter had deactivated accounts of thousands of users "for the sole reason of being Chavistas."27 According to analysts, Twitter would have discarded accounts that violated the company's user policies,28 although Twitter did not comment on this case.29

A study by IPYS Venezuela also revealed the aggressive use of Twitter by the most influential candidates to the Constituent Assembly in the run-up to the vote.30 A similar study, carried out after the election of the National Constituent Assembly, noted that the Constituent Assembly’s promoters did not comment on issues offered to voters during the campaign, but instead promoted initiatives such as the approval of the new law against hate speech, without inviting debate.31

Digital media face various difficulties in Venezuela, hindered by the cost of equipment, the lack of financing, as well as the exodus of professionals who emigrate seeking better living conditions. According to César Batiz, director of El Pitazo TV, “very few media can survive on advertising income.”32 Digital media have tried various business and financing models: crowdfunding campaigns, international support, payment gateways, digital advertising, and media alliances.33

Digital Activism

Despite connectivity issues, Venezuelans are avid internet and social media users. According to Tendencias Digitales, nearly 16 million Venezuelans use YouTube, 15 million are on Facebook, 13 million are on Twitter, and 11 million are on Instagram.34

During the political and economic crisis, citizens have used the internet to express dissent about the government and to organize protests. Users have also gone online to consult prices and exchange or sell used goods,35 and hashtags such as #ServicioPublico (“Public Service”) have been widely used to find scarce goods such as medicine.36

Some groups have opted for these platforms to make public statements against the regime. Two messages went viral on social networks during this coverage period. The first was a video broadcast via YouTube in August 2017, before the installation of the Constituent Assembly, and featured a military group (later detained) aiming "to restore the constitutional order.”37 The other one was developed by the pilot Oscar Pérez, who used YouTube and his Twitter and Instagram accounts to call for an uprising against the government, and later narrated and left testimony about his surrender and death (see “Blocking and Filtering”).

Civil society organizations have maintained efforts to raise awareness online and create apps with civic uses. For example, the NGO Transparencia Venezuela has developed strategies to collect citizen complaints through a web platform, the app "Dilo Aqui," and email.38 Digital media, such as El Pitazo, have forged alliances with community organizations to train citizen reporters, so that they can improve their coverage of local issues.39 Some users have also mobilized online to collectively protest against internet failures. In September 2017, for example, a group of subscribers in the outskirts of Caracas used social networks to organize a protest at the headquarters of CANTV, claiming that they were unable to perform their jobs due to internet failures.40

C Violations of User Rights

Violations of digital rights have intensified in the midst of Venezuela’s social and political crisis. The Maduro government continued to tighten its grip on online speech through a restrictive anti-hate speech law that carries prison sentences of up to twenty years for those who incite hatred or violence by any electronic means. Users were arbitrarily arrested for opinions shared online, and cyberattacks targeted several media and nonprofit websites. There are increasing concerns about the government’s ability to misuse personal data as a means of social and political control, especially in light of the massive implementation of the “Carnet de la Patria” (the Fatherland Card), an electronic identification document used for welfare and public programs.

Legal Environment

Although the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression,1 the government has passed laws and regulations that curtail this right online. The prolonged state of exception and economic emergency includes provisions on countering cyber threats, authorizing regulations to prevent “destabilization campaigns.”2 A vaguely worded anti-hate speech law promulgated in November 2017 imposes hefty prison sentences for inciting hatred, including on social media.

Acting against the provisions of the Constitution, Maduro convened a Constituent National Assembly by presidential decree in May 2017. Installed in August and composed exclusively of government supporters, this new de facto legislative body was handed sweeping powers over other state institutions. On November 8, 2017, the constituent assembly promulgated a “Constitutional Law” Against Hatred, for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence.3 The law imposes prison sentences of ten to twenty years for those who incite hatred or violence through any electronic means, including social networks. It also establishes that intermediaries can be fined if they do not remove the messages subject to sanctions within six hours of their dissemination, with amounts ranging between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand tax units. The law also empowers authorities to block websites they consider to be promoting hatred or intolerance. Human rights organizations and experts have criticized the law’s breadth and its detrimental effects on freedom of expression and the press.4

Other laws provide additional avenues for limiting speech. The Resorte-ME law, which was amended by the National Assembly in 2010, includes vague prohibitions and severe sanctions that grant authorities sweeping discretion to restrict speech.5 Article 27, for example, forbids messages that promote anxiety among the population, alter public order, disregard legal authorities, or promote the violation of existing laws. The law also establishes intermediary liability for content posted by a third-party and requires online media to establish mechanisms to restrict prohibited content. Websites found in violation of these provisions may be heavily fined, and service providers who do not comply risk temporary suspension of operations.6

In addition, the Law of National Security, which was passed in January 2015, outlines prison sentences for individuals who “compromise the security and defense of the nation.”7 Activists and journalists also face charges of defamation under the penal code, which sets out prison sentences for defamation against public officials and the publication of false information.8

According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2017-2018, which evaluates 133 countries, Venezuela ranks last in the world ranking of the Rule of Law.9

Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities

The past year was marked by frequent arbitrary detentions of reporters,10

Espacio Público, “Situación general del derecho a la libertad de expresión en Venezuela Enero-Septiembre de 2017,” October 24, 2017, http://espaciopublico.ong/situacion-general-del-derecho-la-libertad-exp…; Ipys Venezuela, ”19 reporteros fueron atacados durante cobertura del paro cívico,” July 26, 2017, https://ipysvenezuela.org/alerta/retienen-reportero-grafico-tomar-fotos… as well as the first arrests of social media users under the new “Law Against Hatred” adopted in November 2017.

Several social media users were arrested based on their online activities:

  • In January 2018, three teenagers (Diego Gómez, Ender González, and Dylan Canache) were detained by intelligence agents, accused of inciting hatred via chat groups and social networks by calling for protests against the government.11 If found guilty, they faced up to 20 years in prison, according to provisions of the Law Against Hatred. The Supreme Tribunal of Justice announced their release in June.12
  • In February, Enrique Aristeguieta Gramcko, an 85-year-old lawyer, historian and politician, was detained for several hours.13 Aristeguieta is an active opponent of the Maduro government, and is especially active on social networks. After his release, he reported that they tried to charge him for hatred.14 In a tweet, his son said that SEBIN officials had stripped him of the cell phone from which he tweeted.15
  • In February, electrical sector unionist Elio Palacios was detained after broadcasting a WhatsApp audio message, in which he denounced the electricity crisis, denying the government's claim of alleged sabotage. Palacios also called for a general assembly of workers. According to the authorities, Palacios was detained because the message caused "panic and anxiety to the population.”16
  • In May, Twitter user Pedro Jaimes Criollo was detained and held in solitary confinement after facing charges linked to his online tweets about the presidential plane’s route. Neither his lawyers nor his family were able to communicate with him.17

Online reporters have in turn faced prosecutions, often in retaliation for publishing pieces critical of the government:

  • At the beginning of 2018, three editors and a journalist from the investigative journalism website Armando.Info were compelled to leave the country after a Caracas court admitted a defamation lawsuit against them, based on two articles published in April and September 2017.18 The complaint was filed by a Colombian businessman linked to the Venezuelan government. One piece revealed irregularities in the state import of food in Venezuela, including negotiations involving President Maduro.19 The charges of aggravated defamation and injuria (insult) could result in up to six years in prison.20
  • Braulio Jatar, editor of the news website Confidential Report, detained in September 2016 and placed under house arrest in May 2017, remained in the same condition. While officially charged with money laundering, Braulio Jatar’s detention was denounced as retaliation for online coverage about a protest against President Maduro.21
  • In May 2018, after the presidential elections, CONATEL opened an administrative process against El National Web, for the alleged breach of the regulations set forth in the Resorte-ME and anti-hate speech laws.22
  • On April 14, Officials of the Directorate General of Military Intelligence arrested the owner of the website DolarPro.com, Carlos Eduardo Marrón Colmenares. The Attorney General announced that his office would charge him for false dissemination of the exchange rate, legitimacy of capital, and association to commit a crime.23 After his arrest, three websites that published the prices of the parallel exchange rate were disabled.24

Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity

Government surveillance and counterintelligence activities have increased since 2013, when the government released its 2013-2019 “Plan de la Patria,” which emphasized strengthening national defense among its priorities.25 Digital activists have expressed alarm regarding the government’s growing appetite to invest in intelligence systems and operations.26 Concerns have also emerged regarding initiatives seeking to collect personal information from citizens, with no guarantees regarding the privacy and treatment of this data. During the past year, worrying developments included the mass distribution of the Carnet de la Patria (“Fatherland Card”), as well as a new ruling aimed at obtaining and retaining personal data of users of telecommunication services, particularly mobile telephony.

The lack of independent oversight has raised concerns about the ease with which systematic content filtering and surveillance could be implemented. Although it is difficult to confirm and determine the full scale of surveillance, activists have denounced targeted tracking and spying by the government. Independent journalists who have been victims of hacking, such as Milagros Socorro, have suspected possible spying on their telephone conversations.27 At the end of August 2017, an alert warned about a malware designed to monitor movements and communications on Android devices, which would have affected several activists in the country.28

The constitution expressly prohibits anonymity. In order to buy a cellphone, a SIM card, or a USB modem to access mobile broadband, Venezuelan law requires customers to register their personal ID number, address, signature, and fingerprints.29 There are no known government restrictions on encryption technologies or other digital privacy tools. Furthermore, Venezuelan laws, such as the Law against Cybercrime and the Law to Protect Communication Privacy, guarantee the privacy of communications.30 In practice, however, authorities have failed to apply these laws evenly in cases where activists have sued for protection under the law.31 Although the Constitution recognizes principles applicable to the protection of personal data, such as safeguard of honor, privacy, public image, confidentiality, and reputation, as well as access to information, there are no laws or telecommunications regulations dedicated to data protection.

Activists have expressed concerns about the government’s ability to misuse personal data collected for welfare services and public programs.32 In the absence of personal data protection legislation, the destination, storage, and ultimate purpose of this information remains unknown.33 The government has increasingly required citizens to hold new electronic identification cards, known as the “Carnet de la Patria” (Fatherland Card), to receive state benefits. During recent elections, ruling party tents (“Red Points”) were deployed near polling stations to scan and renew voters’ cards, a strategy which was decried as a means to track voter participation in real-time and pressure voters to cast their ballot in favor of the government.34

First introduced in February 2017, the Fatherland Card is an identity document that collects basic data such as address and date of birth, but also other kinds of personal information such as political party membership.35 During a period marked by a severe food shortage, the card began to be required to access benefits of so-called “social missions”, including the food program controlled by the Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP), made up of military officials and government supporters.

The mobile app “VeQR-Somos Venezuela” is associated with the Fatherland Card. To request a benefit, citizens must scan their card’s QR code and also activate the Global Positioning System (GPS) of the cell phone being used, thereby allowing the government to track not only the citizens’ personal data, but his or her location.36 In early 2018, the card was also adapted to serve as an electronic payment tool.37 In January 2018, the government reported more than 16 million Venezuelans had the card.38 However, card holders complain that they cannot access smartphones to scan the QR code, due to the lack of personal equipment and connectivity.39

In October 2017, CONATEL issued a new Administrative Ruling that has raised criticism for further restricting people's right to privacy.40 With vague wording, the new ruling establishes that operators must provide collected information to security organs upon request, without specifying the need for a judicial order. Data to be collected includes IP addresses, date and time of connection, geographic location, and details of calls and text messages sent or received. The new Administrative Ruling also states that to register for a mobile phone, customers must provide data such as e-mail, fingerprint, and a digital photo of their face taken at the site of the transaction.41

A decree issued in October 2013 created the Strategic Center for the Security and Protection of the Fatherland (CESPPA), a special body charged with monitoring and tracking of social media and other online information.42 Agents of the National Guard have also reportedly been trained by the Ministry of Information and Communication in the management of social networks for the “implementation of early warnings” that can “keep the Venezuelan people truthfully informed, and detect any threat in order to defend our national sovereignty.”43

Intimidation and Violence

Harassment, attacks and confiscation of media workers’ equipment by security officials and armed gangs continued to be reported during the past year.44

Security officials have forced reporters to erase material collected during their coverage of political and social events, or simple recordings of the daily lives of Venezuelans, such as the long lines to purchase food.45 Mobile theft is especially damaging for small digital publications with limited resources to replace them. Several demonstrated that security agents sought to prevent coverage of the 24-hour national civic strike in protest against the proposal of the Constituent Assembly, held on July 20, 2017. Several reporters were robbed, beaten and wounded.46 Similar incidents happened during the election for the new National Assembly, held on July 30, 2017.47

The most serious case recorded during this period was the disappearance of graphic reporter Jesús Medina, who worked for the news website Dolar Today, blocked by CONATEL.48 The photographer, who had already reported threats against him,49 managed to send a tweet about his arrest by unknown people on November 3.50 The journalist had been publishing, via social networks, photos and videos about the condition of detainees in El Tocorón jail. On Monday, November 6, Medina was found on the side of a highway near Caracas, half naked and with traces of physical violence.51 Medina told international media that he was tortured and threatened.52 Authorities denied having participated in this action and some have implied that it could have been retaliation by some of the detainees who control the gangs inside the prison.53

Technical Attacks

Technical attacks frequently target government critics, media outlets and human rights organizations. Twitter accounts continued to be hacked during this period, such as those of journalists Vladimir Villegas54 and former governor Francisco Arias Cárdenas.55 The website of critical cartoonist Rayma Supriani was also hacked in early 2018.56 On May 8, 2018, the web page of the open data organization VENDATA suffered an attack that took it offline. The journalist Katherine Pennacchio, owner of the domain of Vendata.org, also denounced an attempt to clone her cell phone’s SIM card.57 After being blocked by public and private ISPs, digital media outlet El Pitazo received several DDoS attacks in April and June.58 Other victims of attacks included independent media outlets Tal Cual and Runrunes, the website of the opposition Coalition for Democratic Unity, the channel of the National Assembly and its social media accounts, and NGOs such as Ipys Venezuela.59

Cyberattacks also occasionally target government institutions and companies as a form of protest. After the election to install a new Constituent Assembly, a cyberattack coordinated by a group of hackers calling itself The Binary Guardians affected at least 40 government websites, including the national electoral council (CNE).60 The day after the vote, the attackers left a message on the CNE portal, accusing them of committing fraud.61 The group also took control of the electoral body’s Twitter account, from which it again called the vote a fraud. Other sites affected by this attack included those of the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) and the Office of Identification and Immigration (SAIME). There were even attacks on the websites of state security bodies, including those of the scientific police (CICPC), the National Police (PNB), the Army, and the Navy. After the cyberattack, President Maduro urged private telecommunications companies on the State's plans to fight against what he considers a "permanent cyberattack" against the country.62 Cyberattacks have also occurred against private aviation companies that have sometimes refused to transport political opponents on their aircraft.63

On Venezuela

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

See More
  • Global Freedom Score

    16 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    28 100 not free