Venezuela’s media crackdown extends online

Venezuela has become the first South American government to take credit for shutting down nationwide access to the servers of massive online social networks in order to stifle political demonstrations.

Coming in the midst of larger protests against the recently elected President Nicolas Maduro, the handpicked successor of the country’s longtime strongman Hugo Chavez, the shutdowns appear to have done little to stop the student-led movement over high crime, political repression, and inflation.

Access condemns this crackdown, restricting Venezuelan users’ access to the internet during this critical political moment. This is an egregious violation of fundamental rights and international law. We do, however, note the efforts by companies to restore connectivity and services and the strong steps that have been taken to remedy the violations.

As protests move online, Twitter confirmed that its image server was blocked in Venezuela. Zello, a US-based company with a popular “walkie talkie” app that facilitates quick communications and has been popular in the Ukraine recently, told the AP that Venezuela’s state-run telecoms company, CANTV, blocked access to their push-to-talk application. A government official later claimed responsibility for blocking access to certain sites from which “cyber attacks against Venezuela” originated. On Thursday, EFF reported that the shut down expanded to include a regional internet provider in western Venezuela; Access was restored Friday morning after a 30-hour outage.

Like in many other countries, social media has become a central part of Venezuelan society. In light of the governments’ steady erosion of the independence and quality of local broadcast media, users increasingly depend on foreign media and social networks, especially Twitter, for news. Both sides of this current political crisis have used social media to further their causes. Venezuelan Communications and Information Minister Delcy Rodriguez has been tweeting constantly at @DrodriguezMinci, alleging assassination plots and pleading for “responsible” use of social media. Meanwhile, the detained activist leader Leopoldo Lopez left a message in support of opposition movements.

The decision to cut access to networks in the country mimics infamous examples of large scale shutdowns during political crises in Myanmar (2007), Egypt (2011), Syria (2012), and Sudan (2013). On a smaller scale, Bay Area Rapid Transit officials shut down cellular access in mass transit tunnels in San Francisco before a planned protest in 2011.

Network shutdowns disproportionately and unnecessarily violate user rights to freedom of expression and access to information when people need them the most. Communications companies operating in Venezuela that facilitate such shutdowns, through either inaction or complicity, risk contributing to violations of fundamental human rights and failing to uphold their responsibilities under the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Twitter is to be applauded for rerouting its services to restore access to its image servers and advising users on how to access its services via SMS. Twitter’s decisive actions stand out in contrast to many companies who faced similar challenges and correspond with the Ten Steps to Remedy found in Access’ Telco Remedy Plan.

All firms operating in Venezuela should continue to diligently monitor and remedy any violations of free expression that they are involved with, particularly during this current political crisis. Once harms are identified, companies should to redress them, for example, by:

1) Immediately restoring service, or notifying users of alternative methods to connect;

2) Demanding Venezuelan police and government officials follow all legal requirements when taking action that restricts user rights; and

3) Notifying the public and affected users of the reasons for the disruptions, including any political, legal, or extra-legal pressures the companies faced.

Access will continue to monitor the situation in Venezuela and advocate for greater corporate compliance with free expression guarantees.