The Opposition’s Opposition: Venezuela’s Anti-Social Media Law

By: Katrina Flores

Hyperinflation, malnutrition, unprecedented corruption, hunger, and poverty comprise the grocery store list of cracks in the devastated foundation that has inevitably become Venezuela’s economic and humanitarian crisis.  Amidst the turmoil, January 23, 2019 marked yet another crisis as Juan Guaidó, head of the Venezuelan National Assembly, declared himself interim president of the country.  This declaration came in light of the swearing in of re-elected socialist President Maduro for a second term.  Guaidó and the opposition argue that because the May 2018 election was fraudulent, Maduro is a “usurper,” and the presidency is vacant.  In support of his move, Guaidó cites articles 233 and 333 of the Venezuelan constitution providing recourse in such situations.  This ongoing political crisis has sharply divided the international community into two camps: those who support and recognize opposition leader Guaidóas President, and thosewho continue to back President Maduro.

Maduro’s government is no stranger to such fervent opposition.  Venezuelans have borne witness to several laws targeting output by the media in attempt to stifle resistance speech. A 2010 amendment to the law on media and responsibility was the first step in seeking control over the flow of information.  This amendment forced broadcasters to air government approved material while also prohibiting the display of violent content.  Notably, the interpretation of this restriction indirectly also bound internet service providers, consequently limiting internet users’ ability to share content freely.

Legislation passed in 2017 further cemented the legalization of government censorship.  First, Maduro issued Executive Order 2489, broadening the defined scope of a “state of emergency.”  In doing so, the government granted itself both policing powers over the internet as well as the ability to filter online content, effectively isolating users from the global internet.  Later that year, Maduro’s Venezuelan Constituent Assembly approved the Anti-hate Law for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence punishing those who promote hate or violence publicly with imprisonment for up to 20 years.  Cumulatively, these laws arm the government with an arsenal of methods to justify enforcement actions taken to censor and arrest government opponents and journalists.

Due to the near silencing of broadcast media and newspapers, social media and the internet serve as the lifeline between the opposition and the individuals living within the country’s borders.  Predictably, following Guaidó’s declaration on January 23, the state-run CANTV has blocked access to social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Periscope no less than four times.  Of particular importance is the timing of these disruptions.  On January 27, Guaidó’s rally and speech urging citizens to continue protesting were live streamed to no avail. For twelve of the thirteen minutes of this speech, the government internet provider blocked social media platforms so only those with privately run internet providers could watch without interruption.  So while the international community can clearly hear Guaidó’s calls to abandon Maduro’s Venezuela, those living within its borders may hear nothing at all.

Of general consensus amongst those that stand in solidarity with Guaidó is the need not only for Maduro to resign, but also for a new unhampered election process.  The difficulty of the latter ever coming to fruition, however, lies in the lack of dissemination of information within the country.  While the United Nations has condemned Venezuela’s restrictions on media in the past, it has taken no position on the enduring political crisis thus far, despite the United States and Russia submitting opposing resolutions on the matter.  As evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of individuals protesting in the streets, it becomes exceedingly clear that Maduro’s opposition has gained significant traction, notwithstanding the lack of functioning media outlets, and will likely continue to do so under the acute gaze of an international audience.

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