Faced with blackouts and censorship, Venezuelans resort to creative methods to keep themselves informed

This is a translation of the original article.

With no electricity, water or fuel. No Internet, television or printed press. No vehicles, transport or basic necessities. Scarcity is now the norm in Venezuela. Everything is in short supply, nothing is easy and the normal daily life of ordinary humans is a luxury for the average citizen.

The situation in Venezuela is considered to be the worst humanitarian crisis in a country not at war in the last 45 years. The complicated political climate further exacerbates the social and economic crisis. The government led by Nicolás Maduro is regarded as illegitimate by approximately 50 countries, and by National Assembly president Juan Guaidó. In January, Guaidó invoked the country’s constitution to take over as interim president and call for new elections.

Within this context, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, visited the troubled country between 19 and 21 June. She met with Maduro, Guaidó and dozens of civil society and political actors. Bachelet urged both sides of the political divide to initiate the “required dialogue” and she called for the release of political prisoners.

The social situation in the country has led to a serious deterioration in the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of information, according to local IFEX members IPYS Venezuela and Espacio Público. The organisations have reported that attacks on freedom of expression are constant, and prominent among the incidents has been the government’s blocking of Internet-based platforms and media. In their most recent report, IPYS Venezuela documented 86 cases of restrictions on citizens’ digital rights, including blockages of YouTube, Google and Bing.

IFEX spoke to several journalists and activists to gain an understanding of how a society faced with these challenges can manage to stay informed, while dealing with blackouts, Internet blockages and censorship, in addition to the associated scarcity of truthful and fact-based information created under such conditions.

During our conversations we discovered several creative ways, including “offline” methods, that are being used in Venezuela to keep information circulating.

No electricity, and no Internet

Long line-ups of vehicles form at gas stations as drivers wait to get a few litres of fuel. To help pass the time, people turn on their radios but there are hardly any stations available since daily power outages impede broadcasting. Some people check their mobile phones (those that have charged batteries that is) but the Internet is either down or news websites have been blocked by the government.

Another typical day in Venezuela.

The stories, all very similar, accumulate by the dozens. Among them is that of Dayrí Blanco’, a correspondent for IPYS Venezuela and the Caraota Digital media outlet in Carabobo state. Blanco spoke to IFEX about the day-to-day complications.

“In Carabobo state, it is very, very difficult to do journalism work these days. There is no access to public information. You have to do a thousand manoeuvres just to get information out,” Blanco said.

“Added to this are the problems we have with the lack of fuel supply and the endless line-ups. I have had to wait up to four hours to get gasoline,” she added. Delays of this nature affect all types of work, especially those with tight timelines, like communications activities.

“It’s not easy for people to keep abreast of what is happening. Most people are poorly informed, above all by social media, where rumours abound and people often accept whatever they read. [It’s a source of information] with no verification process and no guarantees,” she noted.

Blanco further remarked, “The situation in the country is very, very complex. The level of disinformation is horrible, and there are constant information blockages. There are portals that are blocked on a daily basis. [Maduro’s government] takes away broadcasting licences and censors radio stations. There are a huge number of words that cannot be used because if they are it results in punishment and fines.”

Ana Méndoza, another IPYS Venezuela correspondent, works for the binational publication Wayuunaiki but is currently based in Río Alto, Colombia. When asked why Wayuunaiki has closed its offices in Venezuela, Méndoza responded, “We closed because of the problems with electricity supply and connectivity. But we also decided to self-censor and left for security reasons. The region is a no man’s land.”

According to Méndoza, one strategy for continuing reporting in some way involves “creating WhatsApp groups among journalists from which statements can be disseminated and in that manner provide information and circulate updates and news bulletins.”

Venezuela’s National Assembly head and self-proclaimed “acting president” Juan Guaido, talks to journalists upon arrival at the National Assembly in Caracas, 29 January 2019, YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Cuts and more cuts

Venezuelan lawyer and human rights defender Marianne Díaz Hernández founded the Accesso Libre (Free Access) non-governmental organisation and works as a public policy analyst for IFEX member Derechos Digitales. Díaz was declared a “Human Rights Hero” by Access Now, an international organisation that promotes the right to a free and open Internet.

Díaz clearly identified supply cuts as the main problem encountered in obtaining and disseminating information in Venezuela. Whether they be cuts to electricity, fuel or the Internet, they are “constant and unpredictable” and “represent an enormous obstacle to overcome in order to obtain trustworthy information, communicate with each other and organize ourselves with respect to any project,” she told IFEX.

“The implementation of any initiative, whether it be a press release, a campaign or simply an interview, are all hampered by issues as basic as the impossibility of conducting a phone call via Skype or receiving a rapid reply to a WhatsApp message because the person you are trying to communicate with doesn’t have electricity,” she said.

Díaz has extensive experience in issues relating to a lack of information in Venezuela. One of her articles is a very useful guide to how to continue obtaining information in the country.

For Nayrobis Rodríguez, a journalist and IPYS Venezuela correspondent in the state of Sucre, the cuts are daily and affect “the possibility of carrying out any normal work.”

Like the others who were consulted, Rodríguez said that “it is nearly impossible” to do journalism work and provide information to the public, but that they “haven’t given up” and they keep looking for “alternative ways.” One of the methods being employed is to use the personal social networks of each journalist to create a platform for dissemination of information.

Born into this

Luis Carlos Díaz is perhaps one of the most recognised young journalists in Venezuela. His critical stance toward the Maduro government and his attempts to practice free journalism have made him a target for harassment and persecution. He was detained and held incommunicado by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional), accused of “instigation” for exercising his right to free expression. His case motivated the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to request the implementation of precautionary measures for the journalist and his family.

Luis Carlos Díaz told IFEX, “The issue with censorship in Venezuela is that for my generation there has never been anything else. There has been nothing other than ‘Chavism’. So what we have experienced throughout our lives is a process of advancing censorship and government control of each of the free, independent and autonomous media outlets and, above all, control of issues that are relevant, significant and of importance to the population.”

“For me, this advancing censorship is the norm, I’ve lived with it my whole life. But since I’m also a child of the Internet age, I look for ways around it by working with NGOs, etc. How can you work in this? Basically you can’t work. You can’t work freely, or with even a minimum of guarantees . And there is no sustainable model for exercising journalism in Venezuela,” he said.

“So how do people get information? In pieces, like Lego blocks that you keep gathering and assembling throughout the day via social filters. It is something each person does via their social networks,” Díaz explained.

“The biggest outcome of this is a society that is profoundly uninformed, with difficulties all the time in knowing what is happening,” he added.

Members of Venezuela Intelligence Services (SEBIN) move journalists away from a site, in Caracas, 16 May 2019, STR/AFP/Getty Images

Disinformation rules

Alba Perdomo is a journalist and IPYS Venezuela correspondent in Bolívar state, a mining region with high levels of violence similar “to the kind seen in Mexico.” The local situation coupled with the cuts in supplies and information blockages make the task of obtaining and providing informing an undertaking of immense proportions.

“There are days when up to five services are unavailable: there’s no gas in the lines, no electricity, no water, no fuel at filling stations and no Internet. As a journalist, I feel like I’m living in the time of cavemen. On one hand, we don’t have contact with the rest of the country and don’t know what is going on, and on the other hand we are unable to transmit information if something happens here,” Perdomo told IFEX.

“There are major issues here that are not being covered: the lack of media has resulted in people being guided more and more by social networks, WhatsApp chats, audio and video content. This has generated a huge fake news industry,” Perdomo noted. She also said that the lack of access to information and blockages are making Venezuelan society “increasingly gullible.”

“Disinformation reigns. Disinformation and opaqueness rule,” she said.

BusTV

María Fernández is a correspondent for El Pitazo and IPYS Venezuela in the state of Mérida. She noted that her region has been among the hardest hit by the electricity shortages since it’s “at the tail end of the national electrical system.”

“This has affected me dramatically, making it more and more difficult for me to send my material,” Fernández said.

She commented that she has come to rely on SMS text messaging for receiving and sending information and has arrived at the point of sending entire articles in this manner.

According to Fernández, “the decrease in digital and other communication channels, censorship of the Internet and increasingly slow connections have left citizens both in Mérida and the rest of the country with a reduced ability to access substantiated information… there is less journalistic treatment of information.”

Not all is lost, however: an initiative by journalists called BusTV is providing a window of information for disconnected audiences.

BusTV was founded in 2017 as a nation-wide project. It is a news service geared directly to audiences on public transit vehicles and at transit stops where people wait to board vehicles. Current local and international news is read out loud.

BusTV is a method of offline communication delivered by teams of three people, and has expanded to several cities, Fernández explained.

This initiative in a country experiencing censorship and less and less Internet access has been well received by audiences.

These are the kinds of initiatives that provide a ray of hope in Venezuela’s deteriorated situation. In addition, they are examples of schemes that should be supported, replicated and spread to other areas in order to keep information channels open.

The very existence of freedom of expression and access to information in Venezuela depends in large part on the use of methods and forms of communication of this kind.

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The post Faced with blackouts and censorship, Venezuelans resort to creative methods to keep themselves informed appeared first on IFEX.

Source: MEDIA FEED

HRNJ-UG Admin

Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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