2014 Worst Year for Free Expression in Venezuela, NGO Report Concludes

woman uses a smartphone
For many people across the globe, accessing the Internet via a mobile phone is a matter of convenience. As of 2012, more than half of all local searches started being conducted from mobile devices, as people used their phones to navigate to shops and restaurants.

But for many Venezuelans in 2014, mobile phones were one of the only types of tool that could be used to circumvent censorship in the country — and even then, many have claimed that Internet connections were artificially slowed during protests and that police used cellphone blockers to prevent broadcasting of demonstrations.

2014 was the worst year on record for freedom of expression violations in Venezuela, according to non-governmental organization Espacio Publico, which tracks incidences of various forms of speech suppression. The NGO recorded 579 violations and 350 cases, the highest number of both in the past two decades.

A report from the organization, released in late January, says that violations were extremely common during student protests that began in February of last year. Censorship was the most common type of violation, with 145 cases reported. Aggression was second, with 93 cases.

Journalists attempting to cover demonstrations were subjected to beatings, shots from pellet guns, tear gas, interrogations and detainment. Audiovisual and photographic material was also destroyed by police.
Self-Censorship and Citizen Journalism
Espacio Publico cites numerous instances of official censorship, but the report notes that auto-censorship or self-censorship is an equally concerning trend, especially with several news outlets coming under new ownership in the past year.

Major newspapers such as Ultimas Noticias and El Universal showed a pattern of “reduction of space available for denouncements made by sources, the invisibility of political leaders, and changes made to headlines and the articles themselves,” the NGO says.

These claims are backed by recent online publications from Venezuelan journalists and citizens.

Marianne Diaz authored an award-winning essay (published online Feb. 8) detailing her experience during the February and March 2014 demonstrations, saying that newspapers and TV stations were delivering so little news during the events that some people merely wandered outside in an effort to find out whether they’d be able to go about their daily business.

It was only then that some information on police raids and street conditions was shared, with people “broadcasting the police attacks from their mobile phones,” Diaz writes. It is these citizen-reporters, Gloria Salazar of Espacio Publico told Jan D. Walter for a Feb. 5 article, on which other Venezuelans must rely for information.

“There’s less and less room for public freedom of expression,” Salazar said.