Venezuela opposition cling to social media lifeline

Caracas (AFP) –


Deprived almost entirely of coverage on mainstream media, Venezuela's self-proclaimed president Juan Guaido has been deftly using the social networks to woo support, but even that avenue is increasingly being cut off.

Mainstream media is off-limits to the opposition leader, says Andres Canizalez, a political scientist at Andres Bello Catholic University.

"Today in Venezuela, if a radio or television station wants to stay on air, they cannot talk about Guaido," he said.

When Guaido proclaimed himself Venezuela's acting president and called for fresh elections on January 23, the mostly state-controlled media ignored it. The opposition got the word out instead on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

The people around the 35-year-old National Assembly leader have been forced to hone their social networking skills, says Canizalez.

"Right now, he's a leader whose only way of communication with society is through control of the social networks."

Unknown to the public at large before his spectacular announcement, Guaido has become the standard bearer of the opposition to President Nicolas Maduro, whether on the streets or on Twitter.

This week, his Twitter following soared past the one million mark. He has 2.2 million followers on Instagram.

While Guaido was declaring himself president in the streets, state television VTV was broadcasting images of pro-Maduro marches which were going on at the same time.

On private Venevision, viewers were being treated to a soap.

- Internet blocks-

Being snubbed by state media comes as no surprise to the opposition.

"The state has been censoring communications media for years, either by taking them over or forcing them to self-censor," said Melanio Escobar, who heads a media NGO called Redes.

Now there is even a explicit ban on talking about Guaido, as well as anything that suggests "repression, murder, arbitrary detention," she said, referring to what opponents say have become more frequent crackdowns in the days since Guaido's declaration.

"The deepening political crisis has been accompanied by increasingly blatant and disturbing censorship of non-governmental media," said Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in a statement.

Internet observatory NetBlocks reported "major internet disruptions in Venezuela affecting YouTube, Google Search, servers for the Android mobile platform and other services" on January 23.

"Social media services are notably disrupted, with Facebook, Instagram intermittently cut off and the disruptions have increasingly affected other online properties," it said.

Venezuelan journalists' association the Institute of Press and Society (Ipys) noted average internet speeds of 0.9 megabits per second -- just a quarter of the average output speed in Latin America.

"The past month in Venezuela has also seen unusual information blackouts and restrictions on access to social networks, which are massively used by Maduro's opponents." said RSF.

Now RSF and other media watchdogs say things are likely to get worse, as the government plans to increase its power to control internet access and use with a new "Cyperspace Law".

- Fresh message -

"Since 2014, social networks have practically been the only of communication to which the Venezuelan opposition has had access," to call for protests, publish press releases or broadcast live videos, said Melanio Escobar.

Enough to annoy Maduro, who in October 2017 blasted the "dictatorship" of the social networks, complaining the internet giants frequently boycott messages from his camp. Maduro has 3.5 million followers on Twitter and more than half-a-million on Instagram.

Up to now, the opposition is "making smarter use of social networks," said Canizalez. "The message Guaido is carrying on social networks is fresher, more direct."

Maduro, on the other hand, regularly shows himself "in combat, doing military exercises, as if to give the idea that he has control," Canizalez said.