Human rights groups have raised concerns over a media law passed earlier this month in Venezuela that they say could stifle freedom of expression and criminalise social-media users opposed to President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
The Venezuelan government passed a law that prohibits anyone from sharing content that “promotes fascism, intolerance or hate … on social media or digital platforms”, under penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
The Venezuelan assembly approved the legislation, which is officially known as the “Law against hate, for peaceful coexistence and tolerance”, on November 9.
The law also stipulates that broadcast media outlets are “obligated” to play state messages “promoting peace, tolerance, equality and respect” for up to 30 minutes each week.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the law as a “clear threat to freedom of expression”.
Tamara Taraciuk, a senior HRW researcher for the Americas, told Al Jazeera the decree is consistent with other “abusive policies from the regime that violently repress protests in the streets [and] arrests opponents arbitrarily”.
Lilian Tintori, an opposition activist and the wife of leading opposition politician Leopoldo Tintori, told Al Jazeera the legislation is pushing Venezuelans “to keep defending our right to freedom of expression”.
“The government doesn’t want this to be public; It wants Venezuelans apart from the world, subjected to the worst hardships without anyone knowing,” Tintori said.
However, Delcy Rodriguez, the Constitutional Assembly president who oversaw the law’s passage, defended it as sending a strong message to anybody wanting to promote war.
“This is a law that promotes peaceful coexistence,” she said. “Something that the world needs precisely in these moments when the imperial powers threaten more war.”
Aristobulo Isturiz, the assembly’s vice president, said the law aimed to be preventative and protect citizens from hate that is spread in the media, and subsequent violence in the streets.
“This law will contribute to create the necessary conditions to guarantee diversity, tolerance and mutual respect,” he said.
‘War’ on social media
Maduro’s approval rating rose to 23 percent in September, up six points from last July, according to a poll by local firm Datanalisis.
Protests have convulsed Venezuela since the beginning of the year. Many have turned violent, while multiple opposition leaders have been arrested. At the same time, inflation rates have increased and shortages of food and medicine have grown worse, fuelling public discontent.
Since January, more than 160 people have died in violent confrontations between demonstrators and the police, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. Many others have been arrested.
Millions of Venezuelans have taken to social media to criticise the government, according to Twitter analytics. Many have used social-media platforms to mobilise for protests and crowdfund for help and humanitarian supplies.
Facing severe food shortages and sky-high inflation rates, Venezuelan families have taken to crowdsourcing platforms to gather donations to buy medicine, food or other products they can not afford.
People also share information on Facebook about what supplies they do have and arrange exchanges within their communities.
Maduro’s supporters have frequently accused opponents of the government of spreading lies and “extremist ideas” on social media.
The contentious law was passed after Maduro “declared war” on social media more generally.
In a televised speech on October 17, Maduro accused platforms like Facebook and Instagram of deleting his followers and hiding his posts. The social-media platforms have not responded to the allegations.
On November 15, the government also extended the authority of the National Telecommunications Commission, which will now monitor social media, as well as traditional media outlets, for content that may violate the new law.
Social media use
More than 14 million of Venezuela’s nearly 30 million citizens have smart phones, and according to a 2013 study by Statista and Mashable, over 14 percent of the population had a Twitter account.
With foreign media access to the country highly controlled and restricted by the government, media across the world have depended on videos and pictures uploaded by Venezuelan citizen journalists.
“The [public media has] every means to attack any citizen that has no right to reply. That’s why social media became the first resource for Venezuelans to express themselves and get their information,” Victor Maldonado, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“Currently the public media is hegemonic, [sectarian] and biased.”
Maldonado said he feared the recent laws may lead to a “totalitarian silence” in the long run in Venezuela, but expressed hope that citizens would probably find a way to keep communicating.
Lilian Tintori, the opposition activist, agreed.
“Faced with the massive closure of media outlets, censorship and repression, citizens have had to figure out other ways to express and report [on] what is happening,” she said.