Freedom of the press also targeted virtually in Venezuela, where cyberattacks can force independent sites offline

By Cat Cardenas

This story has been updated to reflect the nature of the accusations against Vice President Tareck El Aissami.

In the final days of March 2017, several journalists were assaulted during anti-government protests in Venezuela, but recent attacks on journalists in this country have not been exclusively physical. Earlier in the month, a series of cyberattacks forced several Venezuelan independent media outlets to temporarily shut down their websites.

News sites El Pitazo, Caraota Digital, El Correo del Caroní were all attacked. Additionally, the sites of non profits, like human rights organization Provea, were also targeted.

El Pitazo director César Batiz said a series of two attacks kept the publication offline for 17 hours on March 9. The first attack sought to stop the site from appearing in Google search results, while the second was a more powerful DDoS attack that attempted to make their website unreachable. While the site was offline, the publication continued reporting via social networks.

The attacks were traced to IP addresses in China and Iraq, but Batiz said the team at El Pitazo couldn't confirm the exact location of the hackers. Because these attacks on multiple websites would’ve required coordination between groups of hackers, the journalists believe it was ordered by politically and economically powerful individuals.

For Batiz, it’s obvious that, whoever the hackers are, they targeted El Pitazo because of the publication’s independent stance.

“I don’t have a single doubt that it was a factor,” Batiz told the Knight Center. “We think it’s nothing more than a response to the work that we do at El Pitazo of exposing the things that others stay quiet about.”

In a press release, El Pitazo said its technical team traced a previous attack to a building adjacent to Plaza Venezuela in Caracas. Univision highlighted that the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin) has a headquarters there.

Across Venezuela, journalists are leaving traditional news publishers for independent outlets, like El Pitazo and Caraota Digital, as the government and big businesses take increasing ownership—and editorial influence—over the country’s print media, said Marianela Balbi, executive director of Venezuela’s Press and Society Institute (IPYS).

Even the country’s sole newspaper distributor, Corporación Maneiro, is a government organization.

“They distribute the papers at their discretion,” Balbi told the Knight Center. “They’re responding to which papers have a pro-government editorial line and which ones are critical. It’s forced a lot of papers to change their editorial line in order to survive.”

Balbi believes the recent cyberattacks are an extension of this tactic by a government hostile to independent media. That’s why Balbi feels getting the word out about these cyberattacks is so important. For the people of Venezuela, online publications are some of the only outlets that provide a voice that critiques the government and exposes abuses.

“[The cyberattacks] are restrictions on the free flow of information,” Balbi said. “It’s another way to restrict the right of free information and free press. Because of the censorship, a lot of the people of Venezuela have found refuge with digital outlets. They need this information, and those online media are where they’re looking for it."

If the attacks on the independent press are in fact coming from the government, Balbi says it’s just part of a larger trend in Venezuela.

“We know that in every democratic society, the state should guarantee that the principles [of free press] are respected and protected,” Balbi said. “Here, what we’re seeing is that the government that should protect those principles is threatening them.”

Journalist Marjuli Matheus of El Pitazo said most of the publications and organizations that have been victims of cyberattacks have been critical of the government. Rather than change their editorial line, Matheus said they plan to press on because their independent stance is what the organization was built on.

“We give voices to people who don’t have a voice and we say what other people don’t,” Matheus told the Knight Center. “We think there could be political factors and powerful people who want to silence the work that we do.”

While they can’t be sure that any specific stories triggered the attacks, Matheus said they have published a few stories in the past that would have angered government officials.

Barely a month before the cyber attacks, El Pitazo published a series of articles focused on the Venezuelan vice president, Tareck El Aissami, and his alleged frontman, Samark López, included in the Clinton List for alleged links to drug trafficking.

“We can’t trace those stories to the attacks, but we have been critical of the government before,” Matheus said. “Here in Venezuela, someone who writes critically about public figures is often vilified, humiliated and attacked.”

Matheus said few journalists outside Venezuela are aware of how severe the suppression and intimidation has become, and that has made it hard to gain support from colleagues abroad.

"The truth is that I think there is skepticism. My first impression, during my travels, is that my colleagues do not believe that the situation is as serious as it is," Matheus said. "They have no idea what is happening to us and it can be difficult to explain. Outside of Venezuela, there is no awareness of how people are living, not just journalists."

About a year ago, Google launched Project Shield to help newsrooms fight DDos attacks. The company and the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) have promoted its use in vulnerable Latin American newsrooms.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.