IPYS Venezuela reports selective blocking of news sites El Pitazo and Armando.info by internet providers

During the first two weeks of August of this year, independent news sites Armando.info and El Pitazo were blocked intermittently on the internet by state and private operators, according to a study conducted by Venezuela’s Press and Society Institute (IPYS, for its initials in Spanish).

IPYS Venezuela conducted a series of tests in Caracas and other cities throughout the country using the methodology of the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and citizen collaboration.

Armando.info, one of the main investigative journalism sites in Venezuela, had noticed in early August that its site occasionally had access problems on the internet and at different times of the day.

Joseph Poliszuk of Armando.info explained to the Knight Center that the blocking they noticed was difficult to quantify because it changed according to the areas and schedules of the same city. "At times you can see a page and at others, no, or, at the same time, you can see in one area, but not in others," he added.

The journalist described this new type of blocking as a new mechanism of sophisticated censorship in which both the National Anonymous Telephone Company of Venezuela (Cantv), a state company that provides much of the internet service in the country, and the private cellphone operator Movistar, are participating.

In its study, IPYS Venezuela determined that at least half of the irregular blocking to Armando.info was by HTTP. This type of censorship on the internet is, according to the press freedom organization, a way of silencing content that is recorded as a connection failure and "timeout error" with the servers where the site is hosted.

El Pitazo, which acquired a domain hosted in Malaysia after suffering a third block of its site in April 2018, has also been affected by off-line periods since the beginning of August. These occur for several hours, at different times of the day and in several states of the country, according to the IPYS Venezuela report.

"Since the block of Aug. 1 to date, we have seen that page visits have been reduced by 50%," César Batiz, director of El Pitazo, told the Knight Center. He added that since then, they have had difficulty uploading content to their site and updating the page.

In addition to the blocking, Batiz said, the site has received denial of service (DDoS) attacks, "at least one every week," which have affected the page.

El Pitazo, in addition to its website, has a radio signal, audio news via WhatsApp, collaboration from NGOs, citizen reporters and social networks through which it disseminates its news. Currently, Batiz said, they are publishing full content on their Facebook account to overcome this blocking.

Mariengracia Chirinos of IPYS Venezuela told the Knight Center that the organization’s study offers technical evidence that shows that the types of selective blocking that are being applied "encourage censorship and undermine freedom" of the media and of the country's audiences to be freely informed on the internet.

"It is an exercise of transparency before the power of private and state telephone operators with the intention of promoting the dissemination of information about these phenomena in a context in which there is no formal notification, much less an independent and fair judicial action that supports these measures," Chirinos said, regarding the report.

Via Twitter, El Pitazo and Armando.info have suggested their readers use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) so they can connect to their sites.

According to the researcher from IPYS, both sites have developed offline strategies to combat online blocking, organizing talks in various spaces of the city such as bookstores or popular areas to publicize their journalistic works. "It has been a way to mitigate the impact of censorship," Chirinos said.

Also, as another resource to spread their news, El Pitazo is also publishing its special reports in the journalistic sites of Diario Tal Cual and Runrun.es.

IPYS Venezuela previously stated that selective blocking by http and manipulation of website domains came not only from Cantv and Movistar but also from two other private internet operators, including Digitel and Movilnet. According to the organization, La Patilla and El Nacional are the other independent news sites that have also been affected by this measure in recent months.

"At IPYS Venezuela we reject selective attacks and censorship measures that restrict content and services on the network," the organization said on its website. "These actions violate the principles of access, plurality and neutrality of the internet established by the Office of the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression enshrined in Article 13 of the American Convention," it emphasized.

Likewise, last week the National Assembly determined the presidents of the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) and Cantv were politically responsible for the blocking and media censorship, according to the Tal Cual website. The vote was made on the basis of a report presented by Johny Rahal, chairman of the Parliament's media commission.

Batiz commented that "the next step is to raise this report (presented in Parliament) to international human rights defenders and also insist that private companies, in this specific case Digitel and Movistar, not continue adding to this blocking of El Pitazo and other media, and that they take on the defense of human rights," Batiz said.

This month, IPYS Venezuela also published a report in conjunction with OONI and Venezuela Inteligente. In it they note that the blocks to websites affect not only digital journalistic media critical of the government but also the sites that inform about the parallel market of the dollar, blogs opposing Chavismo and internet hosting pages.

The restrictive legal framework for freedom of expression on the internet was consolidated in Venezuela in November 2017, according to this latest joint report. After a wave of citizen protests against the government of Nicolás Maduro, the President created the "Law against hate for peaceful coexistence and tolerance," approved by the Legislature. With this law, according to the report, the national authorities are empowered to block websites and accounts on social networks that they consider incite violence and sanction them with blocks, closures, millions in fines and jail time.

The public and private internet operators mentioned in this article were contacted by the Knight Center, however none responded before publication.