Venezuelans Blocked on Twitter as Opposition Protests Mount

Feb 14, 2014 6:38 pm ET

(Updates with comment from Cantv in sixth paragraph.)

Feb. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Twitter Inc. said the Venezuelan government blocked users’ online images as opposition groups marched through Caracas for a third day, demonstrating against record shortages and the world’s fastest inflation.

Nu Wexler, a Twitter spokesman, confirmed in an e-mail that the government was behind the disruption. President Nicolas Maduro banned protests Feb. 12 and has asked his supporters to counter with a “march against fascism” tomorrow, in a week of social unrest that has left at least three Venezuelans dead.

In the absence of information from the government or local television outlets, Venezuelans have turned to foreign reporters and social media for news. Twitter users had been posting their photos of demonstrations that started in provincial towns earlier this month, providing an alternative to state-controlled media. It’s unclear if photos are blocked for users of all Internet providers in Venezuela, Wexler said.

“We won’t cease protests until all our comrades are free,” Gaby Arellano, a leader of the Andes University student union and member of the opposition party Voluntad Popular, said by telephone today. “We will continue fighting for our democratic rights.”

Maduro ordered police on Feb. 12 to detain opposition leaders for inciting violence after clashes between opposition- affiliated students and armed pro-government socialist collectives left 66 people injured and 118 under detention, according to the Interior Ministry.

Cantv Denial

State-run phone company Cia. Anonima Nacional Telefonos de Venezuela SA, or Cantv, denied blocking the images of San Francisco-based Twitter. Twitter’s servers are outside of Venezuela, and other countries experienced the same issue, the company said in an e-mailed statement today.

A spokesman for the Information Ministry, who can’t be named because of internal policy, said he had no problem seeing pictures on his Twitter account, which he uses to follow friends and family.

Students have defied Maduro’s ban on protests, blocking Caracas’ major avenues today on the way to the Eastern Cemetery to bury student Roberto Redman, one of the three killed in Feb. 12 clashes.

Only 10 of the 118 people detained have been charged to- date, mostly for instigating violence, according to the prosecutor general’s office. Human rights group Venezuelan Penal Forum put the number of detained at 148.

‘No Idea’

Alex Matute, a Caracas-based web developer, said his brother Angel, a 24-year-old student, was among the 30 protesters who were held by the National Guard without being charged and without access to lawyers or family for two days, before being driven to courts.

“We have no idea what they plan to do with him,” Alex Matute said by telephone today. “The police won’t tell us anything.”

A National Guard spokesman, who can’t be named because of internal policy, and Interior Ministry spokesman Marco Hernandez declined to comment, citing national-security risks.

Maduro has accused international outlets of bias. He took Colombian station NTN24 off the air after the protests and in a national address yesterday criticized Agence France Presse for “manipulating information.”

‘Massive Attack’

In November, Maduro asked authorities to investigate a disappearance of 6,000 of his 1.4 million Twitter followers, calling it a “massive attack” by the “international right wing.”

Billy Vaisberg, who runs an online directory of Venezuelan Twitter users called TwVen.com, said he had received several reports today from people who couldn’t see images on their feeds. In a post on its Spanish-language account, @twitter_es, Twitter advised Venezuelan users to subscribe to its text- message service to get updates.

“We are having a media blackout,” Josefina Blanco, a freelance science journalist and social media user, said in an e-mail from Caracas. Only because of Twitter, NTN24 and radio station RCR 750, “we can know what is really going on in our streets,” she said.

Inflation more than doubled in Venezuela in the past year to 56.3 percent in January, according to the central bank. At the same time, the central bank’s scarcity index rose to a record 28 percent, meaning that more than one in four basic goods was out of stock at any given time.

Bonds Fall

Amid the threat of new social unrest, the South American country’s benchmark dollar bond due in 2027 fell 0.67 cent to 64.85 cents on the dollar, near a 30-month low. The yield on the bond rose 16 basis points to 15.53 percent, at 3:40 p.m. in New York.

“The opposition has made a huge progress in the past week, as a couple of student protests have reignited the movement,” David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, said by telephone from Caracas yesterday. “If in the coming months the economy gets substantially worse and the protests continue, Maduro will be in tough position.”

--With assistance from Corina Pons, Nathan Crooks and Jose Orozco in Caracas. Editors: Crayton Harrison, Robert Jameson