- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 15, 2010

In Venezuela, Luis Enrique Acosta Oxford’s ordeal began June 30, when he posted a 120-character piece of financial advice on the popular micro-blogging site Twitter: “Ladies and Gentlemen, don’t say you weren’t warned… Pull out today… I’m telling you, there are just a few days left.”

Eight days later, Venezuelan authorities incarcerated Mr. Oxford, 41, and a fellow Twitter user - Carmen Cecilia Nares Castro, 35.

A court this week charged them with “disseminating false rumors” on Twitter to “destabilize the banking system.” They were released pending trial and face up to 11 years in prison.

What’s more, Venezuelan authorities have indicated they may pursue similar charges against 15 others.

For some who observe the regime of President Hugo Chavez, this new drama brings little surprise.

“The assault on free, independent, and critical media in Venezuela has run its course,” said Thor Halvorssen, the Venezuelan-born president of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), a New York-based nongovernmental organization that monitors human rights conditions in the Americas.

“There is little left for the government to do, considering it has used every tool at its disposal to silence dissent,” he said, noting a crackdown on media critical of the government. “This is phase two - going after individuals in private action for simple freedom of expression.”

Mr. Halvorssen said the Twitter arrests were carried out to have a “chilling effect.”

Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, who works for the Sucre municipal government in Caracas, echoed that assessment. “These events illustrate the way in which civil rights are being gradually chipped away in Venezuela,” he said.

“What began with the closing of Radio Caracas Television in 2007 and the harassment and closures of other media outlets has now trickled down to the silencing of ordinary citizens,” Mr. Lansberg-Rodriguez said. “These arrests, and the precedent they set, should concern all Venezuelans, regardless of political affiliation.”

Reporters Without Borders, a nongovernmental organization that promotes press freedom around the world, publicized the Twitter case this week.

“The authorities are treating Twitter users like criminals and challenging the view of the Internet as a space where freedom should prevail,” the group said in a statement. “President Chavez nonetheless maintains his right to affirm his presence and his opinions on the Internet, above all on his blog and his Twitter account.”

Mr. Chavez has about 660,000 Twitter followers and has tweeted more than 500 times since joining the site under the handle @chavezcandanga in April.

In March, he openly declared his intent to tighten Web restrictions for other Venezuelans. “The Internet cannot be a completely free space where anything is said and anything is done,” he said. “No, each country must impose its own rules.”

The Washington Times sought comment from the Venezuelan Embassy but was told no spokesman could be made available.

There has been no comment on the case from senior U.S. diplomatic officials. State Department spokesman Andy Laine told The Times that the Obama administration remains deeply committed to Internet freedom.

“As both President Obama and Secretary [of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton have stressed on multiple occasions, we are strongly committed to Internet freedom and are opposed to censorship,” he said. “We believe in the importance of free flow of information and emphasize that freedom of expression is a universal human right.”

That right, however, appears to be in recession not just in Venezuela, but in authoritarian countries around the world. Last June, after Iran’s disputed presidential elections, the Islamic Republic’s authorities famously cracked down on Twitter when the site proved a useful tool for demonstrators to coordinate among themselves and relay ground-level developments to the world — particularly after the country expelled foreign reporters.

In Latin America, meanwhile, experts say this case could have reverberations well beyond Venezuela’s borders.

“Every single action that has occurred under Chavez — whether it’s a new constitution, new laws regarding media, the expropriation of radio stations, the shutting down of TV stations — happens first in Venezuela,” said the HRF’s Mr. Halvorssen. “Then it happens in Ecuador and Bolivia, usually simultaneously. Then it happens in Nicaragua. Venezuela is a testing ground for all this.”


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