A Chinese state-owned tech company is sanctioned by the U.S. for supporting Maduro’s online censorship efforts and the local media do not scrutinize this sensitive issue.
By Ana Julia Niño Gamboa
On November 30, 2020, the U.S. Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions against the China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation (CEIEC). In its statement, it expresses that “CEIEC has provided software, training, and technical expertise to Venezuela government entities, which was then used against the people of Venezuela”. Furthermore, it alleges that the mentioned Chinese company has collaborated in “efforts to restrict internet service and conduct digital surveillance and cyber operations against political opponents”. The reaction of the Venezuelan government was immediate. Foreign Affairs Minister Jorge Arreaza expressed in a press release that this “illegal action” by the U.S. is another attempt to destabilize Venezuelan society.
The explanation of the Department of the Treasury puts in evidence the presence of China in the field of telecom and surveillance services conducted by CEIEC in the country, another matter handled, like almost all public information, with total opacity. The sanction points to a sensitive issue that the government justifies as yet another attack by its political enemy against it and its new best friend and ally, China. The government spokesperson provides no further facts since, then and now, is it impossible to access the cooperation agreements, treaties, or contracts that may have been signed with Beijing.
Therefore, the matter deserves special attention. It is a substantive issue that implies the very limited space for citizen maneuvering to access the digital ecosystem and the monopolistic activity that the government reserves and exercises in this field. Now, to this is added the presence of China, a country providing technology used as a tool against civil dissent. Obviously, the above facts call for a review of the coverage given to this issue by local media.
Through a sample consisting of eight media, our aim is to reveal the coverage given to this information. The review was conducted from November 30 to December 2, 2020; the number of news items was obtained seems low, if we consider the fact that it is about surveillance and cyber-operations against citizens in general. These issues are not alien to the undemocratic nature of the government, further reliant on the strategy in place by the Chinese Communist Party, which uses technology to police and repress.
It could be said that, at times like these, the Venezuelan media miss some significant details. Furthermore, they do not provide the journalistic contextualization anticipating issues that should be on the citizens’ agenda. The emergence of China as a new ally should not be a censored issue in principle. However, the extent of its influence in so many aspects, which has broadened in the midst of the complex humanitarian crisis intensified by the coronavirus, deserves special attention in view of the trademark opacity of those relations between Caracas and Beijing.
The sanction imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department on November 30, 2020, against Chinese state-owned company CEIEC for its relationship with the administration of Nicolás Maduro, highlights a very sensitive issue: The guarantee of Internet access as part of the rights to freedom of expression and to security and neutrality. Regardless of the controversy surrounding the U.S. sanctions, the truth is that the systematic actions by the Venezuelan government to prevent the free flow of opinion, dissent, and criticism are being documented. Journalistic and political endeavors become increasingly difficult, so does citizen action because the police work of government surveillance invades even constitutionally protected private communications.
For this reason, the U. S. Treasury Department’s explanation underscores China’s presence in the field of telecom and surveillance services that the CEIEC performs in the country, another issue that is handled, like almost all public information, with total secrecy. The sanction points to a sensitive issue that the government justifies as yet another attack by its political enemy against it and its new best friend and ally, China. The government spokesperson provides no further facts since, then and now, is it impossible to access the cooperation agreements, treaties, or contracts that may have been signed with Beijing.
This research intends to shed light on the media coverage done in the country regarding this matter. For this purpose, online review on the websites of eight media outlets was done for three days, from November 30, the date of the sanction issued by the United States, until December 2, 2020.
Table 1: Media reviewed
|XINHUANET AGENCY (in Spanish)||spanish.xinhuanet.com|
|VENEZOLANA DE TELEVISIÓN||vtv.gob.ve|
|LA IGUANA TV||laiguana.tv|
|CORREO DEL ORINOCO||correodelorinoco.gob.ve|
We worked on this specific case, chosen because of its current relevance. It is essentially a documentary review focused on the news items published by the media selected in the time frame set for this study. It is a practice of a qualitative nature, appropriate for measuring the importance given by the media ecosystem. The sample thereof is representative since it includes private and pro-government media, among them the Chinese agency, Xinhua.
The review was conducted online. Sometimes we had to resort to Google’s advanced search tool, because some media’s search engines are not user-friendly. On this occasion, we did not review government sources because the press release issued by Venezuela’s Foreign Affairs Ministry was sufficient. However, of the eight media analyzed, five are government leaning, so the government’s position is inferred from those publications.
The news pieces tend to repeat the same content, which suggests that the notes are based on an initial source that is not cited in the texts. Even so, most of them limit themselves to referring to the U.S. Treasury Department press release and, in other cases, to that of Venezuela’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. Therefore, it can be stated that what the media does not say is proof of a behavior in which thoroughness and journalistic contextualization are diluted. This tendency may be triggered by local precious conditions for journalistic work, but also to the policy of censorship that seems to be sheepishly observed.
With this work, we aim to critically document the status of public information, and how the interests of China and the protection of those interests by the government of Nicolás Maduro also weigh on it.
All things related to telecom and digital phone services, Internet access, etc. are of vital interest to Venezuelan society, primarily because the infrastructure of services to citizens is deteriorated. In addition, the actions of the Nicolás Maduro government to conduct digital surveillance and intercept private communications, blocking the websites of media outlets, civil and political organizations, for the mere fact of dissenting or criticizing, are also known and documented. This seriously impairs the full exercise of freedom of expression and the right to information.
The Venezuelan government practically monopolizes the precarious access to the internet and puts at its mercy the private companies that still provide this service in the country so that they act on orders from the Executive. In this way, citizens are deprived of a safe and neutral service. The blocking of several websites of the media, political groups, NGOs, and a wide range of other organizations has been documented, resulting in censorship and self-censorship. Added to this local experience is this fraternity between China and Venezuela, with commercial ties concealed from citizen oversight, which legitimately breeds distrust.
In addition, the Asian country does not enjoy a very good reputation in terms of respect for freedom of expression, for safeguarding plural and diverse opinion, for the security of social demonstrations and protests (which have been outright stifled). Instead, it has put in place the use of technology to police and repress.
In 2019, NGO Amnesty International denounced [source in Spanish] that the Chinese authorities applied strict censorship methods to media and publications, including online games. They explained that “with the assistance of private technology and Internet companies, civil servants mastered techniques of facial recognition, real-name registration systems, and big data to subject the population to massive and indiscriminate surveillance and control”. It is reported that China used the so-called “great firewall” to control cyberspace, with malware and denial of service attacks against servers, websites, and messaging applications that were inconvenient to them.
None of these facts is stranger to the Venezuelan reality and the practices of the Chavista government. Among the reasons cited by the U.S. Department of the Treasury is that “the suite of software and hardware that CEIEC provided Venezuela is a commercialized version of China’s ‘Great Firewall’”. It also explains that CEIEC supports the government’s malicious cyber-efforts since 2017 and, in this regard, it has provided software, training, and technical expertise to Venezuelan government agencies, which was then used against citizens. Likewise, it provides IT support and technical experts to state-owned Compañía Nacional de Teléfonos de Venezuela (CANTV), which controls 70% of the Internet service in Venezuela.
With all this set of facts, and without delving into the controversy on the sanctions, the truth is that the matter highlights a reasonable doubt on the virtues of the cooperation agreements between both nations. Therefore, it is an issue that deserves a place in the media coverage, in addition to an explanation by the Venezuelan government, one that goes beyond the usual rhetoric of an imperialistic attack against the Bolivarian Revolution.
Thirteen news items were found, which implies that, on average, each outlet released less than two pieces on this subject. Repetition was detected in the contents published. This leads to the presumption that there is a single primary source; but it is not cited in the text of the news. The majority logically refer to the press release from the U.S. Treasury Department and that of Venezuela’s Foreign Affairs Ministry in rejection of the sanction against the Chinese company. There is still missing a contextualization effort, a journalistic work that provides depth and perspective to the implications of these facts. This tendency may be triggered by the precarious state of journalistic work but also by the evident censorship affecting journalists and the media.
In Table No. 2, the headlines of the media reviewed are itemized. The similarity of the terms regarding the condemnation of the U.S. government sanctions from Venezuela and China is noted. However, the news items lack a closer look into the effects of Chinese cooperation, at least some allusion to the existence and conditions of this type of agreements with a country that has made its technology a weapon of repression. In a way, this fact should sound the alarm among the society on what these partnerships entail for Venezuelans.
Table 2: Headlines in the media studied
|XINHUANET AGENCY (in Spanish)||China Urges U.S. to Lift Sanctions against Chinese Companies|
|TELESUR||11/30/2020: Venezuela denounces illegal U.S. sanctions against Chinese company12/1/2020: China demands that the U.S. lift sanctions against Venezuela12/3/2020: China rejects U.S. accusations and measures against its country|
|VENEZOLANA DE TELEVISIÓN||12/1/2020: Beijing condemns U.S. sanctions against Chinese company CEIEC for links with Venezuela|
|ÚLTIMAS NOTICIAS||11/30/2020: Venezuela rejects U.S. harassment following sanctions on Chinese company CEIEC|
|LA IGUANA TV||12/1/2020: This is how China reacted to the U.S. sanctions against CEIEC because of its ties with Venezuela12/2/2020: What does the Chinese company sanctioned by the U.S. for cooperating with Venezuela do?|
|CORREO DEL ORINOCO||11/30/2020: The U.S. sanctions the Chinese state-owned company CEIEC for its relationship with Venezuela|
|EL NACIONAL||11/30/2020: Regime denounces U.S. attack to sanction Chinese tech firm12/1/2020: China demands that the U.S. lift sanctions on tech company operating in Venezuela|
|EFECTO COCUYO||11/30/2020: The U.S. sanctions Chinese company for restricting internet and monitoring opponents in Venezuela12/1/2020: China demands that the U.S. lift sanctions against a tech company operating in Venezuela|
The tone of the news items published in pro-government media is noteworthy, since, as pointed out above, they seem to have a common source not identified in the text. This also gives them a neutral tone that does not even justify the official voice in the press release from the Foreign Affairs Ministry. With the exception of the article published by government-leaning La Iguana TV on December 2, with the headline “What does the Chinese company sanctioned by the U.S. for cooperating with Venezuela do?”, no other outlet addresses any other issue than what was mentioned in the headlines.
In general, the Venezuelan government manages access to public information in a discretional manner, and is not accountable for public affairs. In this case, this practice is revealed: In the press release from the Foreign Affairs Ministry against the measure by the US, there is not the slightest hint of an explanation of the terms of the agreement between the government and the CEIEC. Instead, it does appeal to the already worn-out discourse of Yankee imperialism against a revolution that is not such.
It could be expected that the legitimacy and legality of the agreements with China could be known by Venezuelans; but opacity continues to be enshrined as the government’s communication policy. This secrecy breeds legitimate suspicions, mistrust that damage the pluralistic coexistence expected from a government that boasts at being democratic, and makes room for disinformation.
For their part, the media show a kind of levity in their treatment of issues such as the one addressed in this piece, since they avoid covering it with a more robust journalism, one willing to expose what those in power want to hide.