Twitter's heady rise has Venezuela's Hugo Chavez in spin
CARACAS (Reuters) - A jailed judge "tweets" to her followers from prison. The director of an opposition TV station uses Twitter to denounce a conspiracy to oust him.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's opponents have jumped on the use of Twitter and other social networking sites, opening up a new flank in a decade-long campaign against the self-proclaimed socialist revolutionary who they accuse of silencing critical media and attacking free speech.
The closing down of a popular private television network triggered street protests rallied by #freevenezuela messages that became the fourth most commented "trending topic" on Twitter worldwide for February.
The microblogging site has seen an explosive rise in usage in Venezuela to more than 200,000 active accounts. With growth of over 1,000 percent in 2009, Venezuela now has one of the highest rates per capita of Twitter users in Latin America.
Twitter's dizzy expansion has upset Chavez and he is hitting back.
"The Internet is a battle trench because it is bringing a current of conspiracy," Chavez said earlier this month.
"The Internet cannot be free," he said, though days later he denied claims that his government planned to censor the Internet, pointing out that Web use by Venezuelans has expanded dramatically during his 11 years in power.
Still, his detractors say a plan to channel all Internet traffic through the state telecom company is a strong signal of Chavez's intentions to silence online dissent.
Frustrated by his ubiquitous presence in traditional media, where he often applies a law that forces TV and radio stations to broadcast his lengthy speeches, opponents see networking sites as a means of outwitting the populist president.
"Twitter is altering the way in which users communicate and organize themselves, giving them new powers and abilities to spread information," said information technology expert Luis Carlos Diaz of the Center for Investigation and Social Action.
When Chavez came to power in 1999, Internet access was a privilege of the rich and only 5.8 percent of Venezuelans used it. But thanks in part to the government's own efforts -- it launched thousands of free Internet centers in the country's poorest and most remote shantytowns -- access has shot up.
About 8.8 million people, or 31 percent of the oil-exporting nation's population, now use the Internet and more than two-thirds of them are from the poorest sections of society.
"The Internet now has a political impact because it represents many people, many of them among the poor who are the government's main constituency. And the figure keeps growing," said Carlos Jimenez of the online polling firm Digital Tendencies.
Twitter is still primarily used by the more affluent, but increasingly poorer Venezuelans are discovering and using the service too, Jimenez said.
Seven of the top 10 most followed Twitter accounts in the country are strongly critical of Chavez, while his defenders do not appear until number 66 in the list.
Globovision (@Globovision), the most prominent of the remaining opposition television networks, consistently rates among the top 20 most influential Twitterers in the world, according to consulting firm Edelman (www.TweetLevel.com), beating out prestigious international media companies, pop stars and technology gurus.
Belatedly, Chavez appears to have become aware of the Internet's power as a communication tool. He recently called on his followers to turn themselves into "soldiers" on the Internet and engage with the enemy online.
The former paratrooper turned president even suggested he might start his own blog, saying he would "bombard" his critics from his "own trench on the Internet," but he hasn't yet done it.
Chavez has steadily moved against opposition voices in the traditional media. Earlier this year, Caracas-based RCTV International was closed down after refusing to comply with a law that obliged the TV station to air Chavez's speeches.
Students responded by using Twitter and Facebook to coordinate a series of protest marches and analysts say Chavez is finding the fragmented nature of the Internet, with its millions of individual users, harder to control.
"For the government it is relatively easy to neutralize a television or radio station," said Billy Vaisberg, creator of the directory Twitter Venezuela (twitter-venezuela.com). "But Twitter has hundreds of thousands of people using a service that is not located in Venezuela."
(Reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel; Writing by Charlie Devereux; Editing by Kieran Murray)