The Venezuelan government issued a decree (Decree 6649) back in March 2009 which sought to forbid “superfluous or luxury spending in the national public sector”. These so called ‘luxuries’ include mobile phones, the use of the Internet and other technological equipment. Things that we take for granted in the West as a neccessity. This has sent shockwaves throughout the online community who are increasingly concerned about the impact that this will have on the capacity of ICTs to foster social development and economic growth. They fear that education, research and development projects will be severely hampered if internet use is further eroded by what Chavez defines as ‘rational’ use.

In response to these draconian measures a wave of internet activism has sprung up and a cyber-war has begun. The University of the Andes has launched a campaign, Internet Prioritaria (Essential Internet), to raise awareness of the importance of access to the Internet and pressurize the government to amend the decree.

The logo for Internet Prioritaria who are internet activists lobbying the government to keep internet development as a priority.The campaign argues that developing an information society is integral to economic development 

 

Their objectives are as follows:

We seek to revise the inclusion of Internet and its technological infrastructure in the list of superfluous and non-essential items published in Decree 6649.

To  maintain research and educational programs that is made possible because of the Internet.

To maintain the status of Internet use as a priority, to develop technologies associated with Internet use that could be helpful in the public sector, and to support research on information technologies.

To place the use of these technologies in the discussion around Venezuelan media so there could be a deep dialogue on the weight of Internet in development, as well as the importance of digital literacy.

 The campaign has embraced all kinds of new media. They have used the power of social networking sites to get their voices heard by using YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Numerous blogs and other digital spaces have also joined in. However the views of the Venezuelan blogosphere are divided. Some argue that the decree is another attempt to restrict freedom of speech. Whilst others feel that these cyber-activists are over-reacting to this new law and purposely trying to raise alarm. One blogger argues that there has been a misinterpretation of the new decree:

“The decree says clearly that the main goal is to “optimize savings in the public sector.” This does not mean that the Internet is going to be banned or eliminated; it means that it is necessary to purge this activity, even if it is a very reasonable and necessary activity, “using limited resources in a better way.”

The campaign should be devoted to INFORM and to point out clearly what are the elements that could make Internet a sumptuary expense. They should talk about how social organization can help to generate more “solidarity” in their proposals.

Other blogs on the topic worth a look:

http://www.nosumacero.org/

http://khandika01.blogspot.com/2009/04/internet-prioritaria-atencion-blogs.html

http://www.el-nacional.com/www/site/p_contenido.php?q=nodo/81763/Tecnolog%C3%ADa/Usuarios-defienden-a-Internet-como-insumo-necesario

The government has defended its decisions by arguing that they don’t want to ban the internet and are merely putting more focus and funding into economic priorities.

Whatever your viewpoint, this kind of cyber-activism has opened up a debate forum for bloggers across Venezuela to discuss issues of freedom of speech, media censorship and the role of the internet in the development of their country. If one good thing has come from this decree, it is that at least people are now openly talking about the issues affecting the media.

To put the impact of this decree into context it is worse a brief look at the academic discourse surrounding the relationship between ICTs and economic development. Howard (2007) argues that digital communication techonologies play a critical role in economic and political development whilst Lugo-Ocando (2008) recognises the direct links between economic wealth and the development of an information society in Latin America. The role of the internet in development should not be underplayed. Stratton (2000) argues that it promotes non-english cuture to the world through cyberspace as webpages, podcasts and blogs have, espcially in the case of Venezuela,  created imagined communities and greater connectivity between everyday people.

In my opinion this decree will inhibit development and increase the digital divide between the internet ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ both within South America and with the rest of the world. Castells (2000) has already warned that the ‘network society’ is creating wider economic and social disparities across the globe and singled out South America as a continent that could become ‘fourth world’ because of its limited technological advancements. This decree stands directly opposed to media development discourse and it seems Chavez’s decree might force this Castell’s predictions to come true.

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Indigenous communities in Bolivia (photo courtesy of - http://rising.globalvoicesonline.org/blog/2009/03/29/voces-bolivianas-augmenting-digital-literacy-in-bolivia/)

Indigenous communities in Bolivia (photo courtesy of – http://rising.globalvoicesonline.org/blog/2009/03/29/voces-bolivianas-augmenting-digital-literacy-in-bolivia/

Voces Bolivianas (Bolivian Voices) project teaches citizens’ media skills to underrepresented communities in Bolivia.  This raises many questions about how the internet can be used to support development and decrease economic disparities within Bolivia and with the rest of the world.

Bolivian Voices is a participatory citizen’s media project that promotes the use of ICT (Internet and Communication Technologies) to allow Bolivians to share their stories about their communities and thus decide how they are represented. The projects holds workshops to promote the use of participatory media tools such as blogging, digital photography, podcasting and videos in order to create their own content.

They emphasize that the web is for everyone as ordinary Bolivians then become creators of content, rather than only consumers. In this way they are breaking away from western modernist discourse where communities are seen as receivers and communication is very much top down and one way. Everyday Bolivianos now have the opportunity to become part of the ‘global conversation’ and there is a network of national bloggers. Examples of some of these blogs can be found here.

 

This month, the project also helps bolivians living in Argentina to reconnect with their country and become part of an imagined community. Eduardo Avilo is the founder of the Voces Bolivianas project and his blog Barrio Flores discusses a number of issues that Bolivians face.

Bolivian Voices is one of several national projects participating in Rising Voices, which works to bring new voices into global conversations through resources and training. In this way publicity and a voice is given to places and people that other media often ignore. One of their main aims is to empower under-represented communities to make their voices heard online and cultivate a network of citizen media activists.

 

It also brings new languages to the web and counters the traditional American domination of the world wide web. Some have argued that the internet is merely another tool of Western cultural imperialism. However others stipulate that cultural imperialism on the Internet can be overcome to prevent cultural homogenisation in the world. The internet promotes non-English culture to a world-wide audience through cyberspace; anyone can create a website or blog and promote their culture easily and much more cheaply than other media. The Bolivianos have few other ways of promoting their culture as despite what the government says the media is heavily censored in the country. 

This project feeds into a complex theoretical debate surrounding the internet.

This project counters the ethnocentric views of western development discourse. It also encourages active participation of people at grassroots by involving local people in decision making for the future and greater self-reliance in development using local skills and knowledge. Richardson (1998) outlines five ways that the internet can support third world development. Research by Martín-Barbero (2006) on Latin American communication research argues that communication, namely through the ICTs, has been ‘transformed into a highly effective mechanism for the insertion of all cultures – whether ethnic, national or local – into the sphere of the market.’

 

However, academics have long highlighted the problems caused by this increasing digital divide. Castells (1997) argues that there is an increasing digital divide where there is a clear divide between those with access to cyber space and those without. He defines this as the network society where a global network of information and power transcends geographic space and time. He predicts that those without access to cyber space will become a ‘fourth world’ and identifies South America as one of these areas. Voces Bolivianos aims to counter this ‘fourth world’ discuss for participatory methods. However there are a series of problems.

 

Whilst Heeks (1999) outlines the constraints in the use of ICT based information in the developed world. One of the most challenging obstacles, amongst many, to effectively training new communities how to take advantage of citizen media tools like blogs, podcasts, and online video is the lack of documentation in languages other than English.

 

Projects such as these are an attempt to empower under-represented voices and introduce them into the global conversation. See here for an update on the progress of the project. However many of the techniques are still rooted in a modernist and imperialist theoretical framework. People in the third world need to take control of their own ICT infrastructure and resources rather then relying on intermediaries, such as NGOs or development groups, if they are ever to have a truly representative and powerful voice.