Maduro and the hunt for activists: Javier Tarazona’s case

Maduro and the hunt for activists: Javier Tarazona’s case

Published on 25 Jul 2022

Almost 400 days illegally detained for his work as an activist in Venezuela

Non-governmental organizations represent one of the most important factors in the struggle for the respect of human rights in Venezuela. Currently, social media (specifically Twitter) is one of the few spaces available to raise citizens’ claims where NGOs are in charge of positioning trends denouncing the serious situation in the country by being one of the most representative figures of digital social protest by generating 108 trends and around 614,241 tweets in 2021 only (this being one of the reasons why the Venezuelan regime intends to regulate it).

The work of activists and NGOs in Venezuela is increasingly limited by Nicolás Maduro’s regime. The “Centro para los Defensores y la Justicia” documented 743 attacks against defenders in 2021, representing an increase of 145% over 2020.

The case of Javier Tarazona, professor, activist and director of the NGO FundaRedes, arrested in July last year and who is still deprived of liberty, is an example of how anyone who exposes the reality suffered by Venezuelans is silenced.

This limitation to the work of the organizations can be intensified with the “International Cooperation Bill” that seeks to close the access to the support offered by the international community to the protection, assistance and development capacities of the population in economic, social, civil and humanitarian matters. This proposed law has been rejected by more than 500 organizations, the IACHR and RELE.

Between July 4th and 7th of 2022, the persecution against activists intensified again with the arrest of humanitarian worker Gabriel Blanco, activists Néstor Astudillo, Alcides Bracho, Alonso Meléndez, Reynaldo Cortez and trade unionist Emilio Negrín, whose imprisonment was ratified on July 9th.

Added to this is the apprehension of 9 people in Caracas (4 of them Voluntad Popular’s activists) on June 7th by PoliChacao for commemorating the 5 years since the murder of Neomar Lander in the 2017 protests. After their whereabouts were unknown for more than 24 hours, they were released on June 9th with substitute measures of freedom.

WHAT HAPPENED TO JAVIER TARAZONA?

On July 2nd of 2021, the NGO FundaRedes denounced that Javier Tarazona was arbitrarily detained in Falcón when he went to the Prosecutor’s Office to denounce that he was being harassed and persecuted by officers of Polifalcón, the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) and other unidentified individuals. Rafael Tarazona and Omar García (activists of FundaRedes) and Yhonny Romero, director of Mayday Confavifd, were also arrested along with him.

Romero was released, however, the three activists were charged with “treason, terrorism and incitement to hatred”. Two of them were released on October 26th of 2021 on the condition that they appear in court every eight days while the trial against them takes place; Javier Tarazona is still in prison.

12 days later, on July 14th, several NGOs such as Foro Penal denounced that the mother of Javier and Rafael Tarazona was detained by SEBIN officials, after a patrol car parked outside the residence with the aim of raiding Tarazona’s family home. That same night, Mrs. Teresa Sánchez was returned to her home.

Prior to the arrests, FundaRedes had been in charge of reporting the situation on the Colombian-Venezuelan border due to the armed conflict between FARC and ELN dissidents and Venezuelan State Officials, especially in Apure. This confrontation was handled communicatively with great opacity by the regime, increasing propaganda to the FANB and the GNB in social networks such as Twitter to manipulate the narrative in this regard, preventing activists and journalists from even approaching the place to report on the situation.

This is what happened on March 31st of 2021, when the forced disappearance of activists Diógenes Tirado and Juan Carlos Salazar along with journalists Luis Gonzalo Pérez and Rafael Hernández was reported at the hands of the GNB when they went to the conflict zone to document the situation. On April 1st, civil society together with several NGOs and media outlets posted #LiberenALos4 (Release the 4) with approximately 23,900 tweets, at least 88% of these made by real users. That same day they were released after 24 hours of detention.

With the beginning of this armed conflict, our observatory documented how the government also intensified the “digital support” to the FANB and GNB, promoting Twitter trends from accounts linked to these State security forces with messages of operations in several areas of the country and propaganda for the Bolivarian Revolution. In 2021 we registered 322 propaganda trending topics to these institutions that generated a little more than eight million messages; the largest number of tweets occurred in April while the conflict on the border intensified, positioning more than one and a half million messages combined in 34 hashtags.

On July 2nd, with the detention of Javier and Rafael Tarazona, Omar García and Yhonny Romero, #LiberenActivistasDeFundaRedes (Release FundaRedes’ activists) was positioned as a trending topic, promoted by civil society and activists, denouncing the arbitrariness of the process and demanding their release. It reached 12,978 tweets approximately, 84.21% of them were made by accounts with authentic behavior.

At the same time, accounts linked to the Radical Officialism posted the hashtag #TarazonaMercenario (Tarazona mercenary), celebrating his detention and accusing him of conspiring, “collaborating with the FARC and being an emissary of the CIA”; this registered approximately 1,642 tweets, 15.29% of them were made by possible automated accounts or with inauthentic behavior.

On July 3rd of 2021, one day after the arrest of the activists, a social protest hashtag was again positioned: #LiberenALos3DeFundaRedes (Release the 3 from FundaRedes), with approximately 7,104 tweets of which at least 93.68% were made by real users. It was promoted by civil society, condemning this act and demanding justice due to the continuous persecution of activists and defenders of human rights in Venezuela.

On July 16th #DefensoresDeVenezuela (Venezuelan defenders) with approximately 1,043 tweets was trending in Venezuela demanding the release of FundaRedes’ detainees. Through this same digital social protest on August 14th began the demand for a humanitarian measure for Javier Tarazona, Rafael Tarazona and Omar García with #MedidaHumanitaria (Humanitarian Measure), which reached around 2,912 tweets.

On January 27th of 2022, another hashtag related to Tarazona was positioned, #LiberenALosProfe (Release the teachers), demanding his and his colleague’s Robert Franco, general secretary of the Union of Teaching Professionals of Carúpano (Sucre)— release with 11,200 tweets approximately. The positioning of these messages has made possible to denounce the institutional abuse in the case and to make visible the violation of human rights of Venezuelan activists in spaces where public opinion is built and which, in some way, influence those who make political decisions and the international community.

However, it is not the first time that the government manipulates Twitter to position trends that “justify” its actions through smear campaigns, defamation and attacks against civil society actors who denounce corruption, human rights violations or any other fact contrary to the regime’s versions; journalist Roberto Deniz is a good example of this for reporting on the case of Alex Saab.

THE ATTACKS BEGAN LONG BEFORE THE ARREST

FundaRedes explained to us that in March 2020 they registered the first significant attack by the State against the organization and its director; this came from Diosdado Cabello, at that time President of the National Constituent Assembly, who in his television program “Con el Mazo Dando” spoke about “La Furia Bolivariana” (“The Bolivarian Fury”) and against FundaRedes, generating hate messages towards activists and opponents of Nicolás Maduro. This resulted in Javier Tarazona’s house being marked with graffiti of “La Furia Bolivariana (la FB) XXXX” (The Bolivarian Fury, BF XXXX).

In November 2020 the then “protector of Táchira state”, Freddy Bernal, stated that Tarazona should be “summoned by the court” and accused members of FundaRedes of being “U.S. hirelings”. The NGO told us that these threats continued through social networks and WhatsApp messaging “almost daily”.

On March 22nd of 2021, when Tarazona reported the armed conflict in Apure state through his personal Twitter and Instagram accounts, he received messages of threats and harassment against him and FundaRedes, whose headquarters were attacked with firearms destroying the external structure.

Clara Ramirez, FundaRedes’ human rights documentation coordinator, told us that after the arrest of Javier and Rafael Tarazona together with Omar García, the organization was the victim on different occasions of attacks and frustrated attempts to hack some email accounts, as well as the official social channels of the NGO.

Javier Tarazona has been illegally detained for 389 days by the Maduro regime, being subjected to cruel treatment, violating his rights for being an activist in defense of Venezuelan human rights. In addition to the unjustified deprivation of liberty, Tarazona and FundaRedes have been constant victims of repressive measures by the regime, in order to exert pressure and intimidation through different methods so that NGOs fighting for human rights in the country abandon their cause in view of the risks it may involve.

From ProBox we stand in solidarity with the entire FundaRedes team and those persecuted by the Venezuelan regime; we demand their release and respect for their fundamental rights. We also want to alert the national and international community about the use of digital troops by the Venezuelan government, not only to manipulate the digital conversation in favor of their narratives, but also to defame members of civil society and generate hate speech to “justify” authoritarian measures.

In countries where most media outlets have been censored or blocked, social media conversation is fundamental to the construction of public opinion. This is why these regimes invest strategies, technology development and resources with the intention of controlling or manipulating social networks, which today represent one of the few civic spaces for the articulation of protest and demonstration by citizens in authoritarian contexts. Therefore, in order to use this resource in an intelligent, strategic and collective way in the long term, we must fight for its free access and organize ourselves to keep active the digital social protest that allows to make visible the problems of citizens, with the intention of achieving a more balanced and reliable space about what happens in Venezuela in the networks.

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