Twitter's heady rise has Venezuela's Hugo Chavez in spin

Tue Mar 30, 2010 4:40am EDT
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By Enrique Andres Pretel

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.   Continued...

<p>Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez presides over the official opening of a public internet venue named "Infocentro" during his weekly "Alo Presidente" broadcast in Caracas in this March 21, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Miraflores Palace/Handout</p>