When bombs exploded in two sectors of Colombia’s capital this summer, President Juan Manuel Santos and Attorney General Luis Eduardo Montealegre tried to quash the flow of information about the terrorist attacks with this public announcement: anyone sharing videos of any terrorist attack with a third party – social media, friends, news outlets – would be prosecuted and jailed. The Inspector General Alejandro Ordonez rejected the tactic as a threat to freedom of speech and of the press.  Rightly so — It is arrant censorship in the new landscape of social media and web-based news.

The Santos government and the narco-terrorist group FARC control most of the mainstream media.  The Santos family owns El Tiempo, the leading national daily, and Santos’ nephew, Alejandro Santos Rubino is the Director of the weekly Semana, the second most widely-read publication.  Where kinship fails there are plenty of lucrative contracts to dole out.  According to an investigative report by Kienyke, a web-based news portal, analysts estimate the government has spent about US$750 million annually on publicity contracts since 2010.

But the voice and reach that web-based media provides to all citizens is not as easily controlled.  In 2008, for example, a Colombian student started a Facebook Group called “A Million Voices Against FARC” through which he organized a protest attended by 12 million people around the world.  Since the dialogues between the government and the terrorists began, Facebook, Twitter and virtual news portals have gained importance, as they are the only place left for Colombians to share information freely. Those seeking to silence opposing views have had to find more sophisticated tools of censorship.

One way is through distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS).  “The technique involves creating a botnet – a robot network of computers that have been taken over by hackers. It can get thousands of computers to simultaneously start sending messages to a website,” explained Richard LaMagna, former Director of Law Enforcement Training and Outreach for Microsoft.  “The server can’t handle it and it shuts the website down.”  He added that these attacks could also implant encryption locks on websites, denying access, and even implant viruses that destroy data — all effective tools for controlling information.

"Now we publish the news" (Photo Periodismo Sin Fronteras)

“Now we publish the news” (Photo Periodismo Sin Fronteras)

News portal Periodismo Sin Fronteras has experienced two DDoS attacks, said Director Ricardo Puentes. On one occasion, a cyber attack disabled the website’s ability to keep statistics, making it almost invisible to anyone searching for subjects through Google and other browsers.  The website for Verdad Colombia, a federation of non-governmental organizations focused on democracy, was also temporarily shut down by this kind of attack, said Executive Director Paola Camacho.  According to Demar Cordoba, producer of  “La Hora de la Verdad” radio show, numerous attacks have been launched against the show’s website, though they have been unsuccessful.  The show is hosted by Fernando Londoño, a vocal opponent of the Santos-FARC negotiations, and the victim of a bombing by the terrorist group in 2012.

To attack social media sites, criminals often use account takeovers to manipulate or obtain personal information,

LaMagna explained.   The Facebook group “Victims of the Armed Conflict,” for example, was recently a target of this tactic.  Created by Brances Esteban Alvarez (a pseudonym) in May of this year, the group quickly attracted more than 8,250 members.  “The purpose is to recover the historic memory of the civilian victims of the guerrillas and the memory of the members of the armed forces who died in the line of duty,” Alvarez explained.  “Who remembers the more than 15,000 uniformed officers who have fallen since 1964?”The group’s posts are limited to honoring the victims through detailed accounts of the circumstances of their death. But remembering victims is inconvenient for the Santos-FARC alliance, as both seek to make most terrorist actions eligible for pardon.  Group members have received hundreds of harassing messages.  On one occasion, “they said we would end up like the highway police officers that had been murdered in Cauca,” he recalled, referring to an ambush by the FARC that claimed the lives of three officers in 2014.

Then, in early October, Alvarez was locked out of his page when someone tried to access it illegally.  “While I was unable to access my profile, another user was trying to access the administration functions of the site,” he explained.  In this case, the hacker was unsuccessful, but it points to an attempt to manipulate data and gather identifying information, which can have devastating effects:  Flor Alba Nuñez, a journalist murdered in September, was victim of an account takeover shortly before her assassination. In statements published in El Tiempo, Nuñez’ co-worker said that the journalist’s FB page had been hacked and many of her articles altered or erased just weeks before she was killed.

In the latest threat to free expression, Congress member Silvio Carrasquilla has introduced legislation that would make it illegal to use social media one day a year, embedding this point in a larger “family values” package.  Criminalizing the use of Facebook or Twitter – even for one day — implies fines or prison for any offenders. It also mean the government has the tools to enforce it…  It’s the stuff of dictatorships.

With a State and FARC-friendly mainstream media and increasing attacks on web-based news and social media, the Santos government is able to control the political narrative and suppress dissenting views. The National Endowment for Democracy lists Venezuela, China, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia as the worst offenders in this regard. Colombia is not far behind.