President Hugo Chavez denied on Sunday that he planned to censor or limit the Internet in Venezuela, saying on the contrary Web use had shot up more than nine fold during his decade in power.
The South American leftist leader's calls a week ago for greater controls on the Internet brought an outcry from opposition and freedom of information groups. Some said he was planning controls similar to his allies Cuba, China and Iran.
But Chavez, speaking on his weekly Hello President! television program, denied that, and said he was merely calling for controls against illegal use of the Web, similar to other nations trying to tackle cyber-criminality.
Internet subscriptions had risen from 274,000 in 2000 to 585,000 by the end of 2009, Chavez said, while users had risen more than nine-fold over the same period from 820,000 to 7.5 million.
No one mentions that. On the contrary, the news flies around the world that we are going to finish off the Internet, that we are going to restrict the service, Chavez said, during a ceremony to inaugurate a free community Internet service.
It's false, of course.
Chavez said a recent report of the deaths of two allies, and calls for a coup against him, were what had instigated his concern over Internet use in Venezuela.
A user of news site Noticierodigital incorrectly said earlier this month that a senior minister had been assassinated, prompting some private Web sites in Venezuela to block user comments or heighten internal controls.
In Venezuela's polarized political environment, Chavez foes have turned increasingly to social networking sites to organize protests and other opposition activities.
The Internet is a trench in the struggle, because there's a conspiracy current building up. It's as if they had a gun, a cannon, Chavez said. They use so many pages and blogs, and terms like Blackberry and Twitter, these conspiracy currents.
Chavez urged his supporters to turn themselves, too, into soldiers on the Internet.
The president's closure of some radio stations, refusal to renew the license of TV station RCTV and pressure on another pro-opposition network Globovision are proof, critics say, of his agenda to stifle dissent.
They say that is part of a wider drift toward dictatorial practices by Chavez, who has replaced Cuba's Fidel Castro as the region's leading critic of the United States.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)