Hugo Chavez’s opposition is starting to use Twitter and other social networking sites

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.

Reuters.