Attacks on the press and restrictions to access of information increase as Venezuelan crisis worsens

By Paola Nalvarte y Yenibel Ruiz *

In one of the most violent events for the press this year in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, at least 19 media workers were attacked while covering protests taking place on June 2, according to the human rights advocacy organization Espacio Público.

According to this organization, the victims are journalists, photographers and cameramen who “were threatened, robbed and in other cases, beaten by armed groups of civilians, facing no opposition, and in other cases, complicit action of the security forces.”

The National Association of Press Workers (SNTP for its acronym in Spanish) of the country demanded an investigation into cases of robbery and attacks on journalists. The organization had so far recorded attacks on 17 professionals of media outlets like El Universal, El Pitazo, El Nacional, Caraota Digital, Crónica Uno and Vivo Play.

One of the most serious cases happened to the news team at Vivo Play. On broadcast images of the events, it appears that members of the news team were taken from their vehicle and thrown to the floor while armed men pointed guns at them and others robbed them of their equipment, according to newspaper El Nacional. Images of the attack were shared on social networks.

Although the social, economic and political crisis in Venezuela is not a new issue, it is getting worse. For example, on May 31, the country’s President Nicolás Maduro declared a State of Exception and Economic Emergency in the country for 60 days. This declaration, which is renewable, comes after the expiration of the Decree of Economic Emergency that was issued in January.

Social demonstrations to protest the measure, and the worsening of the general crisis that has affected Venezuelans in recent years, has increased, and with it, attacks and arbitrary detentions of journalists that cover the conflict in the streets, according to organizations like the Press and Society Institute (IPYS) Venezuela and Espacio Público.

While this decree does not provide direct provisions that violate the right to freedom of expression, the context of a State of Exception like the current one “does promote actions of opacity and hampers accountability and restrictions to access of information on economic matters, principally, on the management of public finances,” said Marianela Balbi, director of IPYS Venezuela, to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

In this context, Balbi said that in the early days of the new decree, IPYS has recorded three arbitrary detentions by the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) and the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) against journalists and photojournalists while performing their work.

The organization also recorded 17 alerts for restrictions to freedom of expression since May 13. These concerned various violations such as arbitrary closure of radio stations and attacks on media offices, among others.

“With these cases, there are a total of 154 alerts that IPYS Venezuela has recorded from January 1 to the present. In May [prior to the end of the month] we counted 34 incidents. This indicates a resurgence of conflicts of freedom of expression when compared with the previous four months, when we registered an average of 30 cases each month,” Balbi said to the Knight Center.

For the director and coordinator of the Venezuelan media outlet El Pitazo, César Batiz, the numbers of attacks on journalists has also increased during recent months because of what he believes is the worsening of the general crisis in the country. In an interview with the Knight Center, he explained that there are implicit and explicit attacks against the press in the country.

“It has happened to us in the last month with two journalists who they tried to detain and whose cameras they tried to take while filming the lines,” Batiz said.

However, he said this is not the only context in which these attacks occur and narrated the case of his reporter María Virgina Velásquez, who he said was severely beaten by a group of women members of a community council while covering the visit of former opposition parliamentarian María Corina Machado to the University Hospital in Merida state.

Batiz also reported that the intensity of attacks on journalists is different in the various states of the country. He said the attacks and pressure on journalists who work in the country’s regions, especially the most remote in the south-central part of the country, are sometimes stronger than those that occur in the capital.

In this regard, he said that during the last week of May, a colleague in the state of Barinas, Marieva Fermín, was chased by members of a community council for publishing, through El Pitazo, a video where you can see civil protection agents and assistants physically carrying patients up and down the stairs of the hospital.

“This, in turn, led to the physician who made the video being chased by the community council, a very aggressive situation,” Batiz said.

Laura Weffer, co-founder and managing editor of the news portal Efecto Cocuyo, agrees that the violence against the press has increased as a consequence of the economic and social crisis of the country. This, coupled with the lack of access to information as well as what she called “shock groups” (groups of violent civilians who are presumably pro-government) who are present during coverage of the protests, making the work of journalists more difficult.

“I dare to say that in the last six months, it has been really brutal. The issue is that there is no access to public information, there is only access to las cadenas [national broadcasts from the government] that really is not information, but propaganda,” Weffer said in conversation with the Knight Center.

“As people are less afraid to speak, both the police and the National Guard become more defensive and then police abuses occur,” Weffer said. “For example, during the coverage of a protest over food, one of the journalists from Efecto Cocuyo, Reynaldo Mozo, was put in prison and was handcuffed to a pole for an hour and a half. The security forces are extremely ‘unruly’ and are becoming less and less tolerant of the press.”

For IPYS Venezuela, the cases of violations to freedom of expression that are considered “of most concern” have occurred in the states of Caracas, Táchira and Bolívar, showing high levels of political and social unrest in this places.

In turn, Carlos Correa, director of Espacio Público, said there has also been an increase in political and social mobilizations, and consequently, increased press coverage in the streets since the first decree of a State of Economic Emergency on January 15.

“This registers more reports on a weekly basis  [in comparison with previous months] of attacks against the press that cover these demonstrations,” Correa said in an interview with the Knight Center.

The government, according to the freedom of expression NGO, represses all media coverage about the shortage of medicine and food.

On the current situation in Venezuela, Correa said “the result of the [presidential] decrees generates a rupture in the constitutional guarantees in structural terms. We have the exercise of power without a counterweight, without balance.” He added that this also restricts the possibility of exercising freedom of expression.

On June 1, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed concern about the decree and added that “the arbitrary use of such measures impinges on democracy and restricts freedom of expression, equality before the law, and freedom of association, rights established in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.”

(Editor’s Note: Interviews with Balbi (IPYS), Correa (Espacio Público) and Batiz (El Pitazo) took place before the June 2 protests.)

*Journalist Silvia Higuera contributed to this article.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.