Detention of Venezuelan journalist denounced as retaliation for covering protests against Maduro

The Sept. 3 detention of lawyer and journalist Braulio Jatar Alonso on Margarita Island in the state of Nueva Esparta in Venezuela has caused indignation and rejection. Family members, as well as local and international human rights organizations have labeled the case a “total abuse” and an attack of press freedom in the country.

His case has been met with great suspicion because of the way in which it proceeded and because it happened one day after the journalist published images of a protest against President Nicolás Maduro. For example, Jatar’s detention became public more than 10 hours after it occurred and only because his home was raided, allegedly without a warrant. Also, the subsequent charge of money laundering leveled against him – for which he could face up to 15 years in prison – was made public 48 hours after his detention and after authorities allegedly found US $25,000 and 19,000 Bolivars (about US $1,900) in his vehicle.

All of this started on Sept. 2 when Maduro visited Margarita Island where people greeted him with a “cacerolazo” – a protest where demonstrators bang pots and other kitchen utensils. The events ended with at least 29 people detained, according to the human rights organization Foro Penal Venezolano. The news site, Reporte Confidencial, of which Jatar is the director, was one of the first to publish images of this “cacerolazo,” according to Espacio Público and newspaper El País of Spain.

The following day, members of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin) detained Jatar while he was on his way to hosting a radio program, added Espacio Público.

However, his detention was only made public 10 hours later. During that time, his family and members of other organizations, like the executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, reported his disappearance.

In an interview with station W Radio in Colombia, Jatar’s wife, Silvia Martínez, said that she learned of the journalist’s arrest when members of Sebin raided his home.

According to the Press and Society Institute (IPYS) Venezuela, this was carried out by members of Sebin “in hoods, without a search warrant and with long weapons.”

Although the journalist was held for nearly 48 hours “without formal charges,” according to Univision, his son Braulio Jatar Jr. talked about the possibility that his father was charged because the authorities allegedly found a “large sum of money” in his vehicle, according to Runrunes. His son drew attention to the lack of a witness and the fact that the authorities had the vehicle in their possession for 26 hours.

On the morning of Sept. 5, Jatar, who was born in Chile, was taken to court where he was charged with money laundering, according to Runrunes. His lawyer rejected the accusation and said the prosecution must prove that the seized goods came from an unlawful act.

The Chilean government also expressed concern about the case and added that it made the necessary arrangements for the case with the Venezuelan government, according to The Associated Press.

“We are very concerned, attentive to what may happen […]; he is a fellow citizen and as Chilean, has the right to be protected,” said Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Heraldo Muñoz.

Also, the Chilean consul in the state of Nueva Esparta was present at the hearing where Jatar was charged, according to Foro Penal Venezolano.

Jatar is a lawyer and has been advisor to various local opposition politicians like former mayor Antonio Ledezma, who is under house arrest, according to La Tercera. For 10 years, he has been dedicated to journalism through Reporte Confidencial and had received threats from the ruling party, the news site added.

“They had never detained him, but they had intimidated him. Once, they raided his house without a warrant, they threatened him directly, they sent him messages. When they searched, they took computers, tablets, telephones and never return them,” his sister Ana Julia Jatar said to La Tercera.

According to the Foro Penal Venezolano, the number of political prisoners in the country rises to 93 with Jatar’s arrest.

As part of “The Taking of Caracas,” the Sebin arrested a second journalist, Alejandro Puglia, for using a drone to photograph the protests that took place in the capital on Sept. 1, according to the Inter American Press Association. He was accused of “warlike assistance” and faces five to 10 years in prison.

The protests meant to urge the country’s National Electoral Council to set a date for the recall referendum of Maduro continue to take place in the streets of Venezuela. Demonstrations were planned Wednesday the country’s capitals.

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.