International and local journalists released after being detained while reporting on prison in Venezuela

This story has been updated to include some comments from the journalists after their release.

Three journalists reporting at the infamous Tocorón prison in northern Venezuela were released Oct. 8 after being held by the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB for its acronym in Spanish) for two days.

Italian journalist Roberto Di Matteo, Swiss journalist Filippo Rossi and Venezuelan reporter Jesús Medina were detained after prison authorities learned that Medina worked for site Dolar Today, according to El Páis.

The newspaper explained that the site, which is blocked by the Venezuelan government, reports on the black market exchange rate of currencies, and also publishes articles “contrary to the chavista regime.”

A commission formed by the National Union of Press Workers of Venezuela (SNTP), human rights organization Foro Penal, the National Association of Journalists (CNP) in Aragua, and the Association of Lawyers went to Tocorón to check on the journalists’ conditions, according to SNTP.

The organization said it wasn’t sure why the journalists had been detained. SNTP posted a photo, presumably of the three journalists, with their backs turned to the camera, flanked by two guards standing in front of a table holding various items.

Around 3 p.m. Venezuelan Standard Time, the Press and Society Institute of Venezuela (IPYS) posted on Twitter that the journalists were released after being presented in court. It previously said that lawyers as well as representatives of the Italian and Swiss embassies were present for the hearing.

In a video taken after the journalists were released, Di Matteo said they were not hurt and preferred not to release a statement. He said they would be in the country until Oct. 15 and would continue working and thanked everyone who had helped them. "To report is not a crime, we will continue reporting," Medina said.

IPYS rejected arbitrary detentions of journalists meant to prohibit reporting, which it said have been frequent in 2017. It also urged the security forces to ensure their “integrity and security.”

At least 39 journalists and photographers covering the political, economic and social situation in Venezuela for foreign media outlets have been threatened, detained or expelled during the government of Nicolás Maduro, according to site Efecto Cocuyo.

Recently, Dutch journalist Bram Ebus was detained by the Bolivarian National Guard on Sept. 21 while working on a report about exploration of the Arco Minero del Orinoco and environmental impact. He and his driver, who was also detained, were later released.

Tocorón, formally the Aragua Penitentiary Center, is the most populous prison in Venezuela and has about 7,000 inmates, according to InSight Crime.

EFE reported “Venezuelan media have said kidnappings, extortion of citizens and food trafficking, as well as other crimes, are organized from the prison.” It also said the government’s new plan to “pacify” the prisons has not yet been implemented at Tocorón.

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.

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