Journalists reporting on Venezuelan crisis risk temporary and prolonged detentions

Covering protests, photographing food lines or taking video inside a hospital can be risky for journalists working in Venezuela today. Various reporters and photojournalists working in the country have been subjected to temporary and prolonged detentions in the process of carrying out their jobs in recent months.

Recently, agents with Venezuela’s Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin) detained Matt Gutman, a correspondent for U.S. network ABC News, on Oct. 24 while he was reporting on conditions at a hospital in the state of Carabobo. Gutman, and a cameraman and a Venezuelan doctor who were also detained with him, was kept in custody until the night of Oct. 26.

ABC News confirmed the detention on Oct. 27 and said Gutman “was released without incident.”

The National Association of Press Workers (SNTP for its acronym in Spanish) of Venezuela Tweeted a document that says it is from Migration Department to the Migration Office of the Simón Bolívar International Airport. The topic is “voluntary return” and Gutman’s name is listed.

The document says that the “foreign national” is being expelled from the country and is prohibited from re-entry.

The Press and Society Institute (IPYS for its acronym in Spanish) of Venezuela told the Knight Center that it recorded 22 instances of arbitrary detentions of directors, journalists and photojournalists between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 of this year.

According to the organization, a majority of the detentions were carried out by state police (8). The other entities behind the detentions have been: National Armed Forces (7), the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin) (3), courts (2) and airport authorities (2).

"Detentions carried out by the Armed Forces, Sebin and state police happened during street coverage, specifically, during coverage of civil protests, lines of people to buy food and special photographic coverage," IPYS Venezuela said.

Yet, William Castillo, Venezuela’s deputy minister for international communication, recently said at the United Nations, “In Venezuela, there is no single journalist detained or who has had a case brought against him for reporting, but there are media owners sued for defamation,” Efecto Cocuyo reported.

Multiple temporary and prolonged detentions have taken place in the context of covering protests against the government, in particular during nationwide demonstrations on Sept. 1 and Oct. 26.

Journalist Alejandro Puglia, director of the Office of Monitoring and Evaluation of Parliament, was finally released on Oct. 26 after being detained for flying a drone to take photographs during a Sept. 1 mass protest in Caracas, EFE reported.

According to the news agency, the government announced an administrative ban on drone use days prior.

Chilean-Venezuelan journalist Braulio Jatar Alonso is still in custody after being detained on Sept. 3. He has been charged with money laundering, but critics have said he was arrested because Reporte Confidencial, the site where Jatar is director, published images of a protest against President Nicolás Maduro on Margarita Island.

His sister, Ana Julia Jatar, wrote on Oct. 28 that he is in a high security prison and has been “submitted to isolation and all kinds of physical and psychological deprivation.”

The detentions are not solely occurring around protest coverage.

Journalists from Colombian media outlet RCN and of Red Más Noticias were detained in August for making recordings in a “presidential corridor” in Caracas. An Ombudsman reported to El Nacional that a government minister said the journalists were being treated “as interviewees.”

That same month, digital site El Pitazo reported that one of its journalists was detained and beaten in San Fernando de Apure while covering a political event held by the opposition.

Mariengracia Chirinos, of IPYS, said that most detentions and holdings are short while others come with legal proceedings.

"We believe that the most serious cases of detentions we have had have been those that have occurred between September and October," Chirionos said. She cited Jatar's case as the most serious.

Detentions of journalists are just one part of the deterioration to press freedom in Venezuela that have concerned national and international freedom of expression organizations.

International journalists who have tried to enter the country to report on mass protests have been held and turned away for reportedly not having the proper paperwork to work in the country.

Journalists reported being assaulted, threatened and robbed during an Oct. 23 violent takeover of the National Assembly by citizens loyal to the government.

Offices of news media outlets have been attacked and robbed. Newspapers have closed because of lack of newsprint. And as mentioned above, journalists and media outlets have been subjected to lawsuits.

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.