Local and international journalists face restrictions from government when covering massive protest in Venezuela

A day of demonstrations in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas ended with complaints of restrictions on freedoms of the press and of expression, including attacks and temporary detentions of some media workers, as well as international journalists being banned from entering the country.

Opposition leaders called for the protests, known as the “Toma de Caracas” (The Taking of Caracas), in order to pressure the National Electoral Council to establish a timetable that would lead to the implementation of a recall referendum against the government of President Nicolás Maduro.

However, officials also called for protests in the city on the same day in order to combat what they called an “attempted coup.”

Around 8 p.m., nonprofit organization Espacio Público published on Twitter that it recorded at least 25 violations to freedom of expression in the country – including those of previous days – which included detentions, intimidation, assaults and censorship.

One of the cases involved journalist Gabriela González of El Nuevo País who posted on Twitter that members of the National Police made her erase a video that she had recorded about the detention of a person after the protest had ended. According to what she told the National Association of Press Workers (SNTP for its acronym in Spanish), the officers told her “do not record the police.”

However, the journalist published a photograph of this arrest that was not deleted.

Espacio Público reported the cases of journalist Emily Avendaño and photojournalist Héctor Trejo, both of El Estímulo, who were being held temporarily on the morning of Sept. 1 by members of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB).

They demanded to review the journalist’s notes, while they reviewed Trejo’s photographs. They were also stripped of their journalistic IDs, the organization added.

One of the biggest concerns of local and international organizations like Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) was being able to guarantee that journalists were doing their jobs without attacks or other types of intimidation. The concern was fueled by previous attacks on media and journalists, detentions of communications workers during activities surrounding the events of Sept. 1, as well as the bans on international correspondents who were not allowed to enter the country to cover the protests.

On Aug. 31, for example, correspondents Marie-Eve Detouef, of French newspaper Le Monde, César Moreno, of Caracol Radio in Colombia, Dora Glottman, of Caracol TV, and John Otis, of NPR in the United States, were not allowed entry into Venezuela, CPJ reported. The reason given by authorities was that they did not have the documents required to work in Venezuela, the organization added.

On Aug. 30, correspondent Teresa Bo and producer Lagmi Chávez of Al-Jazeera were also turned away, CPJ reported. Jim Wyss, head of the Andean office for The Miami Herald, received the same treatment and was sent back on a plane to Panama even though he had a journalist’s visa that was valid until October, according to El Nuevo Herald. In 2013, Wyss was detained for 48 hours by Venezuelan authorities.

“We urge Venezuelan authorities to allow journalists to cover events in Venezuela, in the midst of a deep economic and political crisis,” said Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator for the Americas at CPJ, in an Aug. 31 press release. “Authorities should expedite timely permission for journalists so the international press can report first-hand on these important events.”

The Minister of Popular Power for Communication and Information, Luis Marcano, said there had been no deportations of any international journalists, but said that there are formalities for any kind of reporting in the country, which he said, these media had not met, according to the news site of La Radio del Sur.

“Unfortunately they come, or seek to enter Venezuela to accomplish tasks joining the violent plans of some sectors of the right, something that our country, like no sovereign country in the world is going to allow and really that is the real situation,” the official said, according to the site.

These instances were in addition to other attacks against media around the country.

On Aug. 30, the headquarters of newspaper El Nacional in Caracas was attacked with Molotov cocktails and excrement. While on Aug. 26 in the state of Táchira, the offices of the newspaper La Nación and of the Regional Television of Táchira (TRT) were covered with graffiti that appeared to be done by pro-government groups. The written messages were insults against the president of the National Assembly of Venezuela, of the opposition party, who had been making statements in these media outlets, according to the Press and Society Institute (IPYS) Venezuela.

The week before, in Caracas, the offices of digital media Crónica Uno, an initiative of Espacio Público, were robbed. While in Trujillo, to the northeast of the country, the office building of Diario de los Andes was hit with 30 bullets.

On the day of demonstrations, the SNTP asked journalists to report any anomalies experienced during the protests. The organization, along with Espacio Público and IPYS Venezuela, followed the protest on Twitter with different hashtags like #1S and #TomaDeCaracas, in order to follow what was happening. These hashtags were being used by Twitter users across Venezuela and abroad to follow the Sept. 1 manifestations.

A day earlier, SNTP also urged the Government for guarantees for the work of journalists.

“It is a fact repeated on various occasions, when they have held protests and demonstrations, journalists are attacked, threatened, robbed and kidnapped with the clear intention of preventing the facts from being news spread to the community and known by all,” said Marco Ruiz, secretary general of SNTP, in an Aug. 31 press release. “The National Armed Forces (in more than 60 percent of the cases) and the Bolivarian National Police have been responsible for these actions.”

Meanwhile, IPYS Venezuela called attention to the announcement made by the president of the country’s National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel), William Castillo, who reminded the media in an Aug. 31 press release of the “legal ban of broadcasting by radio, television and electronic media, messages that incite ‘violence, to the disregard of the authorities, to the disruption of public order and citizen’s peace, and that can generate anxiety in the population.’”

In the release, Castillo said that the radio system of the country would be monitored and that media broadcasts like those of April 11, 2002, which in his opinion “constituted a communicational curtain to execute a coup against President Hugo Chávez,” would not be tolerated.

According to IPYS Venezuela, this release together with Castillo’s other declarations to media constitute a “threat” to media of “punishing them” which affects “the free and wide coverage by the media on possible acts of conflict.”

The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, Edison Lanza, also pointed to restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and of protest on the day of demonstrations, according to an interview with EFE.

“We are following the events with great concern. The concerns are many. That the foreign correspondents are not able to enter is a restriction because the Government tries to prevent international scrutiny,” Lanza said to the news agency.

In his interview, Lanza not only referred to the impediments faced by foreign journalists trying to enter the country, but also attacked experienced by media and journalists in the days prior, as well as the Army’s control of the demonstrations.

Lanza recalled that a few weeks ago, he and the Special Rapporteur of the UN issued a joint statement expressing concern about the deterioration of freedom of expression in Venezuela.

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.