Police officers arrest Venezuelan journalist who reported on the COVID-19 situation in his country

The house of Venezuelan journalist Darvinson Rojas was raided and he was detained by agents of the Special Action Forces (FAES) of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) on March 21, in Caracas. Journalist and freedom of expression groups in the country say it was for his reporting on the coronavirus in Venezuela.

Darvinson Rojas

Darvinson Rojas (Twitter)

The FAES is an elite police squad created by the current government that has been accused of being an extermination group, according to the BBC.

"Yesterday (March 23) around 6 pm, despite the fact that the family was in court all day along with the lawyers, who are from the Espacio Público team, they waited for the journalist to be transferred to the Palace of Justice , according to what the public defender told us," but they could not see him until the afternoon of March 24, Carlos Correa, director of Espacio Público, told the Knight Center.

At the hearing on March 23, Rojas was accused of instigating hatred and public instigation, the National Union of Press Workers of Venezuela (SNTP) reported via Twitter. "During the clandestine and illegal hearing held on March 23, the prosecution also charged terrorism, but the charge was dismissed," the union said in its tweet.

The journalist is unable to have much contact with his relatives or his lawyers, Correa said. Likewise, Correa confirmed that he will be prosecuted for reporting on COVID-19 and allegedly could continue his process in freedom with some restrictions, such as being prohibited from leaving the country or not being able to speak publicly about his case.

If his family members are able to present all the documents that they are demanding so that he can be released on bail, he could be freed, Correa explained.

"Apparently, today [March 24] they would present them, but with this situation of the coronavirus, the court in charge will have a hearing on April 2," Correa said. "We are simply with a level of uncertainty, it is not known if they will detain him until that date," he added.

The SNTP also indicated that Rojas's coverage of COVID-19 in the country and his messages on social media in this regard allegedly led to his apprehension.

On his Twitter account, Rojas recorded with audio and photographs the moment that FAES agents surrounded his home and entered.

Likewise, via Twitter, the SNTP reported that Rojas was detained by about "15 hooded and armed officials who, additionally, arrested Jesús Rojas and Mirian Sánchez, parents of Darvinson." The SNTP also pointed out that the hooded men beat the journalist's father during the operation and that computers and cell phones were taken.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the journalist's parents were released shortly after Rojas was detained.

The journalist's father reported later that day via Twitter that his son is being held in FAES headquarters in the municipality of La Quebradita. "I hold FAES responsible for the life of my son Darvinson Rojas, for his state of health," the journalist's father tweeted.

However, the SNTP reported on March 22 that Rojas was no longer detained at the La Quebradita police headquarters, but at the FAES headquarters in the municipality of Caricuao, according to his family and defense organizations.

Before his arrest, Rojas said via Twitter that the FAES informed him that it had received an anonymous call about a COVID-19 case at his home, so they asked him to accompany them.

According to an Aministía Internacional statement on Rojas' arrest, the FAES "have an appalling record of committing grave human rights violations." "We demand his immediate and unconditional release," the organization wrote to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro through a formal letter.

“In times of a global public health crisis, people’s right to freedom of the press is more vital than ever,” the organization wrote. “Journalists, particularly those reporting of the crisis, should be protected, not arrested.”

Monitor de Víctimas es un proyecto de la organización Mi Convive y la plataforma del medio digital venezolano Runrun.es en donde participan tanto ciudadanos como periodistas de investigación para contribuir a la disminución de la violencia en Caracas. Para el proyecto, el equipo recoge información sobre los actos violentos que ocurren en la ciudad.

The Monitor of Victims is a project of the organization Mi Convive and the Venezuelan digital media platform Runrun.es, where both citizens and investigative journalists participate to contribute to the reduction of violence in Caracas. Through the project, the team collects information about violent acts in the city.

"We demand his immediate release and guarantees for Darvinson's freedom of expression as well as that of all journalists in Venezuela to keep the population duly informed, since it is an essential element in stopping the COVID-19 pandemic," the Monitor of Victims said, according to Efecto Cocuyo.

CPJ demanded Rojas’ immediate release. “Violently detaining a journalist and interrogating him about his sources on a vital public health issue like the COVID-19 outbreak has an undeniable chilling effect that will only discourage other journalists from reporting on the pandemic,” said Natalia Southwick, CPJ South and Central America Program Coordinator.