After four journalists from investigative journalism site Armando.info left Venezuela due to a looming defamation lawsuit, an important group of journalists and organizations that defend freedom of expression and the press throughout Latin America have signed a statement warning about the serious deterioration of the conditions facing the Venezuelan press.
The statement published by the Press and Society Institute of Venezuela (IPYS, for its initials in Spanish) expresses solidarity with Armando.info journalists Ewald Scharfenberg, Joseph Poliszuk, Alfredo Meza and Roberto Deniz who are currently living in exile.
“The criminal actions that are being applied against journalists and media executives worsen the situation of freedom of expression in Venezuela and aggravate the risks that already exist against professional journalism,” the letter said. “In Venezuela, there is no independent judiciary, and courts are often used to punish the press that report the facts.”
Among the organizations who signed the statement are the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), the National Press Association of Bolivia (ANP), the Center for Archives and Access to Public Information of Uruguay (CAInfo), the Press Freedom Foundation of Colombia (FLIP), the Forum of Argentine Journalism (FOPEA), the Andean Foundation for the Observation and Study of Media in Ecuador (Fundamedios), the Institute of Press and Freedom of Expression of Costa Rica (IPLEX), The Press and Society Institute of Peru (IPYS) and the Press and Society Institute of Venezuela and Peru (IPYS).
Additionally, more than a dozen journalists have signed the letter so far, including Carlos Dada of El Salvador’s El Faro, Mónica Almeida of El Universo in Ecuador and Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.
The journalists from Armando.info left their country after being sued by a Colombian businessman linked to President Nicolás Maduro and his government. The charges they are accused of are criminal and each could receive a prison sentence of one to six years and a fine of approximately US $59,000.
One of the journalists, Alfredo Meza, told the Knight Center “One of the things that forced us to leave is that they told us that we had no chance of winning the trial. The judge in charge of the case never found in favor of someone other than the government, and we know that from our investigations and the database we have.”
Since this criminal complaint was lodged by Colombian Alex Saab in September 2017, the journalists have received various threats and heard rumors about their legal situation. With the advice of their lawyers, this led them to leave Venezuela for an undefined period of time.
Saab sued them for continued aggravated defamation and aggravated injuria (insult) as a result of the publication of two articles written by Deniz. In both articles, published in April and September 2017 on Armando.info, the journalists report that Saab has financial links with the Venezuelan government’s program to combat hunger and scarcity, Local Sourcing and Production Committee (CLAP).
According to the articles, “Businessmen questioned in Ecuador and the U.S. sell food to the Venezuelan Government,” and “From Veracruz to La Guaria: a trip that united Nicolás Maduro and Piedad Córdoba,” written by Deniz, Saab is the owner of a company registered in tax havens that bills these products at a premium, benefitting from the exchange of preferential dollars.
According to the statement signed by press advocates and journalists, this judicial attack against the four journalists of Armando.info is the 31st criminal action that IPYS has registered for crimes of defamation and injuria. It added that the majority of these cases have been carried out by public officials and state contractors.
“We demand that the Venezuelan State comply with standards guaranteeing full exercise of professional and independent journalism to offer reliable information about matters of public interest and to protect the right of citizens to be informed,” the letter said. “These crimes must be eliminated from national legislation in accordance with the request the UN Human Rights made to the Venezuelan State in July 2015. This same appeal has been reiterated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at various times.”
The Armando.info journalists are part of a growing number of journalists leaving the country in recent years.
Jesús Medina, a journalist for site Dolar Today, posted to Twitter on Feb. 7 that he returned to Venezuela after leaving in November 2017 due to threats against him for his work. He went missing for two days in early November in what he said was an abduction due to his reporting on Tocorón prison.
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.