Venezuelan journalists covering daily demonstrations must guard against police, 'colectivos,' and protestors

By Lillian Michel

May 26 marked 56 days of continuous protests against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, during which journalists face aggression from police, armed collectives and protesters alike.

There have been more than 115 cases of violations, restrictions and attacks on freedom of expression recorded in just over a month, according to press freedom watchdog IPYS Venezuela. Over half the cases documented by the organization between March 28 and May 8 were physical assaults and attacks against members of the media. More cases were recorded during that time than in the first three months of the year, when 84 cases were counted.

These cases of violations can include physical attacks, restrictions to accessing information, censorship, restrictive laws and abusive use of state power.

Though the IPYS report ends on May 8, the attacks and intimidation of journalists covering the Venezuelan crisis have continued.

“If it’s a pro-government protest, the state security forces won’t bother us, but I’m on alert for protesters,” said Julett Pineda, a journalist with Venezuelan news site Efecto Cocuyo, in an email to the Knight Center.

Pineda explained that political officials and media that lean toward the government have said her employer, Efecto Cocuyo, spreads false news or contributes to the ‘media war,’ so she is cautious of this when going to a pro-government march.

“If anyone recognizes the media and has heard these types of statements, it is very easy to be called an ‘infiltrator’ or for the same people to intimidate you while doing your job,” she explained.

“At opposition marches, I’m more worried about the police or the National Guard. At first I thought that if I stayed with a group of colleagues and far from the protestors they wouldn’t lash out against the press, but it’s not like that.”

Nevertheless, Pineda said the probabilities of being attacked are lower if she sticks with her colleagues. “Even so, the uniformed officers have thrown tear gas directly at the press to disperse us. If you are separated from the group, you are at greater risk,” Pineda added.

Pineda said she also must be careful of protesters at opposition marches, including when doing interviews or taking photos. “There are many who are skeptical, as you what media you are with, whether or not it is a Chavista website, ask to see your card first.”

On Twitter, the National Union of Press Workers of Venezuela (SNTP) recorded at least 16 attacks against journalists during May 22 demonstrations. The majority of the attacks occurred in Caracas during a “march for health and life” that was interrupted by the Bolivarian National Police.

The injured included AP photographer Ariana Cubillos, and Juan Peraza, a photographer for the Alcaldia de Chacao, who were hosed down by members of the National Guard in Caracas. Jhoalys Siverio from Correo del Caroni and Pableysa Ostos with El Universal, two journalists based in Guayana City, had their cellphones taken by hooded demonstrators.

Two days later, SNTP recorded at least two reporters being hit by tear gas bombs while covering government repression during demonstrations.

Pineda said journalists can be identified by their protective gear. While opposition protesters usually wear white and carry Venezuelan flags, journalists wear helmets, gas masks, and make sure their press pass is always visible.

The public prosecutor’s office recently announced on Twitter that it would be investigating “aggressions against three journalists” from El Nuevo País and Zeta that took place in Caracas at a student protest. Raylí Luján was kicked and grabbed by ‘colectivos,’ suffering a scratch on the left side of her face, according to SNTP. The group also attempted to rob two crew members that were with Luján before releasing them.

Today we were victims of the collectives that ‘no one’ controls,” Luján wrote on her personal Twitter account. “Nevertheless, there isn’t a hit that can silence us!”

The collectives are armed, pro-government civilian groups based in west Caracas, once considered Chavista territory. “They’re much more violent than the police when it comes to targeting the press,” Pineda said.

“The collectives have also made the press their main objective. At Efecto Cocuyo we try not to wear bulletproof vests so these groups can’t identify us as press so quickly.”

On May 18, the public prosecutor’s office ordered protective measures for members of the media during protests after SNTP filed a complaint citing evidence of attacks against journalists. But, according to Pineda, that same day journalists faced some of the worst repression of the past 50 days. The request was approved by a Tribunal of Justice on May 23, requiring security officials to provide priority protection for journalists.

“[Protection would mean] being able to do my job in peace,” Pineda said. “Not being harassed or threatened by any group for the work I do.”

On May 26, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a statement of concern in part about the “use of military operations to control public demonstrations in Venezuela.”

The statement cites the Attorney General of Venezuela and the Public Prosecutor’s Office as saying that 55 people have died in acts of violence between April 6 and May 24. Of these, 52 were civilians and 3 were officers. According to civil society organizations and government spokespersons, 60 people have died due to violence in the context of demonstrations, the IACHR reported.

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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