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Story Publication logo July 28, 2020

Covering the Pandemic: Arrests of Journalists and Healthcare Workers in Venezuela

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People wearing protective masks while waiting for turns to enter a supermarket during the COVID-19 pandemic in Caracas. Venezuela, 2020. Image by Edgloris Marys / Shutterstock.
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Prodavinci, the premier digital outlet in Venezuela for explanatory journalism, is using data...

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Image by Christian Hernández/AFP. Venezuela, 2020.
Image by Christian Hernández/AFP. Venezuela, 2020.

Luisa took a break from her work day and went out to pick up a package. When she came back home, she had a notification on her cellphone. Gleybert alerted his colleagues: “I’ve been detained.”

That’s how Luisa Maracara, editorial coordinator of the online news media Crónica Uno, found out that Gleybert Asencio, chief of photography, was arrested while reporting on COVID-19. He was with journalist Sofía García.

On the morning of Wednesday, July 15, 2020, Gleybert took a photo of the hotel La Palmera, in the neighborhood of Los Caobos. At that moment, a white vehicle appeared. Inside, there was a man in a military uniform accompanied by a militiaman.

The officer approached the graphic reporter and asked him what he was doing in that place. Gleybert explained he worked as a reporter for a digital news media in Caracas. The guard immediately responded: “You’re here raising false positives.” He asked for the reporter’s ID and credentials. He did the same with Yonathan Torres and Ronald Montaño, the two motorcycle riders that were transporting the reporters.

The military man took photos of their IDs. He said he would call the command “to see if they had permission or not” to be there. Fifteen minutes later, a man on a motorcycle arrived and was ordered to “take them away.”

Later in the day, other officers of the National Police escorted Gleybert, Ronald, and Yonathan for 1.6 miles until they arrived at a military outpost located in the Alba Caracas hotel.

Before leaving Los Caobos, Gleybert had the chance to alert Sofía García, the reporter from Crónica Uno who was working with them that day. He told her to leave the area.

While the military man exchanged words with Gleybert and the two motorcycle riders, Sofía walked away to interview residents of the area. There had been a protest the previous night. Protesters rejected that the government was transporting people infected with COVID-19 to the hotel La Palmera to comply with the mandatory isolation phase required by the authorities.  

Before speaking with the neighbors, Sofía and Gleybert entered the hotel and interviewed one of the people in charge without any trouble.

Sofía hurried home and told her team at Crónica Uno what had happened. While being escorted on the motorcycle, Gleybert took out his phone and wrote a message in a group chat with colleagues: “Hotel Alba Caracas.” Now they knew where they were being taken. 

At 1 p.m., Luisa Maracara, her colleagues at the newsroom, Espacio Público, an NGO that promotes human rights and freedom of expression in Venezuela and the Sindicato Nacional de la Prensa, denounced on Twitter that the news team had been detained for more than two hours.

An officer, who identified himself as a commander, told Gleybert and his companions held at the hotel that he did not care how many people condemned their detention on social media.

The military man argued it was forbidden to cover hotels that were part of the “Puntos de Atención Social Integral (Pasi),” buildings designated by the government for people infected with COVID-19 to undergo mandatory isolation.

Before letting Gleybert, Ronald, and Yonathan go, the guard warned that if they were seen again working without permission “there would not be any type of dialogue and they were going to be detained.”

Four months before, another team of reporters and motorcyclists from Crónica Uno had been detained while reporting from the Catia public market as part of their pandemic coverage.

The U.N. sent two letters to Venezuelan authorities regarding the arbitrary detentions against journalists and other restrictions to free speech during the pandemic. These messages appeared among 35 communications that U.N special rapporteurs sent to different States for different reasons, between April and June 2020. 

In times of the novel coronavirus pandemic, experts in free speech and human rights have raised their voices to highlight the illegality of arresting journalists covering the COVID-19 crisis. Such concern was expressed in two letters sent to the permanent mission of Venezuela in Geneva. The special rapporteurs warned about the increasing risk faced by reporters and media workers “in the context of the state of emergency” triggered by the novel coronavirus.

The letters —sent on the 14 and the 28 of April, 2020— were signed by seven experts on freedom of expression, arbitrary detentions, and human rights affairs at the U.N. Until July 15, there was no answer by the Venezuelan State, according to the open repository of communications sent by U.N. officials to different countries. 

These official addresses are part of the U.N.’s mechanisms and special procedures to follow up grave cases of human rights violations in the world.

The Arrests

Despite the U.N. rapporteurs’ messages, during the first 125 days of social distancing in Venezuela, journalists faced diverse obstacles when reporting on COVID-19. Data from the Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela (IPYS Venezuela), analyzed by Prodavinci, shows that arbitrary detentions were the most severe risk reporters faced in the country.  

Between March 12 —when the government dictated the first quarantine measures— and July 15, 2020, there were 12 arbitrary detention cases of journalists and news media workers. Five of these cases happened in the first 15 days of the quarantine, in March. Then two in April, one in May and two in the first 15 days of July.

In the states of Miranda, Vargas, Táchira, Bolívar, Sucre, and the metropolitan area of Caracas, law enforcement detained 16 reporters, photographers, and motorcyclists working with news organizations for registering, shooting photos and publishing COVID-19 stories showing the areas around markets, border zones, and hospitals.

Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela’s data shows that these arbitrary detentions were temporary: they spanned from 30 minutes to 13 days.  

The longest detention among the list of reporters who have been arrested for covering the pandemic happened to Darvinson Rojas. He was held for 13 days from March 21 to April 2, 2020. A platoon of the Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales (FAES), a special unit of the National Bolivarian Police, went to Rojas’ home, broke-in without a warrant, and took the freelance reporter into custody. Hours went by and nobody knew where he was. Later, it became known that he was at a police station. He was apprehended for publishing unofficial COVID-19 data on the spread of the disease in  Miranda state on Twitter. He was brought to court and charged with “instigation of hate”. The reporter returned home on probation. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience.

United Nations representatives reported that Rojas was advised by a public defender to refrain from “using social media” and recommended him to “only replicate information confirmed by the government,” when posting about the pandemic.  

Jesús Enrique Torres and Jesús Manuel Castillo were also detained. These two university students and radio broadcasters from La Cima 96.7 FM radio station, recorded a video at the hospital Victorino Santaella in Los Teques and shared it on social media. 

It was noon on Friday, March 13. The two young reporters talked in front of the camera and said that a person infected with COVID-19 had arrived in the ER. People walked around the surrounding areas of the emergency room. A day later, they recorded another video. Sitting on a black sofa at the radio station they apologized for the inaccuracy of the information they had given. After that video, they were detained, taken to court, and later released on probation with a prohibition of leaving Miranda state.

Arbitrary detentions deepen the “restrictive context and pressure faced by nongovernmental news media organizations,” the U.N.’s rapporteurs said in one of their letters. 

On top of these freedom of expression restrictions during the COVID-19 coverage, there have been threats, aggressions, and digital blockades and attacks to news media websites. 34 of these events happened between March 12 and June 25.

The Standards

The report on Venezuela, published on July 2 by The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that some detentions “impeded the coverage of the health crisis.” The report also emphasized that several journalists were sanctioned with “hate crimes.” These convictions go against international human right standards, according to the analysis by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that those who carry out informative tasks “perform an indispensable function.” She added that “the risks faced by journalists are perfectly avoidable” and expressed that government authorities have the obligation to protect people working in the media.

The resolution “Pandemic and Human Rights in the Americas,” published by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, advised governments to refrain from obstructing the work and movement of reporters covering the public health emergency. The report also recommended “guaranteeing the right to access public information” related to COVID-19.  

Health Workers

Healthcare workers were also threatened. Espacio Público documented four arbitrary detentions against healthcare professionals who reported to journalists or on social media a lack of supplies and resources to properly care for patients with COVID-19 in public hospitals. The healthcare professionals detained between March and April were two doctors, a nurse, and a bioanalyst, who worked in healthcare centers in four states: Táchira, Trujillo, Monagas, and Lara.  

Luis Araya, a gynecologist from Carora, complained in his Whatsapp status about the deficiencies of public attention during the pandemic. The doctor was detained in his private practice in the state of Lara, on Wednesday, April 15, by law enforcement officers from the Dirección General de Contrainteligencia MIlitar (Dgcim), Venezuela’s military counterintelligence agency. They took him and drove for over an hour until they reached the city of Barquisimeto, capital of the state. He was later charged with “instigation of hate” and must attend court every 30 days, according to the Espacio Público report.  

Bachelet declared that freedom of expression of healthcare workers ought to be guaranteed. She recommended authorities to avoid any measure that would sanction healthcare workers for denouncing crisis care “deficiencies”.

A human rights advocate also appeared on the arbitrary detentions list related to communicational rights. On April 6, Espacio Público and IPYS Venezuela reported that Luis Serrano, coordinator of the NGO Redes Ayuda, was arrested for two hours. His organization said it would distribute gloves, masks, and other protective gear to journalists reporting on the pandemic. Law enforcement officers took him while he was receiving a delivery of supplies.

In a letter published on April 28, United Nations experts told Venezuelan authorities that they were concerned that the COVID-19 pandemic “could be used as a pretext to silence dissent and intensify harassment,” such as, “the criminalization of journalists and people advocating for human rights, freedom of expression and access to information.”

Detentions Record

The spread of COVID-19 related content was not the only reason for arrests during quarantine. Between March 12 and June 25, 2020, IPYS Venezuela reported 27 arbitrary detentions against journalists in 12 different states of the country. The majority of these detentions occurred when reporters and media workers covered protests related to shortages and inefficient distribution of fuel in the country.

During the first three months of the country’s state of emergency, the number of Venezuelan journalists arrested increased, compared to data from January to early March of that same year. IPYS Venezuela reported three arrests of media workers in this period.

The number of journalists detained between March and June 2020 is higher than the number registered during the same period in 2019, when 19 journalists suffered arbitrary detentions. In 2017, a total of 28 journalists were arrested while covering the 2017 Venezuelan protests.

Data indicates that June 2020 has had the most arbitrary detentions against journalists in the past six years, compared to the same month since 2014.

“This is not the time to blame the messenger. Instead of threatening journalists or muzzling critics, states should stimulate a sensible debate regarding the pandemic and its consequences,” Bachelet said.

International organization’s claims match the need to protect the work of journalists covering the pandemic. They have emphasized that guaranteeing freedom of the press must be kept as a priority to understand the COVID-19 crisis.

Two news media managers were in prison when Prodavinci published this story on July 16.

Richard Rodríguez, executive producer at Radiomanía 89.7 FM, recorded a video informing of the poor conditions at the COVID-19 isolation center, located at the Carúpano vertical gym, where he was undergoing quarantine himself. 

“As a measure of retaliation, law enforcement officers took him to a room next to the hospital’s morgue, in the city, without medical attention or vigilance,” said Nayrobis Rodríguez, an IPYS Venezuela correspondent in the state of Sucre. 

The same day and in the same city, military men arrested Otilio Rodríguez, a journalist working at Pura Candela 93.3 FM radio station and director of elcarupanero.com. He was detained in Carúpano, in Sucre state, on July 15 at 5 p.m. IPYS Venezuela’s correspondent informed that agents of the Bolivarian National Guard arrived in his home with a detention warrant signed by a military man. Before this event took place, Rodríguez published in the broadcaster’s Instagram, accounts of citizens denouncing problems with fuel distribution in the city. He was released 12 hours later.

Nicmer Evans, a political scientist and director of the website Punto de Corte, was detained in Caracas. His lawyer, Ana Yánez, said that, initially, the reason for his arrest was unknown. Military counterintelligence officers detained him on Monday, July 13. They arrived with an arrest warrant for the alleged “promotion and instigation of hate,” a crime established in Article 20 of the so-called “Constitutional Law Against Hatred, for Peaceful Coexistence and Tolerance,” a law that was not sanctioned by Venezuela’s National Assembly. Instead, it was approved by the “Constituent National Assembly” and published in Gaceta Oficial on November 8, 2017.


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