Journalists under fire covering protests in Venezuela

New York, February 20, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the wave of violence against and harassment and detentions of journalists covering protests in Venezuela in recent days and calls on authorities to ensure the press can work safely. The violations come amid nationwide protests that have left at least six dead and hundreds injured. The demonstrations began on February 12 by university students protesting the government of President Nicolás Maduro.  

“While it is crucial that both pro-government and opposition groups respect the right of the press to report on the protests in the country, authorities have a responsibility to ensure that journalists can do their jobs safely,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “Media blackouts, arrests, and a campaign of harassment against dissenting voices has become a hallmark of this administration.”  

At least one journalist was injured by gunfire on February 12. State media reported that Mayra Cienfuegos, an employee of the state television network VTV, was shot–allegedly by opposition protesters–while covering protests around the network’s headquarters in Caracas. She underwent surgery at a local hospital and was later discharged, according to news reports.

At least 13 journalists were harassed or physically assaulted by law enforcement officials and pro-government crowds in the past week, according to local freedom of expression group Espacio Público. On February 15, protesters threw rocks at Globovisión journalist María Iginia Silva in Caracas, but she was taken to safety by other demonstrators, according to news reports.

Police detained at least six journalists covering the protests in Caracas on February 12, according to local press freedom groups and news reports. Fernando Prieto Figueroa and Alejandro Hernández, multimedia reporters for the daily El Nacional, were arrested and released shortly after, El Nacional reported. Rafael Hernández, a photographer for Exceso magazine, and Lewis Díaz, a freelance photojournalist, were detained for several hours, the reports and press groups said. Both journalists said that officials seized their camera equipment and Hernández said he had been beaten.

Ángel Matute, a producer for the national radio station Union Radio and author of the blog El Matutino, and Domingo Alfredo Díaz, a freelance journalist and professor of journalism at the Universidad de Santa Maria, were taken into custody, along with many protesting students, and held for two days, according to the local press freedom group Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS). Authorities told them upon their release that they were forbidden from returning to the protests, IPYS said.

Several journalists also said their equipment was seized. Freelance photographer Juan Camacho said law enforcement officials confiscated his camera equipment on February 12 in Caracas and returned it to him hours later without the memory chip, according to IPYS. Mariana Cadenas, Caracas correspondent for the international news agency Agence France-Presse, said she was attacked the same day and her camera seized by assailants wearing the red shirts associated with government supporters, according to Espacio Público. On Tuesday, journalists from CNN covering the protests in Caracas were robbed of their equipment at gunpoint by a group of unidentified individuals on motorcycles, according to news reports. On Wednesday, two journalists with the daily Panorama said they were beaten by police officers who tried to seize their camera equipment while they covered protests in the city of Maracaibo, the newspaper reported.

Nearly all TV stations in Venezuela are either controlled or allied with the government of Maduro and have ignored the nationwide protests. On February 13, journalists with the media group Cadena Capriles issued a public statement in which they complained about the pro-government coverage by the outlets owned by the media group. The day the protests began, Venezuelan authorities took Colombian news station NTN24–the only station available to TV viewers in Venezuela that provided live coverage of the protests and which has been very critical of the government–off the air. Authorities also blocked images on Twitter in the days following the February 12 clashes, a spokesman for the company told The Associated Press.