Bogotá, Colombia, September 7, 2016--Venezuelan authorities should immediately release online and radio journalist Braulio Jatar Alonso, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Domestic intelligence officers detained Jatar on September 3, a day after he reported on an anti-government protest.
Officers from Venezuela's Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional (SEBIN) detained Jatar, who is also a prominent opposition supporter, as he went to a local radio station in Porlamar, the largest city on the Venezuelan Caribbean island of Isla Margarita, on September 3, his sister told Reuters. According to news reports, authorities claimed he was in possession of the equivalent of $43,000 in cash, which they claimed was to be used to fund a "terror attack" during the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement scheduled to begin on the island on September 13.
The arrest came a day after Jatar, who manages the website Reporte Confidencial, published text and video accounts of residents of the Porlamar neighborhood of Villa Rossa welcoming Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro with jeers and by banging pots and pans. Maduro abruptly cancelled plans for a televised event inaugurating renovated apartment buildings in the neighborhood, according to news reports, and the incident made international news headlines.
"If Venezuelan authorities have any credible evidence to support the trumped-up charges against Braulio Jatar Alonso, let them present it immediately or free the journalist without delay," Carlos Lauría, CPJ's senior program coordinator for the Americas, said from New York. "We urge Venezuela to allow all journalists to report freely without fear of retaliatory charges."
Pedro Arévalo, a lawyer for the Venezuelan legal rights group Foro Penal, claimed that authorities planted the money on Jatar, and that the journalist was detained in reprisal for publishing the protest video on his website. "All he did was to publish some videos," Arévalo told the Caracas daily El Nacional.
"There was no crime, and they did not present any evidence," Jatar's defense attorney, Diomendes Potentini, told reporters.
If convicted, Jatar could face up to 15 years in prison. Jatar is a dual Venezuela-Chilean citizen. The Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz said his government said was "very concerned" about the case, according to news reports.
Jatar, 58, is also a lawyer and a political activist. In the 1990s he worked as a legal advisor to the Venezuelan Congress. He faced charges of extortion in 1991 and fled to Miami, according to news reports, but was later exonerated. In 2007 Jatar founded the news website Reporte Confidencial on Isla Margarita, where he lives. He also worked closely with opposition Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who is now under house arrest, and has actively supported a recall referendum in which the opposition hopes to remove Maduro from office.
Jatar's arrest comes amid a crackdown on political opponents as the Maduro government confronts widespread food shortages, triple-digit inflation and growing unrest. News reports said that 40 demonstrators were detained during the Villa Rosa protest but have since been released. Authorities arrested dozens of protesters during a September 1 anti-government demonstration in Caracas, and prevented several foreign journalists from entering the country to report on the event.
[UPDATE: This alert has been corrected to reflect the spelling of Isla Margarita and the name of the Chilean Foreign Minister, Heraldo Muñoz.]