CPJ calls on Venezuela to stop obstructing the foreign press

São Paulo, February 13, 2017–Two Brazilian journalists investigating a continent-wide corruption ring were detained over the weekend in Venezuela, according to press reports. Separately, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced at a rally that he wanted CNN out of the country and accused the network of spreading “fake news,” other outlets reported.

“The international media must be able to cover issues of public interest and report on sensitive topics without fearing retaliation and persecution from Venezuelan authorities,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas, from New York. “We call on the government of President Maduro to put an end to this systematic practice of obstructing news coverage and to stop interfering with the work of the press.”

Reporter Leandro Stoliar and cameraman Gilson Fred Oliveira arrived in São Paulo today at 5:50 a.m. after being freed by Venezuelan police, according to Record TV, the São Paulo-based television channel for which they work. They were arrested in Maracaibo at around midday on February 11, while filming a story about the Nigale Bridge, an 11.8 km bridge over Lake Maracaibo that is being built by Odebrecht, a Brazilian multinational that is one of the companies at the center of a massive corruption scandal.

Also detained were two Venezuelan activists, Jesús Urbina and María José Túa, who work for Transparencia Venezuela, the national chapter of Transparency International, a global anti-corruption group. Urbina and Túa were accompanying the reporters, Transparencia Venezuela said in a statement.

Officials from Venezuela’s national intelligence body, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin), detained the Brazilians, fingerprinted them, and questioned them, the reporters said.

They were escorted back to a hotel around 1:15 a.m. on February 12 and they were kept under surveillance in the lobby until around 8 a.m., when they were taken back to the Sebin offices.

Later that night Venezuelan police flew them from Maracaibo to the capital and from there they were escorted onto a flight home to Brazil, a spokesperson for Record TV told CPJ. Police confiscated the equipment on which they had recorded their footage and interviews, Record TV said.

“Harassment, imprisonment, no communications, the police followed us even to the bathroom,” Stoliar told the channel’s website. “We were treated as criminals when the truth was we were just doing our job. We came home with the clothes on our backs and a backpack we managed to keep.”

The journalists were covering a story about Odebrecht’s involvement in the Lake Maracaibo bridge project. The company recently agreed to pay around $2 billion in fines after admitting to paying bribes to elected officials to secure construction contracts in several different countries, including Venezuela.

The journalists were detained on the same weekend that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced that he wanted CNN out of the country. “CNN, do not get into the affairs of Venezuelans,” Maduro said. “I want CNN well away from here. Outside of Venezuela. Do not put your nose in Venezuela.”

Maduro, who blamed the U.S. network of manipulating facts, made the comments during a rally just days after CNN en Español aired a report alleging that officials at the Venezuelan embassy in Iraq sold passports and visas to suspected terrorists.

Venezuela has taken an increasingly hostile stance towards foreign reporters in recent months barring several reporters from entering the country, CPJ research shows. The ABC News correspondent Matt Gutman was detained in October along with a cameraman and a Venezuelan doctor who had accompanied him for a report on the country’s health crisis. Aitor Saez, a Spanish correspondent working for Deutsche Welle (DW), was deported to Colombia on January 22. The reporter had come to cover opposition protests.

CPJ has found that authorities use a variety of tactics to restrict independent media under Maduro’s government. Online and radio journalist Braulio Jatar Alonso was arrested in early September after being accused of money laundering after covering a protest and is still imprisoned. The arrest and the latest incidents came amid a crackdown on political opponents, as the Maduro government confronts growing unrest over widespread food shortages and triple-digit inflation.