Venezuelan opposition supporters have been protesting against the government of President Nicolás Maduro since the Supreme Court ruled to strip the National Assembly of its lawmaking powers at the end of March. This is the longest sustained wave of anti-government demonstrations since 2014.
Local and international journalists covering the protests have been attacked, beaten, arrested and sprayed with tear gas, and have had their equipment confiscated and stolen. The Emergencies Response Team (ERT) at the Committee to Protect Journalists has issued the following safety advisory for journalists covering or planning to cover the protests throughout Venezuela.
Venezuelan authorities have been using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds, reportedly firing from helicopters above the crowds. Hundreds have been injured and arrested, and so far three deaths have been reported.
Journalists covering the story told the CPJ that the authorities have been firing tear gas into the crowds at close range. One photographer who was hit by a canister suffered significant injury to his leg. At the same time the protesters have been throwing rocks and projectiles at security personnel.
Local and international media have found it increasingly difficult to operate in Venezuela due to government obstruction. Police and armed pro-government gangs have detained, harassed and attacked journalists. Assaults have taken place in broad daylight, and pro-government gangs have stolen media equipment, a journalist who spoke to CPJ said.
Here are some tips to help journalists working in Venezuela stay safe. They are intended as guidance, and may not fit all situations.
- Plan the assignment and ensure that you have a full battery on your mobile phone. Know the area you are going to. Work out in advance what you would do in an emergency.
- Always try to work with a colleague and have a regular check-in procedure with your base. Particularly if covering rallies or crowd events.
- If going to rallies or crowd events, wear clothing and footwear that allows you to move swiftly. Consider your position–if you can, find an elevated position which would offer greater safety.
- At any location, always plan an evacuation route as well an emergency rendezvous point if you are working with others.
- Remember that crime and kidnapping are a serious problem in Venezuela. Maintain situational awareness at all times and limit valuables you are taking. Do not leave any equipment in vehicles as they are likely to be broken into and after dark, the criminal risk increases dramatically.
- It is sensible to wear personal protective equipment which includes gas masks, eye protection, body armor and helmets. (For visiting journalists, please note there are mixed reports about getting such equipment into the country. Some journalists have entered without issues, but others have had complications entering when identified as journalists. Journalist permits are very hard, if not impossible to obtain.)
- Venezuelan authorities are using tear gas indiscriminately and there is the possibility of high concentrations of tear gas sitting in areas with no movement of air. Individuals with asthma or respiratory issues should avoid areas where tear gas is being used. Likewise, contact lenses are not advisable.
- If you are exposed to tear gas, try to find higher ground and stand in fresh air to allow the breeze to carry away the gas. Do not rub your eyes or face as this may worsen the situation. Once possible, shower in cold water to wash the gas away from skin, but do not bathe. Clothing may need to be washed several times to rid the crystals completely or even be discarded.
Dealing with aggression:
- Read body language to identify an aggressor and use your own body language to pacify a situation.
- Keep eye contact with an aggressor, use open hand gestures and keep talking with a calming manner.
- Keep an extended arm’s length from the threat. Back away, breakaway firmly without aggression if held. If cornered and in danger, shout.
- If working in a crowd, keep to the outside of the crowd and don’t get sucked into the middle where it is hard to escape. Identify an escape route, and have a team emergency meeting point if working with others. If aggression increases, keep a hand free to protect your head and move with short, deliberate steps to avoid falling. If in a team, stick together and link arms.
- While there are times when documenting aggression is crucial journalistic work, be aware of the situation and your own safety. Taking pictures of aggressive individuals can escalate a situation.
- Report any aggression to the authorities.
If you are attacked, threatened or otherwise intimidated while covering these events, you can contact CPJ by emailing [email protected].
For more information on basic preparedness, assessing and responding to risk, or covering safety measures when covering civil conflict and disturbances, we encourage journalists to review CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide.