Updated August 11, 2017
As the political situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate, journalists covering protests have been routinely targeted, harassed, attacked, and detained. To provide concrete safety information for local and international journalists covering the unrest, CPJ's Emergencies Response Team is issuing periodic updates on the political situation, protests, and climate for journalists on the ground. This information is updated on a weekly basis.
For information on how journalists should protect themselves, see CPJ's Safety Advisory for Venezuela.
Venezuelan opposition supporters have been protestingagainst the government of President Nicolás Maduro since late March, when the country's Supreme Court ruled in favor of stripping the opposition-led National Assembly of its lawmaking powers. This wave of anti-government demonstrations, the longest since 2014, has become violent in many parts of the country. As of August 6, the attorney general's office had recorded 121 people killed over 120 days of protests. Of those, 19 percent are younger than 18, and an additional 58 percent are between 18-29 years old. According to the official report, state security forces and armed paramilitary civilian groups are responsible for 65 percent of the deaths.
There are two main parties involved in the current unrest. One is the governing Socialist Party (PSUV) led by President Maduro, who has attempted to continue the populist Bolivarian Revolution movement of his predecessor Hugo Chávez. The other is the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), a coalition of opposition political parties. Though Venezuela's political opposition has historically been fractured, the March Supreme Court ruling inspired disparate factions of MUD to work together in collective opposition to Maduro. MUD has several leaders, including Henrique Capriles, the governor of the northern state of Miranda and a candidate for president; Leopoldo López, a jailed politician; and National Assembly President Julio Borges.
Despite continued opposition, Maduro's government continues moving forward with a plan to convene a constituent assembly with the authority to rewrite the country's constitution, dismiss officials, and to oversee government institutions. Opposition leaders have called this plan a power-grab and an attempt to interfere with local and national elections previously scheduled for 2017 and 2018, respectively, according to news reports. It is now unclear when these elections will take place, or how the constituent assembly will affect them.
On July 30, the Venezuela government held the controversial constituent assembly vote, which the opposition had used as a rallying point since protests began in April. Although the opposition boycotted the vote and polls predicted turnout as low as 15 percent of registered voters, the vote went forward, resulting in the election of 545 predominantly pro-Maduro delegates, including first lady Cilia Flores, former National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello and former foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez, now president of the constituent assembly.
The government claimed official turnout of 8.1 million voters (42 percent of registered voters), though Antonio Mugica, the CEO of voting technology company Smartmatic, said there was evidence that the turnout figure had been tampered with and was off by at least 1 million, according to news reports.
In its first act after convening on August 4, the assembly decided to fire Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, who had emerged as one of the strongest critics of Maduro within the government, replacing her with Tarek William Saab, the former national ombudsman.
Amid reports of rising discontent among members of the armed forces, on June 27 a former police inspector allegedly stole a helicopter and staged a brazen attack on government institutions in Caracas, firing at the Interior Ministry and dropping grenades on the Supreme Court. The fact that the pilot, Oscar Pérez, escaped after such a public attack has fed conspiracy theories among the opposition that the raid was set up by the government, according to reports. Authorities arrested five high-ranking officers in the first week of July, bringing the number of members of the military arrested since the protests began in April to more than 120, according to news reports.
Tensions escalated further on August 6, when a group of armed men in military uniform attacked the Fuerte Paramacay military base in the northern state of Carabobo, according to press reports. Two people were killed and eight were arrested during the attack. In a video shared on social media, a man who identified himself as retired National Guard Capt. Juan Carlos Caguaripano declared that he and the other men were staging a "rebellion" against a "murderous tyranny," according to reports.
The Supreme Court on July 8 issued a one-paragraph statement granting house arrest on humanitarian grounds to the country's most high-profile political prisoner, opposition leader Leopoldo López, who has spent more than three years in the Ramo Verde military prison serving a 14-year sentence for inciting violence. In a speech, Maduro described the concession as an opportunity for the government and protesters to negotiate a "peace deal," while the opposition viewed it as evidence that the ongoing protests were effective, according to reports. Early on August 1, López and Antonio Ledezma, a former Caracas mayor also under house arrest, were taken from their homes by armed men after their house arrests were revoked due to concern they would flee the country, according to videos allegedly filmed at the scene and posted online. Both men were returned to house arrest at the end of the week, according to reports.
On July 16, the MUD held a non-binding referendum on the constituent assembly, with polling stations set up at theaters, sports facilities, and the middle of traffic circles. More than 7 million Venezuelans participated, with about 6.5 million voting in Venezuela and an additional 693,800 voting from abroad, representing about 37 percent of Venezuela's 19.5 million registered voters, according to news reports.
Voters responded to three questions, with more than 98 percent rejecting the proposed constituent assembly, supporting a call for elections before 2019, and voting for the armed forces to defend the current constitution. That same day, the government held a trial run for the July 30 constituent assembly vote.
On July 20, the MUD organized a general strike to increase pressure on the government in the week leading up to the constituent assembly, as part of its so-called "zero hour" strategy. Protesters placed roadblocks on many major roads in Venezuela's largest cities, and several metro stations in Caracas were closed, according to news reports. Leaders called for a second, 48-hour strike that began on Wednesday, July 26.
Early demonstrations were organized by MUD and affiliated activists. But as the protests have continued, more recent actions have been sponsored by an increasingly diverse range of organizers, including student groups, teachers and other civilian groups.
Marches normally begin at a predetermined meeting point where protesters gather for two or three hours. They then move toward city centers where government ministry offices are located. Organizers across the country have led recent marches to Public Ministry offices in a show of support for Ortega. Protesters are also holding protests that involve blocking all surrounding streets, which are referred to as trancazos.
In Caracas, the capital, protests have many different route options. Security forces typically stop them after only a short distance, and the national government has announced that protests will not be allowed to enter the Municipio Libertador, the city center. Police and National Guard place barriers, armored vehicles equipped to fire tear-gas canisters, lines of police and soldiers, and vehicles equipped with water cannons.
Around the country, Venezuelan state security forces, including the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), national police (PNB), and state police, have used tear gas and rubber-coated bullets to disperse crowds. Hundreds have been injured and arrested.
Since late June, state security forces have repeatedly fired live rounds into crowds of demonstrators, killing two protesters and injuring at least seven others, according to news reports.
On June 19, GNB officers fired live rounds at a crowd near Altamira in Caracas, injuring six people and killing 17-year-old student Fabián Urbina. Three officers have been charged in connection with Urbina's death, according to news reports.
Between June 26 and 29, five young men, all between 18-25 years old, were killed during protests in five different cities across the country. Three were shot and two died after being run over by vehicles during trancazos, according to news reports. Five more people, including a 15-year-old boy in Zulia state, were killed during the general strike on July 20, according to reports. Authorities are investigating five police officers for their possible involvement in the deaths of two of the five, who were shot and killed in Los Teques, near Caracas.
The weekend of the constituent assembly vote was the most deadly stretch to date, with at least 13 people killed in protests and clashes across the country on July 29 and 30, according to reports.
In a press conference for international media on June 23, President Maduro blamed opposition leaders, the Organization of American States and the United States, among others, for the situation in Venezuela. Maduro said the Constitutional Assembly was the only way to bring peace to the country. During the press conference, Maduro also stated that he had given a "clear order" to security forces not use firearms against protestors, according to news reports.
Meanwhile, customs officials have banned the import of protective items used by both journalists and protesters, including helmets, gas masks, and bulletproof vests, according to news reports. The same ban has also blocked imports of first aid supplies and goods used by protesters to protect themselves, such as antacids, eye drops, and stretchers.
Throughout Venezuela's largest cities, belligerent groups from both sides are also present at demonstrations or hotspots. Many are armed with weapons of different types, and all pose a potential threat to journalists. They include pro-government armed groups known as colectivos, which operate sometimes in support of security forces and sometimes alone, and protester barricades, known as guarimbas, which most often appear along main roads and in opposition-friendly neighborhoods.
Colectivos maintain a significant presence at demonstration sites. They primarily consist of former police officers, military, or security service personnel. Members are usually dressed as civilians, though some wear black jackets and masks. They typically carry small arms, though some have also been seen with rifles or machine guns. Colectivo members usually travel in groups of two aboard motorcycles.
Colectivo members have fired directly into protests and are allegedly responsible for a number of protester deaths, according to reports. They have also threatened, physically attacked, and robbed journalists.
On July 5, a group of about 200 Colectivo members attacked the National Assembly building, where lawmakers, journalists and civil society groups had gathered for a special session commemorating Venezuela's Independence Day. Armed Colectivos trapped more than 300 people in the building, including 108 journalists, 94 deputies and 120 workers, and held them there for more than seven hours, according to news reports. At least 12 people were injured, including four deputies. Digital news outlet Vivoplay reported that members of Colectivos threatened journalists with pipes and rocks and stole cameras, microphones, and other equipment.
Guarimbas, or protest barricades, which first appeared during the 2014 protests, are commonly manned by university or high school students, known as guarimberos. The barricades are made of up materials ranging from bags of trash to tree trunks and stolen vehicles, such as trucks or buses, which guarimberos sometimes set on fire. Local reports indicate that some guarimbas in Caracas have included gangs who have extorted drivers and forcefully collected money from passersby. There are also reports of these groups using violence. Some street demonstrations and roadblocks are now led by more radical groups of protesters, who call themselves the "Resistance," rather than those affiliated with the MUD political movement, increasing the possibility of violent confrontations with security forces.
The following locations are the sites of most, though not all, of the documented protests and violent incidents. Journalists should take additional precautions when reporting there:
- Caracas: Chacao, Autopista Francisco Fajardo, Las Mercedes, El Rosal, El Paraíso, San Bernardino, Santa Fe, El Valle, La Vega
- Valencia: Avenida Bolívar de Valencia, Distribuidor El Trigal, Sector Mañongo, Urbanización Isabelica of Valencia, Flor Amarillo, Naguanagua, San Diego
- Maracay: Avenida Las Delicias, Avenida Fuerza Aérea, El Limón
- Barquisimeto: El Cardenalito, Los Cardones, Fundalara, Avenida Los Leones, Urbanización Santa Elena, Distribuidora Santa Rosa, Sector Cabudare (Urb La Hacienda, Villa Roca, Hondo), Universidad Fermín Toro, Avenida Libertador, Av. Florencio Jiménez (Urbina)
- Maracaibo: El Milagro, 5 de Julio, Amparo, La Pomona
- San Cristobal
The Climate for Journalists
Journalists covering the protests have been attacked and harassed by all actors involved, though colectivos and Venezuelan state security forces are responsible for the majority of incidents, according to local press freedom organizations.
Journalists covering protests in Venezuela generally face the following threats:
- Injuries from tear gas inhalation or from being hit by a water cannon, tear gas canisters, ball bearings, marbles, or buckshot.
- Assault by local authorities and their supporters, as well as protesters.
- Theft or destruction of equipment, notably mobile phones.
- Detention for time periods ranging from half an hour to more than 24 hours.
National Guard and police have detained journalists covering protests, sometimes for as little as 15 minutes, and sometimes overnight in police or intelligence facilities. In one instance, on May 1, members of a reporting team for the online platform VivoPlay were detained in Caracas. The two VivoPlay reporters were released after several hours, but their drivers remained in detention until June 2, according to media reports. In April, two journalists with French photo agency CAPA were removed from their flight back to France and held for nine days without charge. Venezuelan officials have previously deported international reporters or blocked them from entering the country.
Security forces and colectivos have threatened and blocked journalists from covering certain locations, confiscated equipment, photographed identification, and detained reporters for multiple hours. Several videos posted by news outlets have documented National Guard officers rolling tear gas canisters in the direction of journalists. One video from VivoPlay shows a GNB official telling journalists to move away, "or we'll treat you like the guarimberos." Journalists should avoid colectivos as much as possible, and relocate to a safe location if they encounter them.
Dozens of journalists across the country have reported their mobile phones have been stolen by GNB or police as well as colectivos and civilian gangs. Journalists working in Caracas told CPJ that the theft of phones is so systematic and widespread that it appears to be part of a deliberate strategy to prevent reporters from covering protests. These tactics are especially damaging to freelancers and journalists working for smaller publications outside of Caracas, who have limited resources and rely on their phones as a vital reporting tool.
In addition to direct physical threat against journalists, the government has censored news outlets.
Venezuela's state telecommunications regulator CONATEL ordered two international news channels off the air on April 19, according to the broadcasters, and other outlets have reported service interruptions. On July 13, CONATEL instructed the media not to refer to the referendum as a "popular consultation," which is how the opposition defines it, and informed radio broadcasters that their licenses could be revoked if they appeared to promote or encourage participation in the referendum, according to news reports.
At a press conference on July 28, Tibisay Lucena, president of the National Electoral Council, the entity responsible for overseeing the voting process, announced that media outlets would be required to stay at least 500 meters (approx. 1,600ft) from voting centers. The council also denied credentials to at least nine of the 15 media outlets that requested credentials to cover the July 30 vote, according to the Caracas-based Institute for Press and Society (IPYS Venezuela).
During a television appearance on July 31, President Maduro also called for CONATEL to investigate the privately owned television network Televen for "apologizing for crimes," according to news reports. Maduro criticized Televen for its coverage of the vote, saying the outlet instead preferred to show "the fire in Altamira"--referring to an explosion in a Caracas neighborhood that injured at least three police officers, according to reports.
Meanwhile, protesters have also targeted journalists, robbing them, attacking them, and accusing them of being government sympathizers. Though there are no reports of guarimberos directly targeting reporters, journalists should use caution when dealing with them.
A few government officials, including Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, have issued statements calling for journalists' right to cover the protests safely to be respected.
CPJ is aware of the following recent attacks on journalists covering protests in Venezuela:
- July 10: In Altamira, Marcos Bello, of Reuters, and Abraham Tovar, of El Nacional, were injured by shotgun pellets fired by the GNB, reported the SNTP. In El Trigal, Valencia, an explosive wounded photographer Juan Carlos Hernández, of Últimas Noticias, reported the SNTP. GNB in El Hatillo arrested Mireya Vivas, of El Hatillano. In a video of her talking about her three-hour detention, she says guards rubbed teargas in her face and beat her.
- July 11: A GNB colonel refused to allow journalists into the National Assembly, according to news reports.
- July 12: During protests in Lechería, Anzoátegui, Grisnel Guevara of El Tiempo was injured by shotgun pellets, and GNB beat six reporters, destroyed equipment, and confiscated photojournalist Samir Aponte's memory card, reported IPYS Venezuela. Diosdado Cabello, a member of the National Assembly and one of the top Chavista leaders, said on his weekly television show that an explosion in Altamira that wounded seven members of the military occurred "with the complicity of journalists that were there," echoing an earlier statement by GNB commander Sergio Rivero statement accusing journalists of failing to inform authorities about the explosives.
- July 16: In Catia, Vargas state, colectivos beat and robbed Luis Olavarrieta of Caraota Digital, and hit him in the head with a stone, according to news reports.
- July 18: In Caracas, GNB shot a marble at the lens of photographer Rayner Peña of El Pitazo TV during coverage of a road block, reported the SNTP. In Naguanagua, Carabobo, El Carabobeño editor Carolina González was injured by a tear gas canister, Espacio Público reported.
- July 20: IPYS Venezuela recorded 17 violations of freedom of expression during the national strike. Masked civilians threw bottles at Rafael Hernández (NTN24), tried to steal El Pitazo reporter Elizabeth Ostos's helmet, and threatened to steal freelance photographer Edgar Cárdenas's camera. In Hatillo, GNB detained two members of a VivoPlay news crew for an hour and a half, and GNB officers in Caracas attempted to confiscate Analítica reporter Jesús Abreu's gas mask and forced him to delete recorded footage, according to the SNTP.
- July 22: The SNTP reported that eight journalists were injured while covering protests. In separate incidents in Caracas, buckshot fired by the GNB hit freelance photographer Daniel Blanco, Alonso Moleiro (Unión Radio) and Rafael León (El Nacional), in the head; Mildred Manrique (800 Noticias) in the ankle; and struck a Vente Venezuela photographer in the arm. In Barquisimeto, GNB officers beat Luis Díaz (La Prensa de Lara), fracturing two of his ribs, and confiscated his camera equipment.
- July 24: People claiming to be part of the "Resistance" group threatened El Pitazo TV photographer Rayner Peña and tried to force him to delete footage, reported the SNTP.
- July 26: Police officers detained Héctor Carballo and Maikel Herrera (El Siglo) and forced them to delete footage of protests in Maracay, according to Espacio Público.
- July 27: Airport security, police and GNB officers blocked reporters Nadeska Noriega (El Pitazo TV), Luisana Brito and Rossmary Hernández (Diario La Verdad de Vargas) from reporting in Maiquetía Airport, the SNTP reported. In Caracas, pellets fired by police hit Univisión cameraman Alejandro Molina multiple times.
- July 30: Police detained Cambio16 photojournalist Felipe Royet in Caracas, and Las Noticias de Cojedes journalists Brigitte Gerdel and Daniel Rodríguez, in San Carlos, according to the SNTP. National intelligence agency (SEBIN) officials detained Venevisión reporter Euclides Sotillo in Caracas. A video recorded by digital news outlet VivoPlay in the El Paraíso neighborhood of Caracas appeared to show a National Guard soldier threatening to break journalists' equipment if they continued filming. Members of a colectivo threatened freelance photojournalists Fabiola Ferrero and Santiago Escobar and stole their vests, gas masks, helmets, camera equipment, and cell phones, Espacio Público reported. In Altamira, pellets fired by police injured freelance photographer Leonardo Rodríguez, and a tear gas canister hit freelance photographer Ángel Colmenares in the head, the SNTP reported.
- August 1: José Hernández Sequero, a sportswriter for El Nuevo País who went missing the previous night, was found dead on the Central University of Venezuela campus in Caracas, according to news reports. The case is under investigation, but initial reports indicate he was likely the victim of a robbery.
- August 2: President Maduro ordered foreign press banned from covering the swearing-in of constituent assembly members, according to Wall Street Journal reporter Anatoly Kurmanaev.
- August 6: Pellets fired by GNB officials injured reporters for Caraota Digital and Telemundo and a Univisión cameraman, IPYS Venezuela reported.
What to Expect Next
After months of daily protests and repression, many members of the opposition are exhausted and disillusioned, particularly after failing to stop the constituent assembly vote. Now that the assembly has been installed, it is unclear if the opposition will be able to stay unified or what its goals will be going forward.
Opposition strategy is evolving. Demonstrations continue, but they are drawing fewer participants and less attention from international press, and are taking an increasing toll on protesters. Protests scheduled during the constituent assembly vote on July 30 were met with early repression, as security forces arrived at the six gathering points in Caracas to prevent marchers from joining forces at the Francisco Fajardo highway, according to reports. National Assembly vice president Freddy Guevara has called for marches on August 12 in the municipalities of Chacao and El Hatillo, whose mayors were removed earlier this week.
Road blocks have brought out protesters in every area of the country recently, and all major cities are experiencing regular protests. Caracas continues to be the epicenter of the most violent protests, with demonstrations moving closer to government buildings, but violence has also escalated in Maracay, Barquisimeto, Valencia, and Lechería and Puerto la Cruz in Anzoátegui.
Medical Facilities in Case of Emergency
In Caracas, most of the people injured during protests are treated by volunteer field medics (including the Red Cross, Blue Cross and the newly formed Green Cross, which is staffed by medical students). Next, victims are often transferred to medical facilities such as Salud Chacao, or, in the case of serious injuries, to private facilities which have modern equipment and good qualified staff.
CPJ does not recommend that victims go to public hospitals. These hospitals have excellent staff and significant experience with trauma injuries, but currently have very limited equipment and supplies. Patients may have to supply their own bandages, sutures, or even blood.
Below is a list of medical facilities in different locations:
Prolongacion Av. Libertador, con Sorocaima, Urb. El Rosal
Tel: 0212-9532263 / 0212-9537685 / 0212-9538002
Clínica El Ávila
6ta Transversal con Avenida San Juan Bosco, Caracas
4ta. Avenida cruce con Calle 2, Edif. Higea, Urb. Campo Alegre, Caracas
Tel 0212-2016604 / 0212-2016255
Hospital Clínica Caracas
Av. Panteon con Av. Alameda, Urb. Bernandino, Caracas
Centro Medico La Trinidad
Avenida Intercomunal La Trinidad, El Hatillo, Apartado Postal 80474
Ciudad Hospitalaria "Henrique Tejera"
Av. Lisandro Alvarado. Valencia Edo. Carabobo
Tel: 0241-8316551 / 0241-8316662.
Centro Policlínico Valencia C.A. (Clínica La Viña)
Urbanización La Viña, final Av. Carabobo.
Tel: 0241-8236372 / 0241-8239759 / 0241-8236276
Av. Bolívar Norte, Calle López Latouche, Cruz Roja Hospital Luis Blanco Gasperi, Prebo.
Tel: 0241-8214841 / 0241-8215330 / 0241-8239843.
Sociedad Venezolana De La Cruz Roja Del Estado Lara
Avenida Intercomunal de Barquisimeto. Patarata.
Cruz Roja El Trigal Cabudare
Cabudare, Municipio Palavecino, Avenida El Placer, entre Transv. 07, Urbanización El Trigal.
Hospital Central de Barquisimeto
Sede Principal de Hospital Central Universitario Dr. Antonio María Pineda.
Av. Vargas, con Av. Las Palmas, Casco Central.
Tel: 0251-2523301 / 0251-2519498.
Centro de Atención de Emergencia 171
Maracay Avenida Sucre. Urbanización los Olivos Viejos.
Maracay Avenida Mariño diagonal Plaza Girardot.
Tel: 0243-2465358 / 0426-3499406.
Policlínica Maracay, C.A.
Urb. Calicanto, Calle López Aveledo Norte, Número 5 (Frente a la Maestranza).
Centro Médico de Atención Social CANAOBRE
Prolongación de Pérez Almarza, entre Páez y Negro Primero, Maracay, al lado del Banco de Venezuela y Diagonal al Centro Comercial de la Economía Informal, Calle Pérez Almarza.
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