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An injured member of the media is carried away during a rally against the government of President Nicolas Maduro and to commemorate May Day in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 1, 2019. (Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino)

Challenges facing journalists trying to cover latest violence in Venezuela

May 2, 2019 6:07 PM ET

The long-running political crisis in Venezuela escalated on April 30, 2019, after a civilian and military uprising was thwarted by the government of Nicolás Maduro, according to news reports. Opposition leaders Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo Lopez, accompanied by members of the armed forces, congregated on a highway in eastern Caracas and called upon the armed forces and their supporters to oust the government, according to those reports.

Street battles with pro-Maduro security forces ensued, with government forces using tear gas, water cannons, armored military vehicles, and live ammunition to disperse opposition activists, as seen in video footage recorded by Reuters. The opposition has called on public workers to join the demonstrations and weaken the regime through a series of coordinated strikes beginning on May 2, news reports said.

For local journalists, the main risk is the potential for physical harm while covering protests. Since April 30, journalists have been affected by tear gas when covering the protests, according to news reports.

Detention and prosecution at the hands of state security authorities is also a serious risk. A group of journalists was detained in the Caracas Airport on May 2, according to a tweet from local news outlet CaraotaDigital.

A foreign reporter who was recently detained by intelligence authorities told CPJ that the agents were primarily interested in identifying his local contacts. Agents went through his WhatsApp conversations, and unsuccessfully attempted to set up a meeting with the reporter's local assistants, the reporter said.

CNN reported that it was taken off the air moments after it broadcast a video that showed an armored military vehicle purposely running over pro-opposition protesters in Caracas; CNN reported that the BBC was taken off the air as well. NetBlocks, a digital rights organization, has reported that internet disruptions intermittently restricted access to Twitter, Facebook, and Periscope. WhatsApp servers are unstable and Telegram is now unusable in the country, NetBlocks reported.

Since 2014, Venezuelan internet providers have hindered access to news sites and other websites, as reported by NBC. CPJ encourages the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to evade such internet censorship.

CPJ has put out the following advice for local and foreign journalists working in Venezuela, or planning to travel there.

Visas

For foreign journalists planning on entering the country, it is difficult to get work visas or accreditation, CPJ has documented. However, entering on tourist visas can be problematic. Immigration officials are on high alert and the few planes entering the country are virtually empty. The limited flight options in and out of the country, may make an evacuation difficult. It is advisable that journalists planning to go to Venezuela contact their insurance company prior to travel to check that evacuation is still viable.

Foreign journalists planning to enter Venezuela should apply for a visa by downloading and filling out the form available at this link and communicating directly with the Venezuelan consulate in their home countries to get the correct information about required documentation, including a letter from their employer. It is not recommended that journalists try to enter the country without media credentials. In late January, Venezuelan authorities detained and deported multiple reporting teams, including two Chilean journalists and two French TV reporters, and accused them of lacking proper accreditation, according to news reports. Three reporters with Spanish news agency EFE were detained on January 30 and held overnight, but were then allowed to remain in the country once authorities determined they had the required visas, according to EFE. Reporters in Caracas should be especially cautious when reporting near the Miraflores presidential palace, where state security forces have detained several journalists, according to alerts posted on Twitter by the National Union of Press Workers.

[If you have trouble downloading or accessing the form required to apply for a journalist visa, or if you have been denied a visa to enter Venezuela as a journalist, please contact CPJ at [email protected].]

If successful in entering the country on tourist visas, journalists are at risk of detention and expulsion. Locals assisting them may be incarcerated indefinitely.

Airports and Arrivals

Only two airlines, COPA and Dominicana, are currently flying in and out of the Simon Bolivar Caracas International Airport, journalists in Venezuela told CPJ. There are no flights between the United States and Venezuela following a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration ban on low-flying flights (below 26,000 feet) over Venezuelan airspace until further notice. Some local flights have also been suspended, according to local reports.

CPJ is aware of some journalists who have successfully entered Venezuela via the Simon Bolivar Caracas International Airport since April 30.

The trip from the Simon Bolivar airport into Caracas can be dangerous, journalists tell CPJ. Criminal organizations have placed spotters in the airport looking for robbery targets and may ambush them on the drive into the city, according to safety information provided to journalists by a news organization, which CPJ has reviewed.

It is advisable to organize a pick-up in advance, rather than taking a taxi. You should be able to identify your driver via name and appearance, and by the registration of their vehicle; criminals have posed as legitimate drivers after copying name tags or being provided with passenger names by unscrupulous hoteliers, journalists tell CPJ.

Border

The border between Venezuela and Colombia remains closed to vehicles, according to news reports. There are restrictions for people crossing on foot, and many people have been denied entry by border agents, journalists tell CPJ.

If crossing by foot, it is recommended to not have luggage or anything that could draw attention. Some people have crossed through trochas (unsupervised border areas) to avoid agents, but colectivos, (government-supported paramilitary groups) and other groups are demanding payments to do so, journalists tell CPJ. There is a risk of getting robbed or of physical violence.

Digital safety [This advice comes from safety cards CPJ produced with RedesAyuda]

  • Make copies of important information you have in your email and chats. Know the information you keep on your devices and how it can put you at risk. Delete the information that puts you at risk.
  • Make sure you periodically remove sensitive content from your devices, and always lock your devices with a password.
  • Keep your software updated, and always assume your calls and texts are being monitored.
  • Use WhatsApp or Signal to communicate, and remember that WhatsApp makes non-encrypted security copies of the chats in your account. Regularly delete any sensitive messages in WhatsApp and, if using Signal, turn on the auto-delete functionality.
  • Configure your device so you can delete information remotely, but remember this can only work when your device is connected to a network.

Security Zones

Under existing legislation, Venezuelan authorities can designate so-called security zones where certain activities, property, and people are regulated or prohibited. All international bridges along the Venezuela-Colombia border, including the Simón Bolívar bridge, and surrounding areas have also been declared security zones.

Journalists, both foreign and domestic, who were detained earlier this year were first approached by security agents who stated that reporting from "security zones" is illegal for journalists. In most cases, the journalists were detained for several hours, forced to erase pictures or video taken, had equipment seized, and--in the case of foreign journalists--have been deported.

Journalists operating on the Venezuelan side of the border and in the state of Táchira should be aware that there are credible reports of heightened surveillance and potential for detention.

Other locations of interest to journalists that have been designated security zones include:

  • Comandancia General de la Armada (San Bernardino, Caracas)
  • Base Aérea Generalísimo Francisco de Miranda (La Carlota), Miraflores
  • Cuartel General de Brigada Arturo Sánchez (La Casona)
  • Fuerte Tiuna
  • Radio Nacional de Venezuela
  • Venezolana de Televisión
  • DGCIM
  • SEBIN
  • Comandancia General de la Armada
  • Escuela Superior de la Guerra Naval
  • Comandancia General de la Guardia Nacional
  • Dirección de Hidrografía y Navegación de la Armada

Safety Advice

The country is a cash economy and there is hyperinflation. Individuals have to take cash, but that puts them at risk of criminals. Due to the dire economic situation, criminality is a significant threat across the country.

Since March 2019, there have been large power outages across the country, which have resulted in water shortages, as reported by Al Jazeera. Journalists are advised to select accommodations that have generators, and to bring flashlights, batteries, and power banks. Only bottled water should be consumed in the country, or water purification tablets should be used.

The ongoing risk of protests and violent demonstrations is high, particularly in working class neighborhoods of Caracas. Protests have resulted in a violent response from the security services in the past, including the use of tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, and live ammunition.

Journalists should be aware of pro-government armed groups known as colectivos, which operate sometimes in support of security forces and sometimes alone. Colectivos 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. In the past, 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 covering protests.

Non-essential U.S. embassy personnel have been asked to leave the country.


Reporters can minimize the risk by following CPJ's guidance below.

Be prepared if covering protests:

  • Plan the assignment and ensure that you have a full battery on your cell phone. Know the area you are going to. Work out in advance what to 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 crowded events.
  • Wear clothing and footwear that allow you to move swiftly. Avoid wearing necklaces, ponytails, lanyards or anything that can be grabbed, as well as flammable material, such as nylon.
  • Consider your position. Try to find an elevated position that may offer greater safety.
  • Consider the use of personal protective equipment when covering protests. This equipment may single you out for attention from the authorities/protesters so usage is a personal judgment. If operating without protective equipment, it is crucial that you distance yourself as much as possible. For photojournalists who are not afforded this luxury, protective equipment and helmets is highly encouraged.
  • At any location, always plan an evacuation route. If working with others, select an emergency rendezvous point.
  • Maintain situational awareness at all times and limit valuables in your possession. Do not leave any equipment in vehicles. After dark, the risk of criminal actions increases.
  • If working in a crowd, plan a strategy. Try to keep to the outside of the crowd and avoid the middle, where it is hard to escape. Identify an escape route.
  • 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 work alone as you are more likely to become a target of criminals. Do not leave any equipment in vehicles as they are likely to be broken into and after dark, the criminal risk increases dramatically.

When dealing with aggression:

  • Read body language 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 and if someone grabs hold of you, break away firmly without aggression. If cornered and in danger, shout.
  • If the situation escalates, 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.
  • Be aware of the situation and your own safety. While there are times when documenting aggression can be newsworthy, taking pictures of aggressive individuals can escalate a situation.

In situations where tear gas may be used:

  • Wear personal protective equipment, including a gas mask, eye protection, body armor, and helmet.
  • Contact lenses are not advisable.
  • Individuals with asthma or respiratory issues should avoid areas where tear gas is being used. When large amounts of tear gas are used, there is the possibility of high concentrations of gas sitting in areas with no movement of air.
  • Take note of landmarks (i.e. posts, curbs) that can be used to help you navigate out of an area if you are struggling to see.
  • 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. When you are able to, shower in cold water to wash the gas from your skin, but do not bathe. Clothing may need to be washed several times to remove the crystals completely, or discarded.

Journalists requiring assistance should contact CPJ via [email protected]

CPJ's online Safety Kit provides journalists and newsrooms with basic safety information on physical, digital and psychological safety resources and tools.

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