Bogotá, December 20, 2019 -- Venezuelan authorities must immediately allow local news outlets Telecaribe and Venepress to resume their work informing the public and cease their harassment of independent media, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On December 18, agents from Venezuela’s intelligence services, known as SEBIN, shuttered the Caracas office of local news agency Venepress and the Puerto La Cruz office of television broadcaster Telecaribe, according to Venepress news editor Israel Barbuzano, who spoke to CPJ via phone. Authorities have barred staffers from entering either office to access their equipment, Barbuzano said.
Venepress, an online news agency founded in 2017, is owned by Telecaribe, an independent television broadcaster, Barbuzano said. Venepress publishes news articles online and also licenses videos for use by Telecaribe and other local broadcasters, he said.
The shutdowns are part of an investigation into alleged money laundering initiated by Caracas district prosecutor Jean Karin López Ruíz, who accused Venepress of funneling money to Venezuelan opposition figure Juan Guiadó, according to news reports. However, lawyers for Venepress and Telecaribe said they have not been told why the outlets were shut down, and have not seen any warrants or government notices authorizing the raids, Barbuzano said.
"The raid and shutdown of Telecaribe and Venepress, without due process and transparency, are the most recent examples of the Venezuelan regime's ongoing crackdown on independent media," said CPJ South and Central America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. "Venezuelan authorities should immediately allow the channel to resume broadcasting and the news agency to be fully operational."
SEBIN agents searched Venepress’ offices for 10 hours and confiscated administrative paperwork but did not take any journalism equipment, according to news reports and Barbuzano.
Barbuzano told CPJ that he suspected the closures were part of a wider government offensive against Maximilian Camino, a part-owner and president of Telecaribe and co-director of Venepress. Camino has publicly supported Guiadó in opinion columns written for the news agency.
Venezuela’s banking oversight agency, the National Superintendent of Banking Institutions, froze the accounts of Camino and 14 others in November for allegedly giving illicit financial support to Guaidó, according to news reports.
CPJ’s calls to the National Superintendent of Banking Institutions and Communications Ministry were not returned.
Barbuzano told CPJ that Telecaribe has not broadcasted since the raid, and said that Venepress would likely be forced to stop publishing soon without access to its equipment, offices, and funding.