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Members of the Bolivarian National Guard wearing face masks are seen in Caracas, Venezuela, on March 17, 2020. Journalists have recently been harassed and detained over their reporting on the virus. (AFP/Cristian Hernandez)

Venezuelan authorities arrest, threaten journalists reporting on COVID-19

March 18, 2020 11:35 AM ET

On March 13, 2020, police in the Venezuelan city of Los Teques arrested Jesús Enrique Torres and Jesús Manuel Castillo, hosts of a news program on local privately owned radio broadcaster La Cima, after they posted a video to Facebook, where they sometimes publish their reporting, about alleged coronavirus cases at a local hospital, according to news reports.

In Torres and Castillo’s video, which has been taken down from Facebook but was republished by local press freedom group Espacio Público, the journalists said that one patient ill with the coronavirus had arrived at the main public hospital in Los Teques and that a second patient was about to be admitted.

The video was published the same day as the first two cases of the coronavirus were identified in Venezuela. However, the video inaccurately stated that those patients were being transferred to the Los Teques hospital, while they were not actually being transferred there, according to Espacio Público and Daniel Murolo, a representative of the Venezuelan National Press Workers Union, an independent trade group, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.

Hospital authorities denied the report, and police detained Castillo and Torres later that day, Murolo told CPJ. He said that the police also ordered the journalists to make a second video, also republished by Espacio Público, in which they apologized for their faulty reporting.

Castillo and Torres appeared before a judge in Los Teques on March 15, when they were charged with “crimes against the state” and released, according to Carlos Torres, the father of Jesús Torres, who spoke to Espacio Público but did not cite any specific laws the journalists were alleged to have broken. The journalists are required to register their whereabouts with authorities once a week as their legal case proceeds, Murolo said.

Article 297-A of Venezuela’s penal code states that anyone convicted of disseminating false information that causes panic among the public could face up to five years in prison.

Police and court officials in Los Teques did not respond to phone calls from CPJ requesting comment.

In a separate case on March 14, 2020, Lizeta Hernández, the governor of eastern Delta Amacuro state, threatened to send police to arrest Melquiades Ávila, a reporter at the El Pitazo news website, over a post on Ávila’s personal Facebook page, where he often shares links to his journalism, according to Gustavo Alemán, an editor at El Pitazo, who spoke to CPJ via phone.

In a March 14 radio broadcast, Hernández, a member of the ruling United Socialist Party, accused Ávila of “criminal behavior” by alarming the public and fomenting hatred over Ávila’s Facebook post questioning whether a local public hospital was prepared to handle patients with symptoms of the coronavirus, according to news reports. Hernández demanded that the local police chief detain Ávila and teach him a lesson on how to communicate, according to those reports.

Alemán told CPJ that the governor’s words constituted a serious threat against Ávila, who he said has since fled the region and gone into hiding.

Hernández’s office did not respond to calls from CPJ requesting comment.

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