A police officer is seen in Macuto, Venezuela, on May 3, 2020. Venezuelan authorities recently put two journalists under house arrest for alleged violations of the country's anti-hate law. (Reuters/Manaure Quintero)

Venezuelan journalists charged under anti-hate law, held on house arrest

Miami, June 25, 2020 — Venezuelan authorities should immediately drop all charges against journalists María Luisa “Mimi” Arriaga and Marco Aurelio Antoima, and stop using the country’s anti-hate law to persecute the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On June 18, agents from the Venezuelan judicial police raided Arriaga’s home in the El Hatillo neighborhood in Caracas and arrested her, according to reports from the local press freedom organizations Espacio Público and the National Union of Press Workers.

On June 20, Antoima turned himself over to the judicial police, after agents visited his ex-wife and child at their home, according to the national union and the Press and Society Institute, another local press freedom group.

Arriaga works as an editor at the news website 800Noticias, and Antoima runs a media startup; both formerly worked as journalists for the privately owned Venevision broadcaster, according to Edgar Cárdenas, secretary-general of the Caracas division of the National Union of Journalists, a local trade organization, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview.

On June 21, after remaining in detention at the judicial police headquarters since their arrests, both journalists were presented before the 47th Control Tribunal of the Metropolitan Area of Caracas, where they were charged with inciting hate and were released on house arrest, according to the Press and Society Institute report and Cárdenas.

Those news reports did not specify what prompted the charges, and Cárdenas told CPJ that there was no indication that the charges were filed in response to a complaint.

If convicted of violating Venezuela’s Anti-Hate Law for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence, the journalists could face up to 20 years in prison, according to the text of the law.

“María Luisa Arriaga and Marco Aurelio Antoima are just the latest journalists facing jail time under Venezuela’s vague and draconian anti-hate law,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “Both journalists should be released immediately, the charges against them dropped, and Venezuela should revise that law to ensure that it is not arbitrarily used to silence the press.”

Venezuela’s anti-hate law was approved by the National Constituent Assembly in November 2017; as CPJ documented at the time, the law does not define basic terms like hate, leaving it open to broad interpretation. In 2019, the law was used against journalist Wilmer Quintana García over posts on his Facebook page about alleged corruption, as CPJ documented at the time.

The journalists are required to remain in their homes and to refrain from posting hateful or disrespectful speech on social media pending their trial, according to Cárdenas.

The journalists’ arrests followed a June 1 tweet by Esteban Trapiello, a state media executive, alleging that Arriaga and Antoima, as well as Rita De Martino and Rafael Garrido, also former Venevision journalists, were behind the anonymous @VV_periodistas Twitter accounts. After they were arrested, Trapiello accused the journalists of extortion and using “defamation campaigns” in a tweet on June 22.

Trapiello is the former head of the Venezuelan Social Television state broadcaster, and currently heads the state-run television outlet La Tele Tuya, according to local news reports.

@VV_periodistas was an anonymous whistleblower account that posted alleged censorship measures ordered by Venevision management, according to a journalist who worked for the broadcaster and spoke to CPJ anonymously, citing security concerns, and Delvalle Canelón, secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists, who spoke about the issue in a video circulated on Twitter.

Venevision, one of the oldest private television outlets in Venezuela, had been strongly critical of the government of Hugo Chávez, but shifted its editorial line over time to become more sympathetic, according to news reports.

In 2009, Venevision management filed a complaint to the judicial police about @VV_periodistas, and authorities conducted an investigation, which included questioning Arriaga and Antoima and confiscating their computers, according to Canelón and the anonymous journalist.

“There was a true witch hunt in Venevision, with management desperate in trying to identify who were the employees denouncing censorship measures from within, and denouncing the alignment by Venevision with the government. But the investigation never reached any conclusions,” the anonymous journalist said.

 @VV_periodistas was suspended in 2012 for engaging in “non-parody impersonation,” according to a suspension notification the account posted on Twitter.

Since 2012, similar anonymous accounts posted much of the same content, including @VV_sincensura, according to Cárdenas. @VV_sincensura also posted accusations of corruption and other illegal behavior by government officials, politicians, and private individuals, according to the anonymous journalist. The account has since been suspended.

Antoima responded to Trapiello’s June 1 tweet saying, “This person, protected by power and impunity, feels free to accuse, defame, and insult.”

CPJ called the judicial police for comment on the number provided on its official website, but no one answered the phone. CPJ messaged Trapiello for comment through the La Tele Tuya website, but did not receive any response.