Bogotá, January 11, 2021 – Venezuelan authorities should return all equipment confiscated from VPITV and allow it to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On January 8, authorities raided the Caracas offices of VPITV, an independent online broadcaster, where they confiscated cameras, computers, transmission equipment, and documents, and ordered the station to cease operations, according to news reports and VPITV president and co-owner Leonardo Trechi, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app from Miami, where the outlet is headquartered.
The seven-hour raid was carried out by officials from the government TV regulator, CONATEL, and the national tax agency, SENIAT, Trechi told CPJ. Officials said the raid was prompted by three VPITV reports from September 2020 about nationwide gasoline shortages, but did not present any warrant or charge sheet, Trechi said.
“The shutdown of online broadcaster VPITV is the latest attempt by Nicolás Maduro’s government to silence the few remaining independent voices in Venezuela,” said CPJ South and Central America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “Authorities must immediately return all confiscated equipment to the outlet and allow VPITV to operate freely.”
In a statement posted to Twitter, VPITV called the raid “the latest episode of harassment and censorship against the independent media in Venezuela by the regime of Nicolás Maduro.”
Trechi told CPJ that officials alleged that the gas shortage reporting had violated Venezuela’s Anti-Hate Law for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence, a criminal law, that the station was the subject of a CONATEL administrative sanction, and that the outlet had 15 days to respond, Trechi said.
Venezuela’s anti-hate law mandates prison terms for anyone who instigates hate or violence via TV, radio, print, or social media, according to CPJ research.
Founded in 2015, VPITV is based in the United States and has correspondents in 20 of Venezuela’s 23 states, who contribute reporting that is aired on Facebook, YouTube, and other online platforms, according to Gabriela Perozo, chief information officer and part-owner of the station, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
Perozo said that VPITV has continued to air international news from Miami since the raid, but has temporarily shut down its operations in Venezuela and its coverage of the country.
The raid came days after new legislators were sworn-in on January 5, following elections in December, which consolidated Maduro’s power in the country, according to news reports.
Also on January 8, SENIAT issued a temporary shutdown of Diario Panorama, a print outlet in Zulia state, according to Venezuelan freedom of expression organization Espacio Público, and the news website Tal Cual tweeted that it was facing a “digital attack” from an unidentified source.
CPJ called CONATEL and SENIAT for comment, but no one answered.