Maduro Government Detains, Expels Journalists in Bid to Keep Power

CARACAS, Venezuela (The Washington Post) -
Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido speaks to the media in Caracas, Venezuela January 31, 2019. (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

The Venezuelan government has stepped up efforts to quash news coverage of an opposition effort to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro, arresting or expelling at least 13 journalists over the past 10 days in moves that have drawn protests from the European Union and Spain.

Two foreign journalists covering the developments for the Spanish news agency EFE were detained at their hotel Wednesday evening by rifle-toting internal security police. The pair joined 11 other reporters who have been arrested as Maduro faces the strongest challenge to his grip on power.

Spanish reporter Gonzalo Domínguez and Colombian producer Maurén Barriga Vargas remained in custody Thursday at the Helicoide – a notorious jail where political prisoners are usually held. They are to be deported to their countries Thursday, according to the Venezuelan Journalism Union.

Another EFE journalist, Colombian photographer Leonardo Muñoz, and his Venezuelan driver, José Salas, were detained earlier on Wednesday as they covered a small pro-government gathering. Muñoz is also scheduled to be deported Thursday. The detained journalists did not have access to lawyers, according to EFE.

The government has intensified suppression and intimidation of journalists over the past week by ordering newsrooms to avoid covering opposition rallies and speeches, closing down radio stations, raiding TV channel sites and blocking websites. Over the past week, 11 journalists have been arrested, two of whom have been freed and two deported.

Venezuela is going through a tense period as Maduro’s government faces the biggest challenge to his rule since he rose to power in 2013 after the death of his mentor, leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez.

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó, backed by the Trump administration and a slew of foreign governments, declared himself interim president and was sworn in last week. He is propelling anti-government demonstrations even in former pro-government strongholds.

In a raid Thursday that further raised tensions, members of a national police anti-gang unit, the Special Actions Force (FAES), descended on Guaidó’s home while he was out and were looking for his wife, Fabiana, the opposition leader said. He said their 20-month-old daughter was there at the time and that he would hold Maduro responsible if anything happened to her.

This week, the United States imposed sweeping sanctions on state-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), the crown jewel of the Venezuelan economy, blocking the government’s main revenue stream.

“The Maduro government has a pattern where censorship mechanisms get activated every time there’s a political crisis or threat to their rule,” said Carlos Correa, head of Espacio Publico, a nongovernmental organization that tracks violations of freedom of expression. “The crisis is so deep this time, and the media is so deteriorated in the country, that the blow of their persecution is more intense than ever.”

He added that the jailing of foreign journalists could be aimed at countries that have recognized Guaidó as interim president.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Twitter that the foreign reporters were arrested because they entered the country without visas required to work as journalists. But experts said that explanation is not supported by Venezuelan law – or the facts.

“The argument they’re giving is that they didn’t have credentials,” said Nélida Fernández, EFE’s Venezuelan bureau chief. “But when they arrived in the airport, the intelligence police approached them, and the reporters told them that they came here to work. They even had photography equipment with them. And the police authorized them to come in.”