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Berlin stays mum on German reporter jailed in Venezuela

Evan Romero-Castillo
December 22, 2018

Reporters Without Borders has still not been granted access to German reporter Billy Six — nor has his family. After five weeks' detention on unclear charges, the press freedom group says no news "is bad news in itself."

German journalist Billy Six
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

German reporter Billy Six was arrested without warrant by the Venezuelan secret service SEBIN on November 17, and the German Embassy was only able to contact him by telephone for the first time last week.

Over a month after his arrest, Emmanuel Colombie, director of the Latin America branch of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has now told DW that there's no news in the Six case — "and that is bad news in itself." Colombie said: "I suppose negotiations are underway to free him, but RSF has not heard any details from the German Embassy in Caracas or the Foreign Office in Berlin." RSF representatives wanted to talk to Six at the "El Helicoide" secret service headquarters but were unsuccessful.

Emmanuel Colombie of Reporters Without Borders
RSF's Colombie: No news is bad newsImage: Getty Images/AFP/R. Arboleda

Colombie confirmed that the German journalist had not yet seen a lawyer and that his case was in the hands of a military tribunal. Several Venezuelan professional associations had already complained about this shortly after his arrest. Colombie could not confirm the rumor that Six may be sentenced for espionage, rebellion and unauthorized access to a security zone.

However, Six — who writes as a freelance journalist for the right-wing youth magazine Junge Freiheit (Young Freedom) and the extremely conservative Deutschland-Magazin — is evidently accused of staying in the country illegally. He is also accused of having had contacts with members of the dissolved Colombian guerrilla organization FARC. It is further alleged that while taking photos, he approached Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro too closely during a public appearance. Reporters Without Borders has not yet had access to any files.

Read more: Journalists increasingly under threat worldwide

Discreet diplomacy

"As a civilian, Six should not appear before a military court," Colombie said. "By doing this, Maduro is violating various national laws and international agreements." He added that Six had "started a hunger strike in the hope of getting transparent treatment from the judiciary." His parents, Ute and Edward Six, told DW that almost all his demands were "on the way to being fulfilled." He has not yet been allowed to speak directly with his family, but he has spoken with representatives of the German Embassy.

Germany's Federal Foreign Office confirmed to DW that Six would be advised by its representatives in Caracas. The discretion with which the situation has been handled by German diplomacy has been met with astonishment by Six's colleagues, including those in Venezuela. "Billy Six is a German colleague. His government doesn't say anything. What's going on?" twittered Venezuelan correspondent Ibeyise Pacheco. 

Junge Freiheit spokesperson Bastian Behrens suspects there is deliberate discrimination behind Germany's response. "Public opinion in Germany has long been committed to the liberation of journalist Deniz Yücel from prison in Turkey. For Billy this has not been the case so far. I think this is due to the fact that Billy writes for a medium like ours." According to Behrens, news outlets such as Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung did not report on a news item published in Junge Freiheit that was aimed at drawing "liberal and left-wing German press" attention to the case until after Reporters Wthout Borders had taken it up.

It is still unclear whether the case's quiet handling on the German side has to do with legal problems related to Six's visa status.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his wife, Cilia Flores, at an Independence Day parade
In both 2017 and 2018, Six reported from this Venezuelan military parade on Independence Day — and is now reported to have gotten too close to President Maduro (c)Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Parra

Six 'is capable of anything'

Behrens can't rule this out: "Billy traveled to Venezuela on behalf of the Deutschland-Magazin, a magazine of the 'German Conservatives.' I called this news outlet's office and they told me that Billy had entered Venezuela legally." But the colleagues there also said "that foreigners have to leave Venezuela after a certain period of time and are only able to re-enter the country a few months later," Behrens added, stressing that he did not know whether Six had adhered to such rules.

Read more: Populism and media mistrust go hand in hand

Peter Helmes, Deutschland-Magazin's chief correspondent, denies these statements. "Billy did not travel to Venezuela on our behalf. He told us that he was going, and we asked him to send us reports from there, and he did. He made this trip on his own initiative. You have to know Billy to understand that. He's very independent; he doesn't like to involve other people in his plans." And, Helmes conceded, "Billy may have been in Venezuela longer than allowed, but I'm being open when I say that I don't even know how he got there. I've known Billy Six for 10 years. He's capable of anything."

According to Venezuelan NGO 'Espacio Publico,' Six arrived by land from the Colombian city of Cucuta. The organization pointed out that local authorities have provided no evidence that he did so illegally. Germans are officially required to have tourist visas only if they arrive by ship or by land in private cars. Nevertheless, DW's safety instructions for its reporters, for example, provide for a different procedure. In the current situation in Venezuela, they advise in principle to enter only with a visa, that for security reasons it is best to travel by air, and in any case to make it clear that they will be working as a journalist.

Read more: Germany's federal press conference would make Trump lose his mind

Journalist Billy Six after being released from detention in Syria
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, journalist Billy Six and Russian Ambassador in Damascus Azmatullah Kulmohannadov (l to r) after Six's Russian-brokered release in Syria in 2018Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Previous detention in Syria

According to family members, the allegations against Six relate, among other things, to the fact that he photographed military parades on Venezuela's Independence Day, July 5, in 2017 and 2018 and a public event with the president's supporters.

His colleague Behrens explained that Six was previously in a similar situation in Syria in 2013, but was detained there for 12 weeks for illegal entry. "At that time, the Foreign Office's efforts worked out well because the Russians acted as mediators. Moreover, [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad had an interest in maintaining good relations with Germany. With Venezuela, this seems to be more difficult."

Regardless of the nature of the accusations against him, Billy Six has a right to consular support from the German Embassy, which has not yet been sufficiently respected by Venezuela. According to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, Venezuela must allow him to be visited by embassy representatives. He is also entitled to a lawyer, who must be admitted to Venezuela. In no case, however, can the German representation have any influence on Venezuelan jurisdiction.