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Journalists under censorship threat in Venezuela?

Gabriel Gonzalez Zorrilla
February 4, 2019

Foreign reporters have been arrested in Venezuela on charges of visa violations. The government claims media are manufacturing crisis, but critics argue that officials are targeting journalists as a means of censorship.

Juan Guaido in Caracas, Venezuela
Image: Reuters/C. Barria

Venezuela's foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, was visibly angry. "It is outrageous and irresponsible that the [foreign] media send journalists without fulfilling the minimum conditions required by Venezuelan law, then construct a media scandal out of it," he said.

"This is another aspect of the media campaign against our country," he tweeted on January 31.

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The world is currently focused on the ongoing power struggle in Venezuela between President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido. Journalists from across the globe are traveling to the country to report on the crisis. In the past few days, Venezuelan authorities have arrested several foreign journalists who didn't have the required press visas; they only had ordinary ones, which can be obtained much faster and with less bureaucracy.

Incalculable risk

On January 30, three journalists from the Spanish news agency EFE were arrested by the Venezuelan secret service, SEBIN. An employee at the EFE office in Caracas who didn't want to be named confirmed to DW that his three colleagues had entered the country without journalist visas. The journalists were ultimately released. Two French journalists from the television station TF1, meanwhile, were arrested on January 29 and released two days later.

Jorge Arreaza Montserrat
Foreign Minister Arreaza says there is a "media campaign" against VenezuelaImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot

Other journalists have spent considerably longer in custody. The German journalist Billy Six was arrested last November. He also entered Venezuela without a journalist visa. The Venezuelan authorities have accused Six of espionage, rebellion and violating security zones. Officials from the German embassy in Caracas were unable to visit him in prison before January 9.

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In the past, countries have abused the special visa requirement for journalists in order to prevent unfavorable reporting.

Bureaucratic difficulties

DW's editor-in-chief, Ines Pohl, commented: "In confusing conflicts like the current one in Venezuela, it's especially important for independent journalists to be able to report from the field — both for the people in the country itself, and also for an international audience. Anyone who prevents colleagues from doing their job must have something to hide."

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When asked for information on obtaining a journalist visa, an employee at Venezuela's embassy in Berlin responded: "This can only be done via the website of the Ministry of Communications. But I'm afraid the website has been inaccessible for several days now."

Photographer captures a protest in Caracas
Journalists from around the world have come to Venezuela to reportImage: Reuters/C. Garcia Rawlins

Even if the website were accessible, a proper accreditation would likely take 30 days — far too long to be able to report on the ground about current developments. And so, as is often the case when working in crisis zones, foreign journalists are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, they must respect entry visa regulations, which are often arbitrarily designed to hinder journalistic work. On the other hand, they want to report on what is happening as quickly as possible, get the latest information and be in a position to corroborate it.

Reporters Without Borders has criticized an alarming increase in censorship in Venezuela. According to a report by the Institute for Press and Society (IPYS), in Venezuela there were 45 attacks on journalists from January 1 through 28. These incidents include arbitrary arrests, confiscation of equipment, and police and military violence.

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"In certain countries, the journalist visa is often misused as an instrument of control," Christian Mihr, the managing director of Reporters Without Borders Germany, told DW. "In the interests of press freedom, it would be welcomed if the Venezuelan foreign minister were to get upset about this."