On August 29th, Venezuelan journalist, Jesus Medina Ezaine, was arrested by government authorities in Caracas. According to “La Patilla,” he was accompanied by two Peruvian journalists who were not taken into custody.
Many press advocacy groups were outraged including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which condemned the arrest and subsequent detention of Venezuelan freelance photojournalist Jesús Medina Ezaine by the country’s intelligence services.
— Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom) November 6, 2017
In a Youtube video published by Peruvian journalist, Juana Avellan, the visibly shaken reporter claims she was present during Medina’s arrest in the early afternoon of August 29th.
According to the short testimony, both she and her colleague, whom she calls Luis Garcia, were working with Medina, who acted as their local source, on an investigation into the dire conditions of Venezuela’s hospitals.
Avellan said that a group of armed men approached and pointed a gun directly at Medina when leaving a University hospital in the capital, Caracas. When asked whether Medina knew the two journalists, he denied being associated with them, in fear that Avellan and her partner would both be arrested if they were found to be linked to his work.
According to the Avellan, the authorities then “illegally arrested” Medina in order to ultimately silence dissent and maintain the dictatorship of President Nicolas Maduro.
At the end of the short video, Avellan pleads with international organizations to take notice of this unlawful detention and pressure the Venezuelan government to release Medina.
In a recent interview conducted by the Venezuelan newspaper “El Nacional” with Medina’s lawyer, Maria Fernanda Torres, he has since been sent to the Ramo Verde Military prison, accused of several crimes by the 13th Court of Control of Caracas.
The accusations put forward against Medina include money laundering, criminal association, illegal enrichment against acts of public administration and incitement of hate.
Torres claims that there is no evidence to substantiate the allegations put forward by the court; however, she does believes that the judges will attempt to use Medina’s social media activity as evidence to justify the charges of hate speech.
Medina’s lawyer, who works on the behalf of the Caracas-based human rights organization “Foro Penal,” tells El Nacional that the investigation is ongoing and they have been notified that a 45 day time period to prevent evidence to the court.
#CaraotaEnCaracas María Fernanda Torres, abogada del Foro Penal Venezolano, indicó que Jesús Medina se encuentra en la sede del Sebin de Plaza Venezuela y que aún no posee mayores detalles de su detención. / Reportó: @JoanCamargo_ pic.twitter.com/a14iPqLfCT
— CaraotaDigital (@CaraotaDigital) August 30, 2018
According to “Efecto Cucuyo,” the judge of the 13th Court of Control, Miguel Lapelosa, ordered that, in addition to being sent to a military prison, Medina be held in solitary confinement for an undetermined period of time.
The news outlet claims that no official response has been received from either the Prosecutor’s Office or the Ministry of Interior.
In addition to being jailed for Medina work, many have speculated that the reason for his detention could be related to the fact that Medina receives income in foreign currencies for his work with outlets based outside Venezuela. National authorities may attempt to accuse the photojournalist of avoiding taxes by failing to report his earnings received from abroad.
According to reporter Maryorin Mendez from NTN24, the latest update on Medina’s conditions were made known to the public by a letter he sent from the military prison Ramo Verde earlier this month.
"Le pido perdón al país por dejarme atrapar": la CARTA del reportero gráfico Jesús Medina filtrada desde la cárcel de Ramo Verde pic.twitter.com/5h5y6EWEDp
— Maryorin (@maryorinmendez) September 5, 2018
Addressing the Venezuelan people, Medina stated he is in good and mental physical condition and cannot deny that he has been treated well by the prison’s authorities.
However, in an emotional plea, he asks the Venezuelan people to continue fighting for freedom so that one day their country will once again prosper.
“Rebellion is the path to freedom,” Medina writes. “Informing is not a crime. Long live a free Venezuela and may the tyrants fall.”
In addition to the most recent encounter Medina has had with Venezuelan authorities, he was also arrested, had his equipment confiscated by local police and was subsequently kidnapped and tortured by unknown assailants before this latest incident.
According to an official statement released by Reporters Without Borders, Medina previously visited the Tocorón prison in Aragua with two foreign journalists to investigate the famously known gang-led “luxury prison.” After asking permission to take photos, they were still arrested and interrogated for several hours.
When the journalists managed to save some of the pictures taken outside the facility and publish them online, Medina began receiving death threats on twitter, warning him of the repercussion of his report.
¡Atención! Comienzan las amenazas, contra mi familia y contra mí persona, por las publicaciones del reportaje de "Tocorón" pic.twitter.com/feHT4XxHMc
— Jesus Medina Ezaine (@jesusmedinae) November 1, 2017
Days later, the Venezuelans authorities were alerted that Medina had been allegedly kidnapped by unknown attackers after his colleagues received a text message from Medina saying “They have taken me, urgent.”
According to a report published by the news outlet “La Patilla,” Medina was found more than two days later by the side of the highway, half-naked and bruised. On his Twitter account he claimed to have been locked in a small room and threatened with death by his attackers.
Many speculated that the government was involved in his disappearance. According to NTN24, Medina’s disappearance claimed was rejected by the public prosecutor, as, supposedly, 48 hours had to pass in order to officially declare him missing.
Money Laundering Accusations as a Tool to Repress Free Speech
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) drew parallels between the accusations of money laundering put forward against him and those of Chilean-Venezuelan journalist Braulio Jatar Alonso.
The owner of the online news website “Reporte Confidencial” was arrested September 3rd 2016 on his way to a local radio station on the island of Margarita. The journalist had allegedly published a report days prior on the hostile reception Nicolas Maduro received from residents of the Porlamar neighborhood when he came to inaugurate renovated apartment buildings in the area.
In an attempt by the Venezuelan government to silence Jatar, the local authorities claimed that he was in possession of 43,000 dollars in cash and that he had kept the money in order to fund a terrorist attack that would have taken place during the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement on the island of Margarita.
The lawyer representing Jatar, who belongs to the same organization defending Medina, stated that the money he was accused of withholding was planted by the local authorities so that Jatar could later be accused of money laundering.
According to Analítica, Jatar has spent two years in detention, with 5 months placed on house arrest due to skin cancer.
Jatar along with his lawyer continue to demand help from the Chilean government in order to secure his release. Despite condemnation from several international organizations such as the United Nations, Chile has yet to enter negotiations with Venezuela regarding Jatar’s detention.
Venezuela’s Anti-hate Law
According to another report published by CPJ, a new anti-hate law passed in late 2017 allows for the arbitrary arrest of individuals deemed to be a threat to the state.
According to El Tiempo, the statute, officially called the “Anti-Hate Law for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence,” is said to be a means through which the Venezuelan government intends to eliminate fascist rhetoric from the public sphere.
Any speech the Venezuelan government deems capable of disrupting peace will be silenced through prison sentences reaching up to 20 years, the closing of news outlets, or dismantling of political parties.
The law was allegedly proposed by President Maduro himself to the constitutional assembly, as he claimed that the anti-government protests in 2017 occurred due to the dissemination of hateful speech amongst the population.
La verdad? Bueno, la verdad todos sabemos antes de más nada que en Venezuela la información está secuestrada por el gobierno, aquí no hay libertad de prensa, los medios están censurados muchos de ellos tienen que callar o son callados, humillan a periodistas a nombre de su verdad
— Anyelen Cimi (@anyelen) September 20, 2018
According to the official law, the government is able to demand 30 minutes per week of “positive messaging” including on social media. The statutes mandates that any threats made against a person for his or her identity or affiliation with a specific group will be punished by law.
Social media companies are also included within the law. One section of the law mandates that if a company fails to take down a comment considered hate speech within a period of six hours, it can be fined up to 1500 U.S. dollars or have the platform blocked in the country.
According to Europapress, the most recent case in which the law was evoked occurred on September 17th when two firemen in Venezuela were arrested by local authorities on accusations of “inciting hate.”
Several days earlier, the firemen posted a video on Twitter in which they showed a donkey entering their forestation, comparing it to a visit by Maduro. One of the individuals said, “He [Maduro] is checking whether the grass is in good condition or not,” referring to the animal grazing in the field.
These two firemen, identified as Ricardo Prieto and Carlos Varón, are now facing up to 20 years in prison. According to human rights organization Foro Penal, if found guilty, they will join the 234 individuals considered “political prisoners” in Venezuela.
Reactions from the Venezuelan People
After the arrest of Medina in late August, many expressed their outrage on social media, creating the hashtag “I am Jesus Medina” which began trending on Venezuela’s Twitter sphere.
According to 800noticias, journalists, politicians and former political prisoners have joined the campaign demanding for Medina’s release.
Given the newly passed anti-hate law, it has become extremely difficult to gage the general sentiment of Venezuelans on the press through platforms like Twitter, as there is significant lack of conversation on the subject.
The few who have commented on free press in Venezuela see the situation as dire, with one twitter user saying that information has been “taken hostage by the government” and journalists are being humiliated simply for speaking truth to power.
Another individual states that freedom of the press in Venezuela is being “deliberately attacked by the narco-government of Nicolas Maduro” and that help is needed from the international community in order for its citizens to be protected from the repression.
La LIBERTAD DE PRENSA en Venezuela está siendo deliberadamente ATACADA por los delincuentes armados y pagados por el NARCOrégimen criminal de Nicolás Maduro.
NECESITAMOS AYUDA de la Comunidad Internacional para proteger al pueblo de Venezuela. #Venezuela #IntervencionMilitarYA https://t.co/6k0gZdSEMf
— VR_VzlaLibre (@VR_VzlaLibre) September 21, 2018
In a letter to the nation, Medina remains hopeful that the Venezuelan press will continue to uphold the standards of ethical journalism; eventually leading to the eradication of Maduro’s authoritarian policies.
“Sé que en unos días dejaré de ser noticia…pero hoy les pido a toda la prensa que no se dejen comprar, ni intimidar, no se dejen censurar por temor o por amiguismo…caiga quien caiga. Solidarios entre nosotros.”
“I know that in a few days I will stop being news…but I ask of the press to not let yourselves be bribed, or intimidated, do not let yourselves be censored due to fear or cronyism…fall who may. We remain in solidarity together.”