Press Freedom in Venezuela: An International Crackdown

This past Thursday, a journalist working for the Spanish news outlet Agencia Efe, Gonzalo Dominguez Loeda, along with his two Colombian colleagues, Mauren Barriga Vargas, and Leonardo Muñoz, were released from custody by Venezuelan authorities after spending a night in detention.

Gonzalo Loeda, a Spanish national, and his producer Barriga Vargas traveled to Venezuela from the Colombian capital, Bogotá, to report on increasing opposition to President Nicolas Maduro.

The two, who had already been in the country for several weeks, were allegedly arrested Wednesday afternoon at their hotel by the National Bolivarian Intelligence Services (SEBIN). However, conflicting reports were published accusing SEBIN of entering the Agencia Efe offices and taking the journalists into custody.

Their colleague, Leonardo Muñoz, and his Venezuelan driver, José Salas, were detained earlier that day by the Directorate of Military Counterintelligence while covering a pro-government gathering. Venezuelan authorities accused foreign journalists, including the staff of Agencia Efe, of entering the country without declaring their intentions and, as a result, not having the correct authorization to report within the country.

Jorge Arreaza, the Venezuelan minister of foreign affairs, wrote the day of the arrests on Twitter,

“Some journalists have entered the country through irregular ways, without previously obtaining the respective work request in our consulates.”

In response, Nelida Fernandez, the head of the Agencia Efe bureau in Venezuela, refuted the claims that the journalists did not have the correct licenses.

“When they arrived in the airport, the intelligence police approached them, and the reporters told them they came here to work. They even had photography equipment with them. And the police authorized them to come in,” Fernandez told the Washington Post.

Amongst the diplomatic voices protesting the arrest of the Agencia Efe journalists were high-level political officials within Colombia, Spain, and the European parliament. When speaking to reporters in Romania, EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini commented on the arrest of Agencia Efe’s journalists,

“From the European Union’s side, there is clearly the request of releasing any journalists that are detained or have been stopped without any reason. We firmly believe that all journalists should be able to exercise their duties, responsibilities, and rights in their…work.”

The three journalists and their driver were taken the infamous Helicoide prison, a former mall now known as a “center of torture,” where the Venezuelan authorities place the country’s political prisoners.

According to Agencia Efe, officers of the intelligence services searched through the reporters’ phones and proceeded to interrogate them for an extended period of time.

After being kept in custody for over 12 hours, the journalists were released and given the approval to continue their reporting. Salas, the driver and Venezuelan native, was released later that day.

Political Turmoil and the systematic arrest of foreign correspondents

This latest detention of Agencia Efe journalists is one among a series of arrests targeting journalists from outside the country. The National Syndicate of Press Workers (SNTP) in Venezuela reported that within the last week, four other foreign correspondents of Chilean and French nationality were taken into custody by the country’s authorities.

A diplomatic source confirmed to AFP that Pierre Caillé and Baptiste des Monstiers, two reporters working for the news show “Quotidien,” were detained by security officials on Wednesday.

The French nationals were arrested near the Presidential Palace in Caracas as they were allegedly filming within “a security zone.”  Later that day, the two other foreign journalists mentioned by the SNTP in their alert were also stopped by authorities near the Palace and accused of the same crime.

All four journalists were later released after being held in detention, including the two Chilean nationals who were deported Thursday. Both Caillé and des Montiers are scheduled to return to Paris in the days to come.

According to Reuters, short detentions and deportations have long been commonplace in Venezuela. However, as political turmoil has reached its peak with the declaration of Juan Guaido as the country’s self-appointed interim president, such tactics of intimidation are becoming more frequent.

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