Intimidation and arrest of journalists investigating corruption in Venezuela
The arrest in recent days of four journalists has focussed international attention on the worsening conditions for investigative reporting in Venezuela. On 11th February, two employees of Transparency International's Venezuela chapter along with two Brazilian journalists were detained by Venezuelan security forces in Maracaibo, Zulia state in Venezuela. Jesus Urbina, Maria Jose Tua, Leandro Stoliar & Gilzon Souza de Oliveira were investigating a multinational Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, who are currently at the centre of a corruption scandal involving Venezuelan government officials. In an ongoing investigation, anti-corruption advocates estimate that Odebrecht paid 98 million dollars to influence the Venezuelan government between 2006 and 2015. After being detained, the journalists had their mobile phones confiscated, the contents of their cameras checked and their hotel rooms searched by Venezuelan authorities. After being held for nearly ten hours, the journalists were subsequently released. In a press statement, the Chair of Transparency International, José Ugaz stated:
'Our activists and the journalists must be released immediately. They are only doing their jobs. Odebrecht has admitted it paid bribes to Venezuela. It is the role of civil society and the press to expose any wrongdoing.'
As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, local civil society monitoring illustrated that throughout 2016 cases of abuse against journalists were committed with impunity. Furthermore, the misuse of power by Venezuelan authorities holding journalists conducting a legitimate investigation without charge breaches Constitutional provisions on due process. The intimidation and arbitrary detention of these journalists adds to the litany of restrictions on freedom of expression in Venezuela. In fact, local CSO, Instituto Prensa y Sociedad Venezuela produced evidence of at least 24 barriers to foreign journalists carrying out their work over the course of 2016 and early 2017.
While the two Brazilian journalists have now left Venezuela, the case has become emblematic of the crackdown against journalists working on anti-corruption issues. In a context of broadening corruption, the authorities' unwarranted interference and misuse of power to stifle legitimate investigative journalism constitutes a worrying threat to freedom of expression in Venezuela.