While it would be an understatement to say that the Venezuelan government is hostile towards the press, this past year has seen a worrying rise on attacks on foreign correspondents. Last week alone, there were two new cases of foreign journalists being unceremoniously kicked out of our country. One of them was a producer working for the BBC.
Ian O’ Reilly, who works for the BBC News program “HARDtalk” was detained on March 20th outside the Ramo Verde military prison where Leopoldo Lopez is being held. According to the version offered by State Media, O’Reilly was actually “…hired by a Leopoldo Lopez relative to film a documentary about his prison life”. Even if he was formally expelled from Venezuela for “not following our laws,” the article describes him in its headline as a “spy”.
Caracas Chronicles contacted the HARDtalk production team to ask for their side of the story. We received the following statement from the BBC Press Office:
Last Monday a BBC producer was arrested in Venezuela after recording an interview with the mother of Leopoldo López. The producer was working for the BBC on an independent, impartial programme. The team were not working in collaboration with any organisation in Venezuela nor were they hired by Mr Lopez’s family, contrary to local reports. The producer was detained for about 28 hours before being deported. He and his colleague have now arrived safely back in London.
The BBC also strongly denied the hegemony’s accusations of alleged espionage:
…no one at the BBC, including our reporters and producers, take part in spying.
The State Media report also mentions that HARDTalk host Stephen Sackur, allegedly in Margarita island, was expelled along with O’Reilly. The BBC’s statement didn’t release the identity of the second person involved in this incident.
HARDtalk describes itself as “an interview program that generates hard talk-style controversies, some kind of inquisitive documentaries and tough interviews”. They even did a one-on-one interview with the comandante eterno back in 2010. Awkward…
Back then, Chavez was promoting the Oliver Stone-directed documentary “South of the Border,” with Stone himself present for the interview.
Later in the week, Chilean journalist Patricio Nunes was detained while reporting on long lines at a Caracas supermarket. After being interrogated by SEBIN agents, he was escorted to his hotel, asked to gather his belongings, and later driven to Maiquetia Airport. Only after he got on the airplane was he was able to contact both his family and Canal 13, the Chilean television channel he works for.
Nunes described his brief but quite intense experience in Venezuela in this first-person account, from which I’d like to share the final paragraphs with you:
While I turn on the computer to write these lines I ask myself how much the Nicolás Maduro administration has spent on plane tickets to return journalists and camera crews from all over the world. Why not use that money for those who need it the most? The same people that have lost between seven and eight kilograms since Chavez’s successor took over. The same that have to search through garbage bags to feed their families.
The freedom that the Venezuelan government raises as a battle flag is only hollow words when free press and free speech are both repressed. No one hides what is not feared to be seen.
Canal 13’s majority owner Andrónico Luksic offered full support to Nunes in his Twitter account. The Chilean Foreign Ministry has asked its Venezuelan counterparts for an official explanation. Santiago and Caracas already had a similar impasse over dual Venezuelan-Chilean citizen Braulio Jatar, the editor of news website Reporte Confidencial, who has been imprisoned for almost seven months to date.
And then there are those journalists who make it out of the airport, but then get arrested while doing their jobs. Just ask Matt Gutman, reporter for the U.S. TV network ABC who was arrested at Valencia’s Central Hospital last October. He shared his ordeal in the country (and part of his incomplete report) in this “Reporter’s Notebook” published in mid-February.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which has asked Maduro to “stop blocking the international media’s reporting in Venezuela,” more than 20 international correspondents have been rejected by Venezuelan authorities at Maiquetia International Airport since last August.
RSF’s Latin American Bureau Director Emmanuel Colombié sees it pretty clearly:
We find it hard to believe that all these foreign journalists were expelled simply because they failed to comply with the bureaucratic requirements.
They are probably all spies.