My first day as a photojournalist was in 2006. I went to PDVSA Gas Anaco headquarters to cover a protest called by the company’s workers. As soon as I got out of the car, someone yelled “run.” I didn’t have time to reach the riot’s core (about 500 meters away from my position) when I saw a blizzard of people and bottles in the air.
I knew what I was getting into since that very day.
Throughout history, press photographers have been victims of attacks by governments of different tendencies yet, ironically, it’s through political conflicts that this discipline has developed.
However, in Venezuela’s case, I’ve also witnessed rejection to our profession caused partly by the regime’s discourse.
The anti-journalism discourse is deeply ingrained in the militants’ psyche, and a press cameraman is fair target to all.
Late President Hugo Chávez went against printed outlets, radio stations and TV channels. His fetish for private media became a no-tolerance policy, taking every chance available to insult and mock journalists. His successor has only followed in Chávez’s footsteps and, in the Maduro era, abuses against photojournalists have gone berserk.
Doing photojournalism in chavismo-controlled areas is a delicate trade. The anti-journalism discourse is deeply ingrained in the militants’ psyche, and a press cameraman is fair target to all.
Last year, in the Palavecino municipality, a group of private property invaders rounded me up with sticks in their hands when I got close to take some pictures. It took serious diplomacy to leave unharmed, and they let me off with the classic tag: “You’re a snitch.”
They obviously didn’t want photos, since they were invading plots of land, holding babies in one arm and machetes in the other. Allegedly, Cabudare’s ex-mayor, José Barreras, protected some “capitalist rat” with plans to build a mall, while people needed housing, thus justifying the invasion. Who would pay with blood? The unwary newsmen strolling around.
In another occasion, while covering a chavista rally in the Urbanismo Alí Primera (northern Barquisimeto), some marchers told me to “be on chavismo’s good side,” meaning I should be careful with what I published.
Last year, in the Palavecino municipality, a group of private property invaders rounded me up with sticks in their hands when I got close to take some pictures.
In 2015, cameraman Alejandro Ledo was thrown off the second-floor roof of the Mayor’s Office, in Mario Briceño Iragorry, Aragua, by members of the area’s Bolívar Chávez Battle Units (UBCh). He was there to record a protest and left instead with severe trauma.
Luis Díaz, former photojournalist for newspaper La Prensa de Lara, was attacked in Barquisimeto’s Plaza de la Justicia, in July 2017, by members of the National Guard (GNB) who approached him when they realized he’d photographed a group of officers beating a protester.
“That journalist snitch took pictures of me,” are the words he remembers. He was hospitalized for six months with two fractured ribs.
The violence against Díaz was denounced back then by former mayor Alfredo Ramos, who was a few meters away from the incident. The attacking officers, however, were unscathed. The band kept playing on.
All of this has been denounced by the National Union of Press Workers (SNTP) and the National Association of Journalists (CNP). Those who oppose (or fear) our work also use other kinds of intimidation, like taking pictures of us for posts on social media. Death threats and photographic equipment theft are common practices.
In November 2017, national media reported the disappearance of photojournalist Jesús Medina, found two days later beaten and half naked, in a freeway near Caracas.
Freedom of press is a fundamental part of democracy. Maybe that’s why it isn’t in our reality.
Most of my colleagues have been humiliated, attacked. There’s a long list of reporters who have tasted the bitterness of impunity, a large number of victimizers who stand for everyone to see, yet invisible to the law. This is photojournalism in the so-called 21st century socialism, a daily test of the professional commitment to telling the truth with a clear conscience.
Which is more than some “journalists” out there can say.
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