In response to disputed election results, Venezuelans from both sides have taken to the streets in recent weeks, according to news reports. The crisis began following the inauguration of President Nicolás Maduro to his second term on January 10, after an electoral process characterized by many in the international community and the political opposition as illegitimate, according to reports. The political crisis escalated when Juan Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly, on January 23 declared himself president under a constitutional provision that allows the assembly leader to assume the office if it is vacant, the Miami Herald reported. More than a dozen foreign governments, including the United States and most neighboring Latin American governments, have supported this claim. In response, Maduro announced that Venezuela would break off diplomatic relations with the U.S., as protests against his government continue in major cities, according to reports.
CPJ has put out the following advice for local and foreign journalists working in Venezuela, or planning to travel there.
For local journalists, the main risks are potential for physical harm while covering protests, as well as detention or prosecution at the hands of state security forces and authorities, CPJ has reported. Military intelligence agents detained two journalists earlier this week who were covering Guaidó, and intelligence agents have raided or shut down several media outlets reporting on the crisis. Journalists or outlets could face prosecution for covering political events, as reporting on the parallel interim government could be considered illegal under legislation enacted by Maduro and his predecessor.
For foreign journalists planning on entering the country, it is difficult to get work visas or accreditation, CPJ has documented. However, entering on tourist visas can be problematic. Immigration officials are on high alert and the few planes entering the country are virtually empty. The limited flight options in and out of the country, may make an evacuation difficult. It is advisable that journalists planning to go to Venezuela contact their insurance company prior to travel to check that evacuation is still viable.
If successful in entering the country on tourist visas, journalists are at risk of detention and deportation. Locals assisting them may be incarcerated indefinitely.
The country is a cash economy and there is hyperinflation. Individuals have to take cash, but that puts them at risk of criminals. Due to the dire economic situation, criminality is a significant threat across the country.
The ongoing risk of protests and violent demonstrations is high, particularly in working class neighborhoods of Caracas. Protests have resulted in a violent response from the security services in the past, including the use of tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, and live ammunition. Hundreds of civilians have been injured and arrested, with at least 20 deaths reported to date related to the January protests, according to local human rights organizations.
Journalists should be aware of pro-government armed groups known as colectivos, which operate sometimes in support of security forces and sometimes alone. Colectivos primarily consist of former police officers, military, or security service personnel. Members are usually dressed as civilians, though some wear black jackets and masks. They typically carry small arms, though some have also been seen with rifles or machine guns. Colectivo members usually travel in groups of two aboard motorcycles. In the past, colectivo members have fired directly into protests and are allegedly responsible for a number of protester deaths, according to reports. They have also threatened, physically attacked, and robbed journalists covering protests.
Non-essential U.S. embassy personnel have been asked to leave the country. The embassy has restricted its personnel from going into the following areas in Caracas:
Western Libertador (Vista Alegre, San Bernardino, El Retiro, 23 de Enero, Blandin, La Vega, La Rinconada, Las Mayas, Tazón, Oropeza Castillo, Lomas de Urdaneta, Propatria, Casalta, Lomas de Propatria, Carapita, Antimano, Tacagua, Ruiz Pineda, Caricuao, La Quebradita, El Atlántico, Sarria, San Martín, La Yaguara, Coche, El Valle), Eastern Sucre (Barrio Píritu, Barrio La Rubia, Barrio Altavista, Petare, Caucaguita, La Dolorita, Paulo Sexto, El Llanito)
Specific neighborhoods in Baruta (Las Minas, Santa Cruz del Este, Ojo de Agua, La Naya, Las Minitas).
There have also been protests in the cities of Barquisimeto, Maracaibo, and Valencia.
Reporters can minimize the risk by following CPJ’s guidance below.
Plan the assignment and ensure that you have a full battery on your cell phone. Know the area you are going to. Work out in advance what to do in an emergency.
Always try to work with a colleague and have a regular check-in procedure with your base–particularly if covering rallies or crowded events.
Wear clothing and footwear that allow you to move swiftly. Avoid wearing necklaces, ponytails, lanyards or anything that can be grabbed, as well as flammable material, such as nylon.
Consider your position. Try to find an elevated position that may offer greater safety.
Consider the use of personal protective equipment when covering protests.
This equipment may single you out for attention from the authorities and or protesters so usage is a personal judgment. If operating without protective equipment, it is crucial that you distance yourself as much as possible. For photojournalists who are not afforded this luxury, protective equipment and helmets is highly encouraged.
At any location, always plan an evacuation route. If working with others, select an emergency rendezvous point.
Maintain situational awareness at all times and limit valuables in your possession. Do not leave any equipment in vehicles. After dark, the risk of criminal actions increases.
If working in a crowd, plan a strategy. Try to keep to the outside of the crowd and avoid the middle, where it is hard to escape. Identify an escape route.
Remember that crime and kidnapping are a serious problem in Venezuela. Maintain situational awareness at all times and limit valuables you are taking. Do not work alone as you are more likely to become a target of criminals. Do not leave any equipment in vehicles as they are likely to be broken into and after dark, the criminal risk increases dramatically.
When dealing with aggression:
Read body language and use your own body language to pacify a situation.
Keep eye contact with an aggressor, use open hand gestures and keep talking with a calming manner.
Keep an extended arm’s length from the threat. Back away and if someone grabs hold of you, break away firmly without aggression. If cornered and in danger, shout.
If the situation escalates, keep a hand free to protect your head and move with short, deliberate steps to avoid falling. If in a team, stick together and link arms.
Be aware of the situation and your own safety. While there are times when documenting aggression can be newsworthy, taking pictures of aggressive individuals can escalate a situation.
In situations where tear gas may be used:
Wear personal protective equipment, including a gas mask, eye protection, body armor, and helmet.
Contact lenses are not advisable.
Individuals with asthma or respiratory issues should avoid areas where tear gas is being used. When large amounts of tear gas are used, there is the possibility of high concentrations of gas sitting in areas with no movement of air.
Take note of landmarks (i.e. posts, curbs) that can be used to help you navigate out of an area if you are struggling to see.
If you are exposed to tear gas, try to find higher ground and stand in fresh air to allow the breeze to carry away the gas. Do not rub your eyes or face. When you are able to, shower in cold water to wash the gas from your skin, but do not bathe. Clothing may need to be washed several times to remove the crystals completely, or discarded.
Journalists requiring assistance should contact CPJ.