COVID-19 tightens the quarantine of freedom of expression in Venezuela

The origin of the arrests lies in a controversial Law against Hate, which was not approved by Parliament but by the National Constituent Assembly
Pedestrians and travelers wearing face masks amidst the spread of the new coronavirus walk on a sidewalk where buses stop in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday, June 1, 2020

AP/ARIANA CUBILLOS  -   Pedestrians and travelers wearing face masks amidst the spread of the new coronavirus walk on a sidewalk where buses stop in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday, June 1, 2020

On March 21, the Venezuelan journalist Darvinson Rojas began his peculiar ordeal, when he was detained with his parents. The accusation, incite hatred. The crime, spreading figures of those infected by COVID-19, one more example of how the pandemic has increased the siege on freedom of expression.

“I was detained for twelve days, they charged me with the crimes of instigation of hate and public instigation simply for giving information about COVID-19 in Venezuela, specifically, data provided by official sources, mayors and governors,” recalls Rojas, 26 , to Efe.

He did not do it in a media outlet, but through his Twitter account, where he disseminated the data provided by the governor of the central Miranda state, Héctor Rodríguez, and the mayor of Los Salias, José Fernández, which they contradicted, he claims, those provided by the Government.

In search of the COVID-19

The biggest surprise when police officers from the Special Actions Forces (FAES) showed up at his family residence was that they claimed to be looking for a suspect of being infected by COVID-19.

After reporting the case on his social networks, he opened the door to FAES officials, who entered the home and arrested Rojas, who only hours later confirmed that they were looking for him for spreading data about the pandemic. Meanwhile, they took “computers, phones and tablets” from the journalist and his relatives.

“This arrest is carried out, simply, for giving COVID-19 data in the Miranda state, figures that, according to the Public Ministry, were falsely published to generate anxiety in the population and destabilize the Government of Nicolás Maduro”, Rojas explains, still surprised by the stir due to data he obtained from public, local and regional sources. Following his case, the arrests of journalists have multiplied.

But this time, it was not just media workers. The escalation of pressure has led to the arrest of 21 people since the start of the pandemic, including doctors who reported the real situation they are experiencing on their social networks, according to the NGO Espacio Público.

A law “against hate”

The origin of these arrests lies in a controversial Anti-Hate Law, which was not approved by Parliament but by the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), an organization composed only of Chavistas who has de facto assumed all legislative tasks.

The norm was denounced by numerous organizations that defend freedom of expression and the right to information, an alert reiterated by the director of Public Space, Carlos Correa, for whom this law “has very general sanctions, that is, it typifies as hate crime is very general and has very tough penalties of 10 to 20 years. ”

“It is a very hard norm that punishes homicide more than the penal code punishes. It is an imprecise and vague norm, with very strong sanctions that are being done on a recurring basis and with great force,” Correa explains to Efe.

Despite the fact that the Anti-Hate Law was approved in 2017, it had not been used until the start of the pandemic, so for Correa, COVID-19 is serving as an excuse for the “increase in cases of persecution criminal “against journalists and citizens who replicate critical information with the Government.

AP/ARIANA CUBILLOS - Un hombre es sometido a una prueba rápida para el nuevo coronavirus en una carpa instalada en la entrada de un hospital en Caracas, Venezuela, el miércoles 15 de abril de 2020
AP/ARIANA CUBILLOS - A man undergoes a rapid test for the new coronavirus in a tent set up at the entrance of a hospital in Caracas, Venezuela, on Wednesday, April 15, 2020

“Journalists but also doctors, union leaders are being persecuted for their (publications on) social networks, also on WhatsApp. There are cases that people have been persecuted for things they published in their Whatasapp state,” he details. The “COVID allows a more arbitrary exercise of power,” he adds when asked about why this law is now used.

Fear as a symptom

All this has generated an atmosphere of fear of publishing on social networks, but also of carrying out journalistic work, a fear that grows when the authorities, with President Nicolás Maduro at the helm, use the platform given by public channels and stations. to attack reporters and the media.

Those attacks, without the right to reply, are reiterated by public media workers who dedicate entire spaces to criticize the work of journalists in Venezuela. All of these attacks represent for Correa an “illegitimate critical speech in relation to the media” because it is not based on saying “I don’t like the work you do.”

“He is saying that you are a traitor and that you are against the Venezuelan state, against the homeland, he places you as an enemy and has a correlate later when journalists are on the street. What is being said from the highest authority (to the Police) is ‘these gentlemen are enemies and you can do whatever you want,’ “says the director of Public Space.

There is a recurring order from the police to journalists to unlock their phones so that they can see all kinds of private information stored on the computer, from WhatsApp messages, publications on social networks or emails, information that they do not hesitate to photograph and archive in their own cell phones. All without judicial order by means of and against the principles of inviolability of private communications contained in the Constitution itself.

The pressure is perceived in the streets and few journalistic teams have escaped from being arbitrarily detained in the streets and questioned, as recently happened to a team from an international agency, by FAES officials who accuse them of being “emaciated”, derogatory name to refer to the opposition, or directly ask who they “serve”.

The doctors, at the point of view

Another case that Espacio Público has documented is the persecution of doctors who, on the front line against COVID-19, “are being very punished,” Correa explains. Comparing information with health workers is an almost impossible task, but fear has also spread among them.

A medical source assured Efe, under the premise of anonymity, that the authorities are threatening to fire them if they publish sensitive information about the situation in hospitals. “We have several cases of doctors detained just for raising their voice of protest. The speaker puts him in jail,” said the source.

The threat does not end there, because, according to said source, they are also warned that their titles will be annulled if they resign due to pressure or the poor conditions in which, they assure, they must work. A panorama in which the appeal to the spread of “hatred” is the excuse to increase the pressure on information.