CARACAS – Venezuelan journalist Darvinson Rojas’s ordeal began on March 21 when he and his parents were arrested on charges of inciting hatred.
Their crime was to have disseminated information about coronavirus infections in that Latin American country, where freedom-of-speech rights have been further eroded amid the pandemic.
“I was held for 12 days. They charged me with inciting hatred and public incitement simply for providing information about COVID-19 in Venezuela, specifically statistics provided by officials, mayors and governors,” the 26-year-old Rojas told EFE.
He said he had used his Twitter account to pass along data provided by the governor of the central state of Miranda, Hector Rodriguez, and the mayor of Los Salias, Jose Fernandez, whose figures, he said, showed a higher number of infections than what Nicolas Maduro’s administration were reporting at that time.
Armed agents from the National Police’s Special Action Forces (FAES) knocked on his door, claiming they were looking for a person suspected of being a coronavirus carrier.
He tweeted about the incident and then opened the door to the agents, who entered his residence and took him into custody. Hours later they informed him that he had been sought for disseminating information about the pandemic.
Rojas said the agents seized “computers, telephones and tablets” belonging to the journalist and his family members.
“I was arrested simply for communicating COVID-19 data in Miranda state, figures that according to the Attorney General’s Office, constituted false information that had been published to generate unease in the population and destabilize Nicolas Maduro’s government,” Rojas said.
Even so, the journalist said he is still surprised that data he obtained from publicly available local and regional sources caused such a stir.
Several other journalists have been arrested since the conclusion of his ordeal.
But doctors have also been targeted for taking to social media to denounce the challenging situation they have been facing at hospitals, according to Espacio Publico, a non-governmental organization that promotes freedom of expression in Venezuela.
The origin of these arrests can be traced back to a controversial 2017 “anti-hatred” law, which was not passed by the opposition-controlled National Assembly but instead by the National Constituent Assembly, a plenipotentiary body that was established that year to sideline the legislature, is made up exclusively of Maduro allies and serves as the nation’s de facto parliament.
The director of Espacio Publico, Carlos Correa, said that under that law, the crime of “incitement to hatred” is punishable by between 10 years and 20 years in prison.
“It’s a very harsh law that punishes more (severely) than the criminal code punishes homicide,” he told EFE, noting that the legislation is “imprecise and vague.”
Although adopted in 2017, it had not been enforced until the start of the pandemic, according to Correa, who said COVID-19 is serving as an excuse to step up the criminal prosecution of journalists and citizens who report information critical of the government.
“Journalists are being prosecuted, but also doctors, labor leaders for (what they write on) social media, also via WhatsApp,” he said.
Asked why the law is being enforced at this time, he said that “COVID is allowing power to be exercised more arbitrarily.”
Journalists who do not tow the party line also are under constant attack from government-run television channels and radio stations, according to Correa, who said the criticism goes far beyond harsh disagreement with their point of view.
“They’re saying that you’re a traitor and that you’re against the Venezuelan State, against the homeland. They position you as an enemy, and there’s a tie-in later when journalists are in the street. What’s being said from the highest levels (to the police) is that ‘these men are enemies and you can do whatever you want,’” Correa said.
It is common for police to demand that journalists unlock their phones and provide access to all kinds of private information on their devices, including WhatsApp messages, social media posts and emails, according to the Espacio Publico director.
He said the searches are warrantless and violate the principle of inviolability of private communications that is enshrined in the constitution.
Amid the coronavirus crisis, pressure also is being brought to bear on doctors to discourage them from publishing sensitive information about the situation at the nation’s hospitals.
“We have several cases of doctors being detained for merely raising their voice in protest. Whoever talks is put in jail,” a medical source told EFE on condition of anonymity.
Doctors also can lose their license if they resign in protest over the pressure they are under to conform to the government’s wishes or over poor working conditions, that source said of the human rights situation in Venezuela, where the alleged fight against “hate” serves as an excuse for a broad crackdown on freedom of expression.