Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Across the Bocas, deadly threat to media freedom

Express editorial logo379

Mark Fraser

 Deepening unrest in neighbouring Venezuela made itself felt in Trinidad and Tobago over the question of the continuing detention of Muslim citizens visiting Caracas to obtain travel visas not available in Port of Spain.

Intervention by T&T officials travelling to the republic succeeded in repatriating women and children and, so it was hoped, opened lines of communication with Venezuelan security officials.

Against the immovable force that the various arms of Venezuelan state security together represent, T&T officials must continue to work diplomatic levers, and wait and hope. The plight of the luckless T&T handful has much in common with that of considerable numbers of Venezuelans seeking to exercise their democratic rights of free assembly and free expression. 

Since February 12, when the current anti-government protests began, the escalated iron-fisted response of the State has been felt by street activists that include opposition elements and protesting students. Increasingly prominent as a target of State-security attacks, however, are the Venezuelan media.

 As reported in yesterday’s edition of El Nacional, media people have sustained 181 attacks over two months. The attacks include threats, physical violence, detentions, and seizure or destruction of professional equipment and, at least in one case, wounding by gunfire. 

In addition, 25 foreign correspondents reporting on the Venezuelan troubles have been attacked, detained, at least one expelled, and suffered confiscation of equipment.

For one scary episode last Sunday, Nairobi Pinto, a prominent TV correspondent, was seized outside her home by masked abductors, and disappeared without trace.  

Such perils facing the Venezuelan media remain largely unnoticed in T&T and the Caribbean. The worsening situation for media freedom, however, formed the basis of a resolution passed at last week’s Inter American Press Association mid-year meeting in Barbados. The resolution denounced “the way in which the public demonstrations, and the independent media’s coverage of them, have been repressed as a matter of State policy” by the administration of President Nicolás Maduro.

With the benefit of first-hand testimony from Venezuelan media people in attendance, the IAPA also referred to “undue pressures, threats, and censorship, directly and indirectly, against the independent media, leading a number of journalists and media professionals to resign from their jobs”. Further government harassment takes the form of refusal or delay in providing foreign exchange to less-favoured newspapers for buying newsprint. 

Media bodies in the Americas are doing more than passing resolutions in support of Venezuelan counterparts. Andiarios, a Colombian association of newspaper editors and publishers, has arranged a shipment of 52 tonnes of newsprint as a loan to three Venezuelan papers. The Trinidad Express has also pledged its support to ship newsprint. Other hemispheric organisations are due to follow their lead.

The plight of its detained citizens necessarily preoccupies T&T. Urgent concern with Venezuelan developments must also include real and present and potent dangers to media freedom.