Caracas – Members of the press, both foreign and local, are facing tight restrictions to do their job during Sunday’s legislative elections, journalists and non-governmental organizations claim.
On Wednesday and Thursday, upon their arrival, journalists from CNN, Mexico’s Televisa and Argentina’s Telefe were kept for hours in an interrogation room at Caracas’ international airport, and their equipment eventually got confiscated.
“This happened even though they had contacted Venezuelan authorities weeks in advance to arrange their visit. Their equipment hasn’t been released and other international media was subjected to the same treatment on Friday morning,” Marco Ruiz, president of Venezuela’s Union of Media Workers, told Fox News Latino.
The election is deemed crucial because the opposition could take control of congress, called National Assembly, for the first time since 1998.
A loss for the ruling party would end a 17-year chain of electoral victories — victories that the socialist movement founded by Hugo Chavez has often used to defend itself against allegations that it's undemocratic.
Meanwhile, Venezuelan media are dealing with delays and outright refusals by the National Electoral Council (CNE) to issue press credentials for the coverage of Election Day.
Local newspaper “2001” said CNE officials told them that 40 of the credentials they had requested had gone missing, including Odell Lopez's, the reporter assigned to the CNE headquarters.
A similar situation is affecting Vivo Play, an online news channel, and Efecto Cocuyo, a local news site.
“The credentials for my camera crew and producers are still missing,” said Eugenio Martínez, reporter from Vivo Play. “The CNE said the problem would be fixed, but this can affect our coverage,” he said.
But the CNE hasn’t been too cooperative in other cases that have arisen.
Marisela Castillo, reporter from news site Analita.com and a radio station from Caracas, said that as of Friday she hasn’t received her press credential.
“The rest of my team received theirs. I went to the CNE and they admitted I gave them all the requested documents, but they just didn’t issue my credential,” she said.
In addition to this, on Friday morning surfaced several claims of physical aggression against journalists as they were trying to report on the installation of voting booths across the country.
In Sucre, a state in eastern Venezuela, reporter Nayrobis Rodriguez, who works for elpitazo.com and newspaper Sucre’s Daily, said she was attacked by three members of the military for taking a picture of a polling station.
“Two male officers and one female took her cellphone and hit her in the face in the process. A general erased all the pictures from the phone and then gave it back to her,” Cesar Batiz, head of elpitazo.com, told Fox News Latino. “They said that taking pictures was banned by the Constitution,” he added.
However, there is no law in Venezuela describing this kind of restriction.
On Thursday’s night, the Electoral Council emailed newsrooms across the country a set of 10 regulations they have to follow during Election Day.
Among other things, journalists are not allowed to go inside the polling stations unless the person voting is deemed a celebrity. Pictures are not allowed either and reporters will need to remain in a marked area.
The regulations don’t address the presence of media during the vote count, a process the opposition is extremely wary about.
“I have covered 13 elections in Venezuela and this is the first time that they submit rules before the vote,” Celina Carquez, a reporter from cronicauno.com, told FNL.
Conatel, the governmental office in charge of monitoring radio electric media coverage, sent a separate press release this week reminding that news outlets are not allowed to project results without the approval of the CNE.
“Conatel will be working actively to verify the correct application of the law,” it read.
In the face of this, on Friday the Union of Media Workers of Venezuela requested a meeting with the international observers of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the only organization allowed by the government.
“We sent a letter, which was received by former Dominican Republic president Leonel Fernandez [head of the UNASUR],” said Ruiz, the union president, who was expecting to meet with them on Saturday afternoon.
The latest voter intention polls – released earlier this week – showed the opposition coalition holding a 15 point lead, buoyed by voters defecting from the socialist party because of high crime, widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation.
The socialists currently hold 99 of Venezuela's 167 legislative seats.
The AP contributed to this report.
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.