On 29 August 2018, Venezuela’s intelligence services detained freelance photographer Jesús Medina Ezaine at a subway station in Caracas after covering a demonstration and he’s been imprisoned since. Medina worked for the website Dólar Today, which is based in the US and publishes articles critical of Venezuela’s socialist government and focuses on monitoring the Venezuelan economy.
On 2 May 2019, Medina published a letter from prison on his Twitter account, saying:
“I stand firm and with my forehead held high.”
Medina’s court hearing has been deferred numerous times. By early May 2019, it had been deferred eight times. On six occasions, the delay was because the court had not issued the order for Medina to be transferred from prison to court on time. Consequently, the hearing could not take place in his absence, according to Medina’s lawyers. In two other instances, the court had not requested the case file from an appeals chamber where it was sitting, which prevented the hearing from taking place.
On 24 May, a preliminary hearing was finally held and the court ordered to proceed to trial. Three of the five charges leveled against him were dismissed yet he remains in military prison, although he is a civilian. Photos published by El Nacional in May 2019 show the terrible conditions he enduring. He sleeps on the floor of a small dingy that has no windows. According to reports from his lawyers he has lost 20 pounds since his detention and has an eye condition that is worsening.
In May 2019, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch called on the Venezuelan authorities to immediately release Medina:
“Venezuelan authorities should immediately drop the absurd charges against Jesus Medina and stop finding pretexts to prolong his pretrial detention,” said CPJ Central and South America Coordinator Natalie Southwick. “Jailing reporters and criminalising journalism will not put an end to the profound crisis in Venezuela, nor hide it from the world.”
Arrested in 2018
Peruvian journalist Juana Avellaneda, who was with Medina at the time of his arrest, said that he had been helping her and a Peruvian colleague with a reporting project in Caracas. Avellaneda said the three journalists were waiting at the subway when a group of armed men approached them and asked Medina if he knew the Peruvians, before taking him into custody. Avellaneda said the journalist told the agents he did not know the Peruvians, and that she believes if he had admitted knowing them, they would have been arrested as well.
At a hearing on 31 August 2018, a Caracas court charged Medina with money laundering, criminal association, illegal enrichment against acts of public administration, and inciting hate. Under Venezuela’s vague anti-hate law, passed in November 2017, the crime of “inciting hate” in the press or through social media is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The court sent him to the Ramo Verde military prison outside Caracas, pending trial, according to María Fernanda Torres, a lawyer with the Venezuelan legal rights organization Foro Penal, who is part of Medina’s defence team.
Medina Targeted in 2017
In November 2017, Medina was abducted. He was found on a highway outside Caracas two days later and said his abductors tortured him and threatened him with death. Later that month, Venezuela’s National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello said on a television show that he believed the kidnapping may have been staged. Medina himself posted a video on Twitter, accusing the authorities of ordering his kidnapping.
Authorities have previously harassed Medina over his work. In October 2017, authorities detained Medina while he was reporting at a prison in northern Venezuela with two international journalists.
Press freedom in Venezuela
The Venezuelan free speech organization Espacio Público reported that between January and April this year, 37 journalists, four photojournalists, and 10 other media workers — including cameramen, technicians, and drivers– were detained. This is nearly double from the same period in 2018.
Foro Penal reported that there were 590 political prisoners in Venezuela as of 15 July 2019.
Recent cases of arbitrary arrests include the detention of the Venezuelan journalist and human rights activist Luis Carlos Díaz in March, the detention and deportation of an American freelancer Cody Weddle. In February a reporting team from Univision headed by Jorge Ramos was detained for several hours inside the Miraflores presidential palace and then expelled from the country.
“Jesús Medina’s detention is consistent with a pattern of arbitrary arrests and harassment of opponents, critics, and those who dare expose the truth about what is happening in Venezuela,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “Leaders from the Americas and Europe who are concerned about the lack of judicial independence and the rule of law in Venezuela should support our call for his immediate release.”
The humanitarian emergency in Venezuela
After the death of socialist leader Hugo Chavez in March 2013, Nicolás Maduro, Vice-President under Chavez, took power and clamped down excessively on the nation’s freedoms leading to an economic and political crisis breaking out.
Amnesty International conducted a crisis mission in the country and reported that: “Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has imposed a ‘repulsive strategy of social control’ against his people.”
Over 3.7 million people have fled Venezuela, mostly on foot, to escape from the worsening crisis. Over 3,000 children born to these refugees in neighbouring Columbia have been left stateless with this figure growing on a daily basis. The crisis has now developed into a humanitarian emergency for over 30 million people. It has caused a deterioration of health and education services, shortages of food, medicine and basic supplies as well as basic infrastructure such as water and electricity.