Covering a Protest? Don’t Forget Your Flak Jacket

prayed to God that the wound was not a mortal one, so I could see my children grow up,” said Carlos Montenegro, a photojournalist who was shot in the leg by a political police agent he was filming during the recent disturbances in Venezuela.

Reporters in this South American country are licking their latest wounds, sustained during the protests held in late February and early March to demand a recall referendum for President Hugo Chávez, and in the crackdown by security forces.

A total of 27 media workers were hurt, including four who were hit by bullets, during the unrest, as a result of violent protests by pro- or anti-Chávez demonstrators or the repression by the police and national guard – or because they were simply caught in the crossfire.

The risks faced by reporters in today’s highly polarized Venezuela have been accentuated by the fact that most of the local private media outlets are openly, and in many cases vociferously, anti-Chávez, while the state-run media harangue against the opposition movement.

This has led to a situation in which people in both camps tend to see reporters as adversaries.

Journalists covering street demonstrations in Venezuela now routinely wear flak jackets and gas masks and carry first aid equipment in their pockets for emergencies.

Juan Barreto, a news photographer with the AFP international press agency, had pointed his camera in the direction of a group of opposition protesters in Altamira, a posh Caracas neighborhood, when “a young protester stood in front of me and shot me in the chest with a nine mm pistol. The bullet grazed my hand, but luckily, my bullet-proof vest saved me,” he told IPS.

Something similar happened to Johnny Ficarella, a reporter with the Globovisión TV station, who was knocked down by a tear gas canister shot at him from only a few meters away by a member of the national guard (militarized police).

“That (tear gas) bomb would have killed you if it hadn’t been for your flak vest,” a doctor told him shortly after he was injured, Ficarella commented to IPS.

During the week-long protests that broke out in Caracas and other cities around Venezuela on Feb. 27, the number of journalists injured outnumbered the 15 police and national guards who were wounded and the handful of rescue workers who were hurt.

In addition, as many as 12 people died in the unrest.

However, no reporters were killed, unlike in Haiti, another volatile country in the region, where cameraman Ricardo Ortega with the Spanish television station Antena 3 was shot and killed Mar. 7, a few days after former president Jean Bertrand Aristide was forced to flee the country by rioting and looting.

A local CMT TV station crew were detained by the national guard in Altamira during the disturbances, and their film was confiscated. One of the reporters, Juan Carlos Aguirre, said he was beaten across the head and the back, while members of the national guard insulted him and said “This is to help you learn to be objective, to tell the truth, and to show things the way they really are.”

Ficarella said a woman shouted at him in the street: “I wish that bomb had killed you, because you (journalists) have also contributed to the chaos.”

VTV, the state-run TV channel, came under repeated attacks by violent opposition demonstrators, who opened fire on the station’s main offices from nearby streets and buildings, and hurled molotov cocktails at the station, VTV chairman Vladimir Villegas told the press.

“Today we journalists have to cover our backs and watch out for everyone: the military, and both the pro- and anti-Chávez camps,” said Ficarella.

“Whoever was responsible, these latest attacks are unacceptable,” said the France-based Reporters Without Borders. “It is time to end this climate of extremism towards the media and that exists also within the media.”

The demonstrators were protesting a decision by the National Electoral Council which ruled that only 1.84 million signatures were valid of the 3.47 million collected by the opposition in December to hold a recall referendum for Chávez. A minimum of 2.4 million signatures are needed to trigger a referendum.

Early last week, the electoral authorities challenged the validity of more than a million signatures, and announced that some 876,000 people would have to confirm their signatures.

Reporters Without Borders demanded investigations into the reports of assaults on journalists, while appealing for calm.

The International Federation of Journalists, based in Brussels, said “Journalists carrying out their professional duties must not be targeted.”

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission called for guarantees for the safety of reporters and media installations, to allow them to continue their work of keeping Venezuelan society informed.

The Venezuelan Union of Press Workers denounced the “brutal attacks” on its members. “We urged our colleagues, especially reporters, to take every security measure, use their protective gear, and not expose themselves to unnecessary risk,” the union’s secretary-general, Gregorio Salazar, said in an interview with IPS.

The recent assaults on journalists were a replay of the injuries suffered by press workers in the polarized climate that has divided Venezuelan society over the past few years. In 2003, 93 attacks on reporters were documented, according to Reporters Without Borders.

A study by the local Public Space association found that 142 acts of aggression affected 154 press workers in 2002, while media premises, equipment or vehicles were damaged on 42 occasions.

The most tragic incident involved the death of news photographer Jorge Tortoza, who was shot on Apr. 11, 2002 while covering a demonstration in Caracas demanding that Chávez step down.

The April 2002 protests were followed by a short-lived coup d’etat that removed the president from office for 48 hours, before he was reinstated by loyal army troops and massive demonstrations by his grassroots supporters, many of whom come from the lowest socioeconomic strata.

Reporters Without Borders points out that although Colombia is considered one of the most dangerous spots in the world for journalists, there are also other countries in Latin America where press workers face serious risks, such as Bolivia, Guatemala, and Venezuela.

According to the international press freedom organization, most of the incidents of aggression against journalists in Venezuela can be blamed on the president’s supporters, who complain about the private media’s anti-Chávez campaign.

“If the media take sides against President Chávez, on occasion outrageously, this can still never justify the use of force against their journalists,” said Reporters Without Borders.

The organization recorded more than 80 attacks and threats during 2003, most of which targeted the anti-government press and were committed during the December 2002- January 2003 general strike called by the opposition with the aim of toppling Chávez.

In an April 2003 report, Reporters Without Borders said “the press freedom situation has become more sensitive since the bulk of the privately-owned press openly took sides against the government. Although that is its undeniable right, the excesses to which it was led by its partiality have weakened press freedom”.

The report also added that “It should be noted that the public channels gave way to the same excesses, or even worse.”