Journalists reporting on corruption in Venezuela face big personal and professional risks

May 17, 2024 | 0 comments

By Graham Keeley

Uncovering a multimillion-dollar aid scandal in Venezuela took great personal and professional risks for the journalists involved.

Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro

Roberto Deniz, a reporter with investigative media outlet Armando Info, and his colleagues were not daunted by the task, but they did pay a heavy personal cost.

That toll — and their work exposing a scandal — are the focus of a new PBS Frontline documentary “A Dangerous Assignment: Uncovering Corruption in Maduro’s Venezuela” released May 14.

The documentary follows Armando Info as the Venezuelan media outlet uncovers a transnational scheme that it alleged benefited President Nicolas Maduro and others, including a businessman named Alex Saab.

The revelations made Deniz and his editors targets of the Maduro government and forced the journalist into exile in 2018. His house was raided and he faces jail if he ever returns to his country.

Despite everything, Deniz feels the risk was worth it. “The most important thing that this documentary shows is that we can see the real nature of Maduro’s regime. All this happened when Venezuela was going through its worst economic crisis,” he told VOA.

Juan Ravell, the documentary’s director, said Deniz’s work was like a “detective story” that he felt compelled to turn into a film. “It sounds corny, but I am a fan of Roberto’s work. I wanted to show a little of how the sausage is made — the backstage work. How he takes a source on and verifies it with another source. It is about the craft of journalism and about the risks,” Ravell said.

That journalism led to results, including an arrest and sanctions against Saab, whom the U.S. Treasury said had orchestrated a “vast corruption network” that let Maduro and his government “significantly profit from food imports and distribution.”

Maduro himself has not directly referenced the reporting but he did publicly say that his government had fixed irregularities in the program, Deniz said.

Maduro’s government created what was known as the CLAP program in 2016 to provide quality essential food items to Venezuelans hit by the nation’s economic crisis. But instead, Armando Info found, low-quality products were purchased.

A chemical analysis conducted by the Institute of Food Science and Technology, at the Central University of Venezuela at the request of Armando Info, showed some powdered milk offered as part of the CLAP scheme was so low in calcium and high in sodium that a researcher noted it could not be classified as milk at all.

Deniz and his colleagues also found that the CLAP initiative was enriching Saab, whom they said was the biggest contractor for the food program.

When Saab sued for defamation after the first stories were published in 2017, Deniz fled Venezuela but continued the investigation from his new home in Colombia. From there, the story evolved into an international effort to bring Saab to justice.

In 2019, the U.S. government indicted Saab on charges that he laundered $350 million. The businessman, who was arrested in Cape Verde in 2020 when his plane stopped to refuel, had said the charges were politically motivated. A federal prosecutor who met Saab says in the documentary that the businessman later admitted that he paid bribes to Venezuelan government officials in connection with the lucrative food contracts.

“This is a story of corruption, of kleptocracy, on a scale the world has not seen,” Marshall Billingslea, a former U.S. Treasury official who helped build the case against Saab, told FRONTLINE, “The things [Saab] was doing on behalf of Maduro were unconscionable.”

However, in December 2023, Saab was freed in a prisoner swap by the U.S. government in exchange for 10 Americans and several political prisoners.

Parallel to efforts to bring charges against those allegedly involved in the corrupt aid scheme were attempts to file legal charges against the journalists who exposed it.

In 2021, a criminal court in Caracas issued an arrest warrant for Deniz on charges of “inciting hate,” which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The ruling means he will not be able to return home while he faces these charges.

Most recently, Venezuela’s attorney general alleged in May that Armando Info was part of a “media structure” that used extortion to wage a dirty war against the government.

“We have taken a lot of risks to do this investigation,” said Deniz, who had to leave his parents and a brother behind when he fled. “The most difficult thing about doing this job is the family. They suffer. It is not easy for them to understand how I continue. But as a journalist I have no choice but to continue.”

Credit: Voice of America


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