CARACAS -- Jim Wyss, the Miami Herald’s Andean bureau chief, was detained by Venezuelan authorities Thursday while reporting on the country’s chronic shortages and looming municipal elections. Wyss remained in custody late Friday.
According to local sources, Wyss was initially detained by the National Guard then transferred to Venezuela’s counter military intelligence, Dirección General de Inteligencia Militar, in San Cristóbal, Táchira. He was believed to have been transferred later to Caracas.
“We are very concerned,” said Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the Herald’s executive editor. “There doesn’t seem to be any basis for his detention and we’re trying to figure out what’s going on. We are asking that Jim Wyss be released immediately.”
Herald editors spent Friday communicating with various Venezuelan government officials in Caracas and Washington to secure his release.
Some journalists in San Cristóbal said they saw Wyss in custody on Friday.
“I was able to see him and he looked all right, but they [authorities] wouldn’t let us close,” said Lorena Arraiz, a journalist at El Universal, who was investigating the incident.
“But he’s been in there over 12 hours and he’s still stuck in custody,” she said.
Officials at Venezuela’s Ministry of Communications and Information declined to comment about why Wyss was detained.
Press freedom groups denounced the detention and said that holding journalists has become “a recurring practice here.”
“It’s a completely arbitrary measure, one that goes against our constitution,” said a member of Venezuelan’s Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, a freedom of expression watchdog, who requested anonymity because of fear of reprisals.
Claudio Paolillo of the Inter American Press Association called for the “immediate release of the journalist” and said he was bewildered by a “new demonstration of intolerance by a regime that day after day shows its contempt for the work of journalists and freedom of the press.”
Earlier this year, immigration authorities had tried to bar Wyss from entering the country shortly before the death of President Hugo Chávez was announced. According to the NGO, Wyss’s most recent detention marks the 11th time a journalist has been apprehended in Venezuela this year.
The upcoming Dec. 8 municipal elections provide a stern test for President Nicolás Maduro’s government, which is currently under fire for its handling of the economy, where shortages of common goods prevail across this bitterly divided nation. The government reported this week that inflation had climbed to 54.3 percent, the highest in more than a decade.
International media organizations also called for the government to release Wyss, a well-known journalist who had made more than a dozen reporting trips into the country.
“We join the Herald in calling on authorities to release him immediately and ensure his safety,” said Bob Gabordi, president of the Florida Society of News Editors and executive editor of the Tallahassee Democrat.
It was unclear late Friday where Wyss was being held. There were reports that he had been transferred from San Cristóbal to Caracas. An official with the district attorney’s office in San Cristóbal said her office did not have contact with the reporter but that he was being treated well.
“They even allowed him to contact his girlfriend. However, we cannot confirm the administrative process of the detention ... He was never in our hands,” said the woman, whose identify could not be confirmed.
Humberto Márquez, president of the Foreign Press Association, said he has seen an increasing number of detentions of journalists in Venezuela.
“It’s always a surprise when something like this happens. But we have the difficulty of working with authorities who don’t understand what a journalist really is. Sadly, there are no clear rules here. In theory a journalist can do work here ... but there is a huge ignorance about the value of information [on behalf of the government] and about how news organizations work,” Márquez said. “Because of this, we have a situation where authorities can detain someone — who they may not like — for simply doing their job.”