BOGOTA Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro threatened legal action against the local and international press Thursday, saying the media is engaged in “psychological warfare” to discredit the health system and sew panic in the South American nation.
In a national broadcast, Maduro said the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald, BBC Mundo and CNN en Español, among others, were part of the destabilization campaign.
The comments come after Ángel Sarmiento, the president of the medical board in Aragua state, said last week that a “mysterious illness” had killed four adults and four children within a matter of 72 hours in Maracay hospital. He described the patients as having fevers, rashes and blisters.
Even as the government denied the deaths, the claims sparked speculation about what the illness might be. At one point health authorities shot down social-media driven rumors that Africa’s ebola epidemic had made its way to Venezuela. Sarmiento, in interviews with the press, had ruled out ebola and meningococcemia.
On Thursday, Maduro suggested that outlets that had reported Sarmiento’s concerns were engaged in acts tantamount to “terrorism.”
“The Miami Herald, or el Nuevo Herald, is a newspaper in Miami that is the repository of all the lies against Venezuela,” Maduro said. “They’re poisoning a large number of Venezuelans who live in Florida. They’re poisoning them and filling them with hate and craziness.”
The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald belong to the publisher McClatchy but are separate companies and have separate editorial boards. While el Nuevo did report about the illnesses in Venezuela the Miami Herald did not.
“El Nuevo Herald stands by our reporting of Venezuelan events by our award-winning reporter Antonio Maria Delgado,” the newspapers Editor Myriam Marquez said. “I have no idea why this allegation has surfaced. It’s unfortunate that President Maduro is lashing out and making unsubstantiated accusations instead of focusing on the economic, political, safety and health crises that his country is facing.”
Maduro asked the judiciary to pursue the outlets “with all the firmness and severity that the law allows. These people have to be punished.”
On Thursday, Health Minister Nancy Pérez said there were no unknown diseases in the country “and if there were we would say so, it’s not the government’s policy to hide anything.”
Venezuela is, however, trying to contain the mosquito-borne chikungunya infection, which can cause fever and flu-like symptoms, and can sometimes be fatal.
Pérez said that of the 1,200 suspected cases in Venezuela, 398 have tested positive for chikungunya and an additional 45,745 have tested positive for dengue, another mosquito-borne ailment, which produces similar symptoms. Three people with chikungunya have died, she said, but they had “underlying conditions.”
The Maduro administration often accuses the media of being in league with the opposition and being part of a larger plot to overthrow the government.