Last year, a Venezuelan news website called Armando.info released an explosive series of stories about a Colombian businessman named Alex Saab, who was allegedly getting rich by selling overpriced, low-quality products to the Venezuelan state-run food aid program.
At a time when the country’s economic collapse had given way to hyperinflation and hunger, the details of Saab and the CLAP food program rattled the administration. Saab’s lawyers filed a criminal defamation suit, the courts prohibited the reporters from mentioning Saab again, and there were fears they would be thrown in jail.
In February, four of Armando.info’s reporters boarded a plane to Miami, and then to Colombia, to keep pursuing the story.
Now, with Saab under investigation by Colombian authorities and on the radar of U.S. law enforcement, the co-founder of the site, Joseph Poliszuk, will receive the 2018 Knight International Journalism Award from the International Center for Journalists.
Speaking from his office in Bogotá, Poliszuk, 37, said it was no ordinary journalistic investigation. The website was tackling a government program that many Venezuelans depended on for their very survival.
“The CLAP program, rather than being a solution [to the hunger], had turned into a business for a very few people,” he said. “We had to leave to safeguard the investigation.”
In recent weeks, newspapers in Colombia, Mexico and elsewhere have begun running stories about Saab. In addition, Venezuela’s former attorney general, Luisa Ortega, has said that Saab was a front-man for President Nicolás Maduro.
Saab, who is thought to split his time between Venezuela, Colombia and Europe, has denied the mounting accusations.
“This has been very encouraging for us,” Poliszuk said of the other publications. “It has legitimized what we’ve been saying for more than a year.”
Armando.info, which was started almost four years ago, is a byproduct of Venezuela’s crisis. Under late President Hugo Chávez, and now Maduro, much of the traditional free press has been silenced or co-opted. The newspaper where Poliszuk worked, El Universal, was bought by businessmen with government ties, “the logic being if you can’t handle your enemies, buy them,” he explained.
As Poliszuk found his hands increasingly tied, he and some colleagues started Armando.info as way to give investigative journalists a voice.
In Bogotá — operating in an office space donated by another media organization — Poliszuk works with Ewald Scharfenberg and Roberto Deniz, who also had to flee Venezuela. The site has another 16 employees in Caracas.
While the site is still doing groundbreaking investigative work, in many ways the government’s attempts to censor the media have worked, Poliszuk said. While there is still independent journalism taking place on the web, Venezuela is a country “where the internet is limited and the government sometimes blocks our page,” he said.
In addition, Armando.info’s correspondents “have to wait in line with everyone else for food, and then have to fight against government censorship,” he said. The lack of reliable information in rural areas has also made parts of the country information deserts. “The hardest thing for us to do is find sources who can help us understand a country where very few people are actually informed,” he said.
Poliszuk and his colleagues in exile recognize their work — particularly around the issue of food distribution — has been critical. But they also acknowledge the high personal price they’ve had to pay, leaving behind family, friends and country.
“I had no idea that when we started Armando.info of all the things that would happen to us,” Poliszuk said. “I always believed that I was leaving Venezuela temporarily, and I still hope that’s the case.”