In March, Venezuela’s Military Counterintelligence raided the apartment of American freelance journalist Cody Weddle who then endured a 30-hour quagmire that resulted in his deportation back to U.S. soil in Miami, Florida.
SizingUpTheSouth.com: Before you were taken from your home and detained in Venezuela, were many other journalists being detained? And can you tell us why you think Venezuela officials targeted you and eventually detained you?
Cody Weddle: Before my arrest, most journalists in Venezuela were being arrested while attempting to report in so-called “security zones,” or areas where [President Nicolas] Maduro’s authorities prohibit cameras and reporters. These are places like outside of military bases and on the bridge that separates Venezuela and Colombia. There had been one case – that of German journalist Billy Six – of a foreign journalist being arrested at his hotel, but it seemed to be an isolated incident.
So, for the most part, I didn’t add it. It was in the text: “Foreign journalists weren’t being sought out at their homes or hotels and when they were arrested and detained it was at protests or in the ‘security zones.'”
Based on their questioning of me, I believe Venezuelan authorities were looking for my sources for a piece I did for WPLG, ABC Miami and the Telegraph [UK] about discontent in the rank and file of Venezuela’s security forces. It appears there may have been some type of mistranslation, because the people questioning me believed I had interviewed five military generals. I didn’t interview military generals for the piece, only rank- and- file members. But the officials kept asking about “the five military generals I had interviewed in La Guaira.”
But the officials kept asking about “the five military generals I had interviewed in La Guaira.”Cody Weddle, freelance multimedia journalist
SizingUpTheSouth.com: What can you tell American journalists about working outside of the United States as a journalist where the First Amendment does not apply?
Cody Weddle: In a place where the First Amendment doesn’t apply and where the rule of law is slowly deteriorating, journalists are constantly in fear of becoming a target.
In Venezuela, this means authorities may shoot rubber bullets and tear directly at members of the press, authorities may arrest reporters when politically convenient, and journalists may be scooped up and detained for many hours just for using a camera in the street.Cody Weddle
Journalists must try to avoid these situations at all costs because we know that if we’re arrested, the protections of a free press might not apply during the legal process.
SizingUpTheSouth.com: Within a detainment situation, whether it is out-of-country or within the United States, who should a journalist contact first? As a freelance journalist, is this decision harder to make and why? Who did you contact first?
Cody Weddle: I attempted to make contact with the U.S. Embassy. It briefly appeared that the officials arresting me were going to allow me to make a phone call, but I couldn’t find the number for the embassy in my phone.
I attempted to call a colleague, but they said they “didn’t want word to spread about my arrest.”Cody Weddle
After those failed attempts, I wasn’t given the opportunity to call anyone else. As soon as I was at the airport, I made contact with one of the media outlets where I work.
For journalists working outside of the country, their first contact in this situation should probably be with their embassy and then with local press freedom groups or colleagues. In Venezuela, it’s important [to know] that word spreads quickly as authorities are known to be sensitive to social media outrage.
One should definitely have these numbers memorized, (something I didn’t do). Thankfully, some colleagues were quickly able to alert the [U.S.] embassy and local press groups, but if they hadn’t been my neighbors and heard the ordeal, it may have been several hours before someone realized I was detained.
SizingUpTheSouth.com: What suggestions would you give journalists, newsroom or freelance, to prepare themselves for the possibility of this happening to them in the future?
Again, memorize important phone numbers. Be in contact with local press organizations and local colleagues.Cody Weddle
Cody Weddle: Again, memorize important phone numbers. Be in contact with local press organizations and local colleagues. Local reporters are more likely to report on and denounce your arrest if they know you personally. Also, try to stay calm and not escalate the tension during these situations. I was able to remain very calm thankfully to the point that the people arresting me said, “He must have been trained for this, that’s why he’s so calm.” This relaxed attitude by me definitely de-escalated the situation. I joked around with my captors.
“Have a plan should something go wrong.”Cody Weddle
Your newsroom should know whether it’s best to quickly denounce and report on the situation or keep quiet and use back channels. In Venezuela, it’s best to quickly spread the word. That might not be the case in other countries.
Questions were submitted to Cody Weddle by SizingUpTheSouth.com’s Editor Sharon Dunten.
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