(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
On February 5, when Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, a Swedish Jewish journalist, first went to Venezuela’s opposition-dominated National Assembly, she didn’t know what to expect. Three weeks later, she was back at the National Assembly, this time to give a speech to the assembled members. In a short speech, almost canceled as pro-government thugs banged on the door, she said that press freedom is a hallmark of democracy and that attacks on the press are an attack on the foundation of our civilization.
Hernroth-Rothstein is on her second trip to Venezuela. She came to cover the unfolding crises as Juan Guaido, president of the National Assembly who declared himself president in January, seeks to oppose the regime of Nicolas Maduro. Venezuela is gripped by crises and in the last month, massive protests have rocked the capital, Caracas, and swept other areas.
On February 23, Guaido was in Colombia seeking humanitarian aid for poverty-stricken Venezuela. Hernroth-Rothstein had come back to the country on February 22 and was driving to the border. She was tweeting about soldiers defecting to join Guaido on the Colombian side and about police checkpoints at roadblocks on the road to San Antonia del Tachira. Along with her security detail and others, Hernroth-Rothstein had taken back roads to reach the border area. “We were guided by locals,” she tweeted.
Then a dozen masked men appeared. Armed, the men were part of local “colectivo” or pro-government militia. “I was taken by the pro-Maduro guerilla in San Antonia del Tachira,” she tweeted. “Robbed and beaten along with my security and then they forced us to get on our stomachs while they held guns to the back of our heads.” They took everything. The pro-government gang accused her and the others of infiltrating Venezuela and trying to “destroy the country.” Harassed, guns pointed at them and beaten, Hernroth-Rothstein eventually escaped with her colleagues as the colectivos shoot in the air.
“Five minutes later some locals stop us down the road,” she tweeted the next day from a friend’s phone. “These locals who I may owe my life hide us in their shed where we stay for at least an hour while there’s gunfire on both sides.”
It turns out she’s not the only journalist targeted in coming days. Jorge Ramos of Univision was arbitrarily detained with his crew in Venezuela. It was on orders from Maduro. Like Hernroth-Rothstein, the phones of his colleagues were taken.
Since the incident, support has poured in for the Swedish-Jewish journalist. Most of it is from locals, but US Senator Marco Rubio also tweeted about the “horrifying account of how criminal gangs empowered by [Maduro] are terrorizing the people of Venezuela.”
Now the journalist vows to keep working and stay in Venezuela for the rest of her planned trip. She is “hiding in plain sight,” she says over Whattsapp as the connection fades in and out. In the background, someone is cooking food.
On February 26, she was discussing plans to go into some of the most impoverished areas of Caracas to interview locals, including supporters of the government. “Maduro is asserting himself right now and he is doing well and the opposition is dropping the ball,” she says. She says that what happened to her and colleagues has happened to many people in Venezuela. The colectivos rob people and rough them up.
Hernroth-Rothstein says that compared to early February, the opposition seems to be losing momentum. This is despite the growing support internationally for Guaido. The government has erected checkpoints. Armed gangs roam areas of the country. It’s tense. The people are waiting for what Guaido will do next. Leaving the country to get humanitarian aid seemed like a good opportunity to force the border. But it hasn’t snowballed in other parts of the country. Instead, the opposition lacks clarity on its next move. “My sense is that the opposition has continuously set the bar to high, they said the world would change on February 23, and the world doesn’t change so fast and when you say that and put all your hopes in one man and then you’ll come up short and you leave people deflated and disillusioned,” she says.
Then, Hernroth-Rothstein got an invitation to speak at the National Assembly. On February 27, she appeared at the wood-paneled forum. Pro-government activists came and tried to break down the doors, shouting and chaos ensued. Pulled under a pulpit at the assembly, she tweeted a video and said that the speech would go on, despite the intimidation. “I said as journalists we don’t take sides but I am on the side of freedom and a hallmark is democracy is free press and opposition and anyone who attacks those two things attacks not only democracy but the very foundation for our civilization,” she said.
The story of the attack on the Swedish-Jewish journalist has gone viral in Venezuela. This could be seen as an embarrassment to the regime, but it doesn’t deter her from continuing. “I’m going to do interviews after this,” she said. “I received a standing ovation and it was incredibly moving.” It has been a strange and poetic journey. Despite the attacks it appears that international support and also support from groups that monitor press freedom have been slow in coming. Asked to take part in opposition activities, she says she’s a reporter first. “My role here is that, and the reason I made an impact here is because I’m a reporter and my role is not to be in the opposition,” she says.
Venezuela now waits to see what the Maduro government’s next move is and whether Guaido, can re-gain the momentum. Assaults on journalists are designed to prevent coverage and intimidate those who remain. Hernroth-Rothstein isn’t intimidated.
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