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Venezuelan prosecutor targets investigative journalists ahead of documentary exposé

The founder of Armando.Info said he fears for the safety of his reporters in Venezuela after the country's attorney general publicly attacked the outlet ahead of a new documentary on government corruption.

Venezuela’s attorney general has accused a group of journalists of participating in an alleged extortion and disinformation campaign in what press freedom advocates are calling a “desperate” attempt to discredit the reporters’ work.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab said in a televised press conference that Ewald Scharfenberg and Roberto Deniz from ICIJ partner outlet Armando.Info, along with several other reporters, had accepted payments from former oil minister Tareck El Aissami in exchange for spreading damning information about his rivals and other government officials. El Aissami, also a former vice president and once a powerful ally of former president Hugo Chavez and current president Nicolas Maduro, was arrested in April as part of a wider corruption case at the nation’s oil company, dubbed PDVSA-Cripto.

Armando.Info rejected the accusations in a statement, calling it an attempt to silence the outlet shortly before the release of a new documentary produced by U.S. news program Frontline. The documentary, titled “A Dangerous Assignment: Uncovering Corruption in Maduro’s Venezuela,” will reportedly reveal new details about alleged corruption involving the government and Alex Saab, a powerful businessman and government vendor whom the U.S. authorities have called Maduro’s frontman.

“This is undoubtedly a very clumsy and improvised maneuver that the regime has concocted to try to discredit Armando.Info, to intimidate its journalists,” the statement said.

Scharfenberg, Deniz and other Armando.Info reporters have lived in exile for several years. On Thursday, Scharfenberg told ICIJ he is worried about the safety of his reporters and their family members who still live in Venezuela. In October 2021, as the U.S. finally nabbed Alex Saab and he was extradited from Cape Verde to Florida under accusations of money laundering, Venezuelan authorities raided Deniz’s relative’s Caracas home and issued a warrant for Deniz’s arrest on charges of “instigating hate.”

Press freedom organizations and advocates, including the Press and Society Institute and a representative of the Inter American Human Rights Commission, have expressed support for the work of the journalists and called the accusations “judicial harassment,” and an attempt to criminalize journalism.

During the press conference on Tuesday, attorney general Saab said former minister El Aissami had a “phantom payroll” that included the journalists but he also said that the journalists are funded through the U.S. Agency for International Development. Saab said the information was provided to authorities by businessman Samark López, who was also arrested in the oil corruption case.

Deniz took to X, formerly Twitter, to call the allegations “a bad joke,” noting that Armando.Info has investigated both the alleged corruption scheme at PDVSA and López’s business dealings with the government.

In November 2022, Deniz wrote a story revealing that PDVSA had used nearly 100 offshore front companies as intermediaries to sell Venezuelan oil in a strategy to skirt U.S. sanctions. More than $8 billion from the sale went unaccounted for between 2019 and 2022, the investigation revealed.

Armando.Info has also published several articles about López, including investigations into alleged preferential treatment on government contracts and into his complex offshore corporate network. In 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department accused López of being a frontman for El Aissami and included him in a sanctions list, freezing some of his assets in the U.S. and other countries. In November 2017, Armando.Info revealed as part of ICIJ’s Paradise Papers investigation that López’s offshore corporate structure was far wider and his assets far more than what the Treasury had detected.

The Frontline documentary will air in the U.S. on May 14 on PBS.

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