Sasha Chavkin | International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
It sounded like another grim chapter in the repression that has gripped Venezuela during the rule of President Nicolas Maduro. Earlier this week, four journalists from the investigative website Armando.info have been forced to leave the troubled country citing fears of state persecution after they were sued by a business executive with ties to Maduro’s party.
Armando.info is a long-term partner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and worked on many projects, including the two most recent projects, Panama Papers and Paradise Papers.
Their dramatic investigative series last year revealed how Colombian executive Alex Saab took advantage of connections, government contracts and an offshore enterprise to sell food at inflated prices to a government program meant to feed Venezuela’s desperately poor.
End of story? Not by any stretch.
One of the journalists, ICIJ member Joseph Poliszuk, told ICIJ that he and his colleagues would soon publish additional revelations in their series and would be safer doing so from outside the country.
“We are temporarily going abroad to publish these pieces,” Poliszuk told ICIJ.
He said they eventually plan to return to Venezuela to continue their reporting, despite the lawsuit by Saab.
“I am still a little bit in shock,” he said. “We didn’t expect this reaction.”
The scandal centers on a series of articles published by Armando.info that revealed questionable dealings in a government food program to aid the poor, an operation involving offshore companies allegedly linked to President Maduro himself.
The first article, published in April 2017, alleged that Saab, who has enjoyed close business ties with the Venezuelan government, was benefiting from a state contract to import food supplies for a program to feed the poor. The program, known as CLAP for its acronym in Spanish (Comites Locales de Abastecimiento y Produccion), is meant to prevent hunger among poor communities amid Venezuela’s ongoing economic crisis.
So much more could have been done with that money.
Documents obtained by Armando.info showed Saab’s ties to an offshore company incorporated in Hong Kong called Grupo Grand Limited. Grupo Grand Limited received a contract of $340 million from the Venezuelan state of Tachira to import food for CLAP.
The documents showed that Grupo Grand Limited charged prices well above the market rate for food staples such as tomato sauce, pasta and beans. The offshore firm charged nearly 50 percent more than the market rate for tomato sauce and roughly 80 percent above market rates for pasta and beans – even as hundreds of children across Venezuela were dying of hunger during the country’s economic collapse.
“So much more could have been done with that money,” Poliszuk said. “And what’s more, there were people who benefited.”
Saab has denied any connection to Grupo Grand Limited, although the documents obtained by Armando.info show his son listed as a beneficiary of the company, and the company is registered at the same address as another company owned by Alex Saab.
But it was another dramatic twist last August that brought the story national attention in Venezuela. Luisa Ortega, who spent a decade as Venezuela’s top prosecutor, was dismissed from her post after denouncing the Maduro regime. She then leveled an explosive allegation at a press conference in Brazil several weeks after her dismissal. President Maduro himself was a beneficiary of Grupo Grand Limited, she asserted.
Ortega said she had evidence to support these claims and would hand it over it to authorities outside Venezuela but so far has not provided proof to the public.
“With that it became scandalous because it was related directly to the president of the Republic,” Poliszuk said. Armando.info published their second story in the investigation in September last year.
In September, Armando.info published its story about Ortega’s allegations. Poliszuk and his colleagues began receiving threats sent from an anonymous Twitter account. The messages included their home addresses and other personal information, as well as an ominous statement: “Greetings to you and your beautiful family.”
Poliszuk and his colleagues, including fellow editor and ICIJ member Ewald Scharfenberg, editor Alfredo Meza and reporter Roberto Deniz, remained in the country and continued their reporting.
But mounting fears of persecution by the government later forced them to leave Venezuela. This week they noted in a press release that Saab had charged them with defamation and “aggravated injury,” crimes that carry sentences of one to six years in prison. Concerned that they would not receive a fair trial in Venezuela’s courts, all four have now temporarily left the country.
“I have doubts about Venezuelan justice,” Poliszuk said.
His own reporting had provided ample grounds for concern on this front – a July 2017 Armando.info investigation authored by Poliszuk found that 40 percent of the judges in Venezuela are members of Maduro’s ruling party.
It was not the first time Saab has taken legal action against journalists – last year he also sued Univision’s Gerardo Reyes, another ICIJ member, after Reyes reported that Saab was under investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for possible connections to money laundering.
Poliszuk said he and his colleagues were determined to continue their work and publish what Poliszuk said will be significant new revelations in their series.