Bogotá, Colombia, March 11, 2016—A Venezuelan judge today sentenced David Natera Febres, the editor of an independent newspaper that investigated corruption at a state-run mining company, to four years in prison for criminal defamation, according to news reports.
Natera Febres, the president and editor of Correo del Caroní, based in the eastern industrial city of Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar state, has 10 days to appeal. He remains free pending appeal but was prohibited from leaving Venezuela and must appear before court officials every 30 days. In addition, Judge Beltran Lira fined him 201,249 bolívares (about US$20,100 at the official rate, or about US$201 at black market rates) and banned the newspaper from publishing stories about the plaintiff in the case, businessman Yamal Mustafá.
“The sentencing of David Natera Febres is a clear attack on press freedom that will have a chilling effect on independent, investigative reporting in Venezuela,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas, from New York. “Under President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuelan authorities have used a variety of tactics to restrict the media, including filing defamation lawsuits, in an attempt to control the flow of information.”
Correo del Caroní also faces civil penalties stemming from the defamation case, which could result in the confiscation of the newspaper’s office and printing press, according to a statement by the Caracas-based free speech organization Espacio Público.
Journalists in the area found the sentence particularly troubling because of the paper’s reputation for critical coverage. Alba Perdomo, an independent journalist based in Ciudad Guayana, told CPJ that she viewed Correo del Caroní as the only newspaper in the eastern region of Venezuela that regularly criticizes the government.
“They are penalizing investigative journalism,” Perdomo said. “The impact will be enormous.”
The defamation case stems from a series of stories published in 2013 about an extortion ring involving an army colonel, several businessmen, and top officials at the government-owned Ferrominera Orinoco iron mining company.
The case was also investigated by the attorney general’s office and military intelligence. Many of the newspaper’s stories were based on government information, Damián Prat, a Correo del Caroní columnist, told CPJ. The investigations led to the firing of Ferrominera’s president as well as prison sentences for three company managers, Prat said.
Mustafá, who filed suit against Natera Febres and Correo del Caroní in 2013, served nearly three years of pretrial detention on embezzlement charges connected to the case. Mustafá, who owns numerous businesses in Ciudad Guayana, including the pro-government Primicia newspaper, denied the accusations against him. He was released in December 2015, after prosecutors dropped the case.
Besides the lawsuit, Correo del Caroní faces other threats to its survival. It has lost most of its advertising amid Venezuela’s economic crisis, and a shortage of newsprint has forced the newspaper to gradually cut its size from 32 to eight pages. In August 2015, Correo del Caroní switched from a daily to a weekly print edition, although it still posts stories daily on its website.
With penalties up to five years in prison for defamation charges, Venezuelan law outlines some of the highest criminal penalties for these provisions in the Americas, according to a comparative study on defamation laws launched last week. The study was prepared for CPJ by the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. CPJ research shows that under President Nicolás Maduro, authorities have used defamation laws to hinder critical reporting.
The editor of independent newspaper El Nacional has been living in exile since May 2015 after a top government official accused him of defamation. Meanwhile, civil defamation charges against Tal Cual have sapped the newspaper’s resources, according to CPJ research.