Bogotá, April 20, 2021 – The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemned a decision by the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal ordering the independent daily newspaper El Nacional to pay the equivalent of more than $13 million in damages in a civil defamation lawsuit.
On April 16, the Civil Cassation Chamber of the Supreme Tribunal ordered El Nacional to pay 237,000 petros—a cryptocurrency run by the Venezuelan government—equivalent to about US$13.3 million, to Diosdado Cabello, a congressman and the vice president of the ruling Socialist Party, according to news reports and a report by El Nacional.
The ruling stemmed from a civil defamation suit Cabello filed against the newspaper over El Nacional’s republication of a January 2015 story from the Madrid-based newspaper ABC, which alleged he was connected to a drug-trafficking ring, according to those reports.
El Nacional president and editor Miguel Henrique Otero told Colombian broadcaster NTN24 that the ruling will allow the Venezuelan government to seize El Nacional’s building, printing press, and other property.
“The exorbitant damage award of $13 million imposed by Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal on El Nacional in a defamation case filed by a government official seeks to further punish the daily for its independent coverage and sends a chilling message to other media outlets,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “This is a clear case of judicial harassment against one of the few remaining independent outlets in Venezuela, which has managed to keep reporting against all odds.”
In May 2018, a Caracas court found El Nacional guilty of damaging Cabello’s reputation and ordered the newspaper to pay him 1 billion bolivars, the legal Venezuelan currency; however, due to the bolivar’s hyperinflation, Caballo’s lawyer filed a motion to the tribunal to change the currency of the damages, according to the court’s decision.
“It’s an astronomical amount… There is no way [to pay it],” Juan Garantón, El Nacional’s lawyer, told Reuters. CPJ contacted Otero via messaging app for comment, but did not receive any reply; CPJ was unable to find contact information for Garantón.
Following the April 16 judgment, El Nacional filed a motion to the tribunal, which CPJ reviewed, arguing that the bolivar is the legal currency of Venezuela and the newspaper should not be required to pay in petros.
Founded in 1943, El Nacional has been extremely critical of President Nicolás Maduro’s government; the daily published its last print edition in December 2018 due to restrictions the government imposed on access to newsprint, as CPJ documented at the time; the outlet has published solely online since then. In recent years, the Venezuelan government has used political pressure on state-run newsprint companies to stifle critical reporting, according to CPJ research.
“I don’t think El Nacional will disappear. We are on the web. What will disappear are the installations and the printing press. But we will continue to inform the public,” Otero told NTN24.
Otero lives in Madrid in self-imposed exile, after a judge issued a decision in May 2015 barring him, along with 21 other media executives, from leaving the country as a result of Cabello’s defamation suit, as CPJ documented at the time.
The United Nations has repeatedly called on Venezuela to ensure that its court system can function independently, and has expressed concern that the Socialist Party has pressured courts to act against political opposition groups.
CPJ emailed Cabello for comment, but did not receive any response.