The El Nacional newspaper headquarters is seen in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 17, 2021. The Venezuelan national guard recently seized the office as damages in a civil defamation suit. (AFP/Federico Parra)

Venezuelan authorities seize headquarters of El Nacional as damages in defamation suit

Miami, May 17, 2021 Top of Form— Venezuelan authorities should ensure that civil defamation suits cannot be abused to censor news outlets, and should return El Nacional’s headquarters to its owners immediately, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

At about 7 p.m. on May 14, National Guard agents executing an order issued by a Caracas court raided the newspaper’s headquarters in the Los Cortijos area of Caracas, evacuated the outlet’s staff, and took control of the building, according to a report by El Nacional, a statement by the newspaper’s lawyer Juan Garantón as quoted by El Nacional, and a tweet by the National Union of Press Workers, a local media workers’ advocacy group.

The building was seized as partial payment in a civil defamation suit that the outlet lost in April, according to those sources. Garantón told CPJ today via messaging app that the paper’s employees and representatives have not been allowed to enter the building since the raid, but have continued publishing on the outlet’s website from other locations.

“The seizure of the headquarters of El Nacional as partial payment of damages to Diosdado Cabello is the latest step in a long and arbitrary process of judicial harassment and abuses against the daily for daring to report on corruption allegations,” said CPJ South and Central America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “By taking control of the headquarters of one of the most influential outlets in the country, Venezuelan authorities have shown they will go to extraordinary lengths to suppress independent news.”

On April 16, the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal ordered El Nacional to pay the equivalent of more than $13 million in civil damages to Diosdado Cabello, a congressman and the vice president of the ruling Socialist Party, as CPJ documented at the time; Cabello had sued the newspaper over its republication of a January 2015 story from the Madrid-based newspaper ABC.

Founded in 1943, El Nacional is an independent newspaper that has been critical of President Nicolás Maduro’s government; the daily published its last print edition in December 2018 due to government restrictions on newsprint, and has continued publishing online.

CPJ emailed Cabello for comment, but did not receive any response. Following the raid, he posted a tweet stating that “the process of payment of compensation has begun,” adding “we will prevail!!”

CPJ called the Bolivarian National Guard at the number listed on its official website, but the person who took the call said they did not have information on the issue.