Civil judge rules in favor of Venezuelan official in defamation case and imposes fine on newspaper El Nacional

El Nacional, one of the leading independent newspapers in Venezuela that continues to cover the entire country in its print and digital formats, will have to pay a fine of reparation of one billion bolivars (around US $12,000) for "moral damage," according to freedom of expression organization Espacio Público.

According to Espacio Público, on June 5 Judge Gustavo Hidalgo of the Third Court of the First Instance in Civil, Commercial, Transit and Banking of Caracas ruled in favor of Diosdado Cabello, first vice president of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela and deputy of the National Constituent Assembly, in the defamation lawsuit filed against El Nacional three years ago.

In addition to the payment of one billion bolivares as compensation, El Nacional will also have to pay the administrative expenses incurred by Cabello since the process began on August 11, 2015, Espacio Público reported.

Pedro Carreño, an assembly member of the ruling party who according to Espacio Público was the first to spread the news of the sentence on Twitter, said on the social network that according to the ruling, the fine should respect the exchange rate of bolivars to dollars of August 2015, when a dollar was equal to 52 bolivars. According to the deputy, the fine should be approximately US $19 million.

The director of El Nacional, Miguel Henrique Otero, told the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio that the defamation lawsuit that Cabello initially filed against the newspaper before a criminal court in 2015 has still not resulted in a ruling. However, he added, that Cabello also sued them before a civil court, which has just announced its ruling.

“According to Venezuelan justice, a civil trial can not be opened if there is no criminal sentence, but here the legal norms are skipped,” Otero told El Comercio. “In Venezuela, the courts obey the guidelines of the Executive, the judge does what Diosdado Cabello wants,” he said.

For his part, Diosdado Cabello responded that if he became the new owner of El Nacional because he did not receive timely payment of the corresponding compensation, he would change the name to "The Furrial Times" or "The Wall Street Furrial," reported El National.

According to AFP, Otero had to leave Venezuela in 2015 after he and his newspaper were sued for defamation by Cabello, then president of the National Assembly.  The suit was for reproducing a note from the newspaper ABC of Spain in which Cabello was linked to drug trafficking.

“That information was republished by 90 newspapers in the continent,” Otero told El Comercio. Recently, Cabello has been sanctioned by the Treasury Department of the United States, on charges of corruption, drug trafficking and money laundering, according to AFP.

Regarding the consequences of the publication of the note in question, in the June 6 editorial of El Nacional, Otero wondered if in Venezuela there is a different way of understanding and respecting the right to freedom of expression than in the rest of the world.

Otero affirmed: “As responsible people, as a company that respects the law and as honest citizens, we will comply with the provisions of the ruling. But we will not give up our rights and we will make use of the legal resources granted us by the Constitution and the laws of the republic.” And, he stressed, “we're not going to give up.”

Less than a month ago, after the presidential elections that re-elected President Nicolás Maduro on May 20, the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) opened an administrative proceeding against the El Nacional website on May 22.

According to Conatel, the website allegedly violated article 27 of the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media, and article 14 of the Constitutional Law Against Hate for Peaceful Coexistence and Tolerance, for publishing content that disregarded the legitimate authorities of the country and for inciting hatred. However, the entity did not specify in its statement if the legal action was the product of a particular news article.

On that occasion, Otero told the Knight Center that they would not be silenced by that, that they would continue reporting. "This is the first time that they threaten through the web, but with print we’ve had threats like this and harassment from the government many times," he explained.

For Otero, Conatel's legal action is an attempt to censor El Nacional's website for having reported "nationally and professionally" about the high voter abstention at polling stations across the country for presidential elections.

Between June 6 and 7 of last week, access to the websites of the newspapers El Nacional and La Patilla was blocked in Caracas and in several other states of the country, allegedly by one of the main providers of internet service in Venezuela, the National Anonymised Telephone Company of Venezuela (CANTV), according to NTN24.

With the hashtag #ElNacionalLuchaPorLaVerdad (El Nacional fights for the truth), El Nacional keeps a notice posted to its Twitter account in which it asks readers to report their city and internet provider if they cannot access the site.