Director of Venezuela’s El Nacional says paper’s site targeted by regulatory agency due partly to coverage of voter abstention

Just after the controversial May 20 presidential elections, a regulatory agency for the government of Venezuela is using a controversial new communications law against the website of one of the country’s most widely circulated newspapers.

On May 22, the National Commission of Telecommunications (Conatel) of Venezuela reported it had opened a sanctioning procedure against the website of independent newspaper El Nacional for having allegedly failed to comply with 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.

"We are not going to be silenced by this, we will 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," director of El Nacional, Miguel Henrique Otero, told the Knight Center from exile.

According to Otero, one of the reasons for this attempt to censor the El Nacional website is because they reported with professionalism and at the national level about high levels of voter abstention at polling centers around the country during the presidential elections.

Conatel gave the daily newspaper a period of 10 working days to exercise its right to defense. It also set a precautionary measure by which the newspaper "should refrain from publishing news and messages that may threaten the tranquility of the public, may generate disturbances among the population," El Nacional published on its website.

"The lawyers (from El Nacional) have to go first to Conatel to find out what this (procedure) is about, so they that give them access to the file they have there, if they have a file, and see what they are accusing us of and why, to give us the opportunity to defend ourselves," Otero said. "Because what we do is publish the news, the things that happen in the country," he stressed.

According to the agency's notification, –a document dated May 16 but delivered after the elections on May 20– the website is being investigated for "spreading messages that disregard the legitimately constituted authorities and also inciting and/or promoting hatred,” according to El Nacional.

It is unclear if the Conatel complaint mentioned a particular report or article from the website.

"The Government has become more repressive after the electoral farce on Sunday and this is an example of this," Otero told Panamanian newspaper La Prensa. The newspaper's director also explained to La Prensa that this measure is a recourse of the re-elected Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro who resorts to Conatel to pursue the digital version of his newspaper.

Otero explained to the Knight Center that Conatel is an instrument that the Government uses to repress the country's radio and television media. "With the Conatel regulations, they closed Radio Caracas Television, (the radio station) Belfort National Circuit; they have achieved total self-censorship on radio and television, with the instruments they have that are discretionary and absolutely punitive,” he said.

According to Otero, with the application (of said law) they have blocked important pages in Venezuela such as CNN en Español, NTN24, Infobae and Dólar Today. "That is all blocked. They use Conatel to try to impede the flow of information," he said.

The procedure, according to Otero, can lead to the closure or blocking of elnacional.com or a million dollar fine, as has already happened in other cases in the country, La Prensa reported.

Many national and international organizations in favor of freedom of the press and of expression have expressed their rejection of the Conatel measure.

The National Union of Press Workers published via Twitter that this complaint is a new attempt by the government to silence the critical media that still remain in Venezuela. The National Association of Journalists also condemned the measure against El Nacional and stated that "without a free press, there is dictatorship."

Gustavo Mohme, president of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and director of the Peruvian newspaper La República, described the Venezuelan agency's procedure as "government reprisal against one of the few independent media that remain in the country which survive despite the repressive policy of the government.”

Otero left his country in 2015 after being sued for defamation by the then president of the National Assembly, Chavez-aligned deputy Diosdado Cabello, for reproducing a note on his site from Spanish newspaper ABC in which he linked Cabello with drug trafficking. Cabello was recently sanctioned by the Treasury Department of the United States for various charges of corruption, drug trafficking and money laundering, according to AFP.

"The judicial system in Venezuela is a mockery, Justice is an arm of the Executive, they do what they want", Otero argued.

He added: "First, they maintain (against him and other newspaper executives in exile) precautionary measures for three and a half years, something that is unconstitutional because the law says that precautionary measures can only be maintained for one year. There are people with precautionary measures who are still in prison after ten years. There the lawyers do not work very well (in Venezuela) because the government does what it wants."

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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