By Yenibel Ruiz
The director of Venezuelan newspaper Correo del Caroní, David Natera Febres, was sentenced to four years in prison for crimes of defamation and injuria related to reports published in 2013 that denounced cases of corruption in a state mining company, reported nonprofit organization Espacio Público. Natera Febres was given 10 days to appeal the decision.
Although he is currently free, the director is obliged to appear before authorities every 30 days and is prohibited from leaving the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported. The judge imposed a fine of 201,249 bolívares (“about US $20,100 at the official exchange rate, or about US $201 on the black market exchange”), and banned the newspaper from publishing information about the plaintiff Yamal Mustafá, CPJ added.
The case resulted from a series of articles published by Correo del Caróni in the state of Bolivar that reported on a band of extortion involving an army colonel, several businessmen and officials of the state company Ferrominera Orinoco, CPJ said.
The reports published by the newspaper and the investigations of the public prosecutor gave rise to a judicial procedure that ousted the company president, as well as led to prison sentences for three of its managers, Espacio Público said.
Mustafá, who filed the lawsuit for defamation and injurias against the director and the newspaper in 2013, served nearly three years in prison accused of several offenses including embezzlement of funds related to the case, CPJ said. The businessman, who owns several businesses including the pro-government daily newspaper Primicia, was released in 2015 after a prosecutor dismissed his case, CPJ said.
Espacio Público noted that the lawsuit filed by Mustafá, according to Venezuelan law, should have prescribed considering that no judgment was issued for two years and eight months. Although the defense argued this requirement, it was not admitted by the court, the organization said.
On the other hand, there is a civil lawsuit against the newspaper that could result in the confiscation of their offices and printing press, said Espacio Público. The newspaper also has been affected by the newsprint crisis affecting publications across the country. Consequently, it has had to reduce the frequency of its issues, CPJ said.
Different organizations rejected the judicial decision.
Carlos Lauría, senior coordinator for the Americas program at CPJ, said that the sentence “is a clear attack against freedom of the press that will have a chilling effect on independent and investigative journalism in Venezuela,” according to a press release from the organization. “Under the administration of President Nicolás Maduro, the authorities have used various tactics to restrict the press, including filing defamation lawsuits, in an attempt to control the flow of information.”
For his part, the Secretary of the National Union of Press Workers (SNTP for its acronym in Spanish) in Venezuela, Marcos Ruiz, described the sentence as one against “critical journalism and investigation and that is known, after three years, only to have the objective to obscure the events that occur today in Bolívar,” according to newspaper El Nacional.
In the same vein, the chairman of the Committee for Freedom of the Press and Information of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), Claudio Paolillo, called it “a ruling that has the clear intention of dissuading in-depth and denunciation reporting as has been carried out in this case by Correo del Caroni,” according to an organization press release. He also said it demonstrated a deterioration in matters of press freedom in Venezuela as the country continues to send journalists to prison, according to the release.
According to the IAPA, in 2005, Venezuela reformed its penal code and increased the sanction for the crime of defamation from 30 months to four years in prison, contrary to the actions of other countries in the region.
According to the Press and Society Institute (IPYS) Venezuela, this is a unique case since it is the first in which parallel civil and criminal lawsuits were filed, and because it is “the only case in which a businessman with ties to state power sued a media outlet and its directors.”
“From this organization, we insist that this sentence, which leads to censorship in coverage on corruption, is regressive for freedom of expression and places journalism at risk, as a trade for scrutinizing power and of social oversight,” IPYS Venezuela said. “The justice system should protect the right of citizens to be informed – in an adequate and timely manner – about matters of public interest, and not apply penalties for defamation. These crimes must be removed from national legislation in accordance with the July 2015 suggestion made by the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations.”
The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a statement which expressed concern about the sentence and appealed to Venezuela “to adhere to the strictest international standards on freedom of expression so as to ensure the right of journalists and media outlets to practice journalism without improper interventions, and the right of society as a whole to be informed.”
The office recalled that on several occasions, the IACHR, based on the American Convention on Human Rights, has said that the use of criminal law “to penalize expressions about matters of public interest and public servants is disproportionate and therefore violates the right to freedom of expression.
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.