A court in Venezuela’s mineral-rich state of Bolívar has sentenced David Natera, the 74-year-old publisher of one of the state’s last independent newspapers, to four years in prison for criminal defamation.

The sentence was handed down on March 11, less than a week after his paper, the Correo del Caroní, reported on the alleged involvement of state security forces in the disappearance of 28 miners in Tumeremo, a small mining town in the south of Bolívar state.

According to witnesses, the miners were celebrating a gold strike when a group of armed men, accompanied by what appeared to be Venezuelan military intelligence officers, opened fire. Juan Cohello, the father of one of the victims, told Correo: “The person who killed my son was wearing a military intelligence jacket”. So far, only 17 bodies have been found.

The state’s governor, Francisco Rangel Gómez, denied the massacre of the miners after it was first reported in early March of this year. It took four days for Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, to acknowledge it. More recently, the state governor – a prominent supporter of Maduro –has rejected an investigation by the opposition-led National Assembly into the killings.

Resurrecting a case

Just two days after Correo del Caroní reported on the alleged involvement of Venezuelan security forces in the massacre, a court in Bolívar state revived a moribund defamation case against Natera.

How the Correo reported the massacre.
How the Correo reported the massacre.

The criminal case was brought three years ago by Yamal Mustafá, a rival newspaper owner and key supporter of the governor. The sudden revival of the case was unusual, given that it had long passed the 18-month statute of limitation under Venezuelan law.

In 2013, Natera’s paper uncovered an extortion ring in the mining industry led by an army colonel. Several businessmen were arrested for alleged involvement in the case, including Mustafá. Last December,Mustafá was released provisionally – and without the notification of the public prosecutor.

Although the defamation case focused on articles written by reporters at the paper, not by Natera, the prosecution claimed that criminal responsibility rested on him as publisher. According to Natera’s lawyer, Morris Sierraalta, the judge handed down Natera’s prison sentence at one o’clock in the morning after a three-day trial. The court has refused to release the official record of the proceedings.

Criminal defamation as a weapon

Human Rights Watch’s director for the Americas, José Miguel Vivanco, told the Wall Street Journal that:

Venezuela belongs to a very small group of countries in the region, together with Ecuador and led by Cuba, where the authorities can punish their critics and independent media with prison.

Although criminal defamation laws remain in the books in some Latin American countries, prosecutions are rare. Such laws are contrary to international human rights standards; even when not enforced, they have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

A proclamation by the United Nations and Organization of American States says:

Criminal defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression; all criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws.

Maduro’s press crackdown

Recently, one of the last independent papers in the Venezuelan city of Valencia, El Carabobeño, had to close because the government didn’t grant it the hard currency necessary to buy newsprint. However, according to Reporters Without Borders, the authorities continue to make newsprint available to pro-government newspapers.

“The threat of lawsuits and insults is working” said Miguel Henrique Otero, the editor of the Caracas-based El Nacional, who fled into exile last year after a top government official accused him of criminal defamation.

Last May, a judge banned 22 editors and executives of independent media outlets from leaving the country after Maduro’s right-hand man, former National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, filed a criminal complaint accusing them of “aggravated and continuing defamation”.

In a press release published on March 17 by Reporters Without Borders, the head of the Latin America desk, Emmanuel Colombié, questioned the real motives of the court decision in Natera’s case: “[We] suspect another attempt by the authorities to censor and intimidate the independent press.”

Natera’s son, David Natera Jr, told us that this sentence constitutes a dangerous precedent for the world in how justice can be manipulated to limit freedom of expression. He added that despite the government’s repeated attempts to silence the press in Venezuela, his family is committed to continuing investigations into abuses and reporting them: “This sentence strengthens our commitment to continue our work,” he said.