Last week, judge Beltrán Javier Lira sentenced the editor of Correo del Caroní, David Natera, to four years in prison for “libel and continuous damage” against local businessman Yamal Mustafá, a decision with little precedent that will have a chilling effect on reporting in a region rocked by the Tumeremo Massacre.
Back in 2013, Correo del Caroní published a report that Military Intelligence was investigating alleged trafficking of steel reinforcement bars (a.k.a., rebars, a.k.a., cabillas – an essential item in construction) in Ferrominera Orinoco. Several people were later detained by the authorities, including then Ferrominera chairman Radwan Sabbagh and Yamal Mustafá, who owned several companies in the region and is closely linked to Governor Rangel Gomez.
For Correo del Caroní, this is the biggest attack to the paper yet.
The original Correo del Caroní report names Mustafá as the owner of a rival newspaper (Primicia). Mustafá decided to sue Correo del Caroni and obtained a temporary gag order in July 2013. Two years later, he was acquitted and later released from prison (as three Ferrominera higher-ups were found guilty, including Sabbagh).
Natera will be also forced to pay a heavy fine of more than Bs.200 million. The sentence is suspended pending appeal. In the interim, Natera can’t leave the country and must show up in court every 30 days.
The ruling came just hours after the judge decided unilaterally to reopen the case. Natera’s lawyers indicate that Lira made several violations on the process and ignored all legal precedents on the case.
On paper, the libel case was supposed to simply prescribe after being inactive for more than 18 months, but that assumption was crushed with the swift decision last week. Correo del Caroni itself was punished too, as the paper can’t print anything involving the Mustafá corruption case in State mining company Ferrominera Orinoco.
According to Natera’s legal team, the judge admitted Mustafa’s interpretation that media outlets should hold any reporting on corruption until a court decides on the matter. That’s prior restraint – in Spanish “censura previa”, and is a form of censorship explicitly banned in the constitution.
Neither Natera or Correo del Caroni has shown any willingness to back down.
It’s not surprising that that the Venezuelan Judiciary wants to tell journalists how to do their job in the same way it tells the National Assembly how to legislate properly.
For Correo del Caroní, this is the biggest attack to its paper yet. For years, it has resisted multiple attempts to make them yield to the hegemony: from the State Legislature’s attepmt to take the terrain where Correo has its offices to the negative effects that Newsprint-geddon has brought to its circulation numbers.
But even in the face of huge adversities, Correo refuses to back away. As night editor Leonardo Suárez Montoya told CPJ’s John Otis last year: “if doctors don’t have enough medical supplies, they don’t stop treating their patients… We have to work even harder. People have the right to information and to be well-informed.”
The fact that David Natera himself has been targeted is also no surprise: the hegemony has gone after not just Correo del Caroní but also the regional TV station he owns, TVGuayana, through both legal and not-so-legal means.
But what does any of this have to do with Rangel Gomez and Tumeremo?
Well, some are questioning the strange timing of this ruling, from Correo’s alpha-columnist Damian Prat to MUD’s Secretary-General Jesus “Chuo” Torrealba. After all, Rangel Gomez’s earlier position on the miners’ dissapeareance is now under heavy questioning and the fact that both he and the individual behind this legal gag have a very extensive history doesn’t help him much. Word on the street in Guayana is that Rangel Gómez is behind the siege on Correo del Caroní, as this outlet has refused to change or soften its editorial line toward the government.
At least, Correo del Caroní is not alone. The National Assembly’s Media Commission is backing the paper. The case has also getting attention abroad, including a strong response from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. And obviously, the government doesn’t like it.