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Venezuelan court fines news website US$500,000 for 'moral damage' to politician

Pro-government politician Diosdado Cabello, center, gestures to supporters during a civic military parade in Caracas, Venezuela, 14 January 2017
Pro-government politician Diosdado Cabello, center, gestures to supporters during a civic military parade in Caracas, Venezuela, 14 January 2017

AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

This statement was originally published on on 2 June 2017.

A Venezuelan court's ruling ordering a news website to pay the equivalent of nearly half a million U.S. dollars in damages for republishing an article about a politician threatens press freedom, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

A Venezuelan court on May 31, 2017 fined the independent news website La Patilla the equivalent of U.S.$500,000 for republishing a 2015 story from a Spanish newspaper alleging that a top Venezuelan official had ties to drug trafficking, according to news reports. A civil court judge in Caracas declared that La Patilla had inflicted "moral damage" on Diosdado Cabello, a former vice president and a close ally of President Nicolás Maduro, according to news reports.

"The use of civil defamation laws to censor critics or impose damages designed to bankrupt a news outlet is an unacceptable abuse of the justice system," Carlos Lauría, CPJ's senior program coordinator for the Americas, said from New York. "We hope Venezuelan courts will reverse this disproportionate punishment on appeal."

The civil defamation suit stems from La Patilla's republication two years ago of a January 2015 story from the Madrid-based daily newspaper ABC that alleged Cabello was connected to a drug-trafficking ring. Cabello has denied the allegations and announced in April 2015 that he had filed a defamation lawsuit against La Patilla and two Venezuelan newspapers that republished the ABC report.

A month later, a Venezuelan judge barred 22 news executives from the three media outlets - including the newspapers El Nacional and Tal Cual - from leaving the country, pending the resolution of the case, CPJ documented at the time.

Responding to the May 31 court ruling, Cabello said on his TV program - "Con el Mazo Dando" ("Hammering away"), which broadcasts on the state broadcaster VTV - that night, "Now, I've got money!" He said he would use part of the settlement to pay his lawyers, and that the rest would be donated to poor children.

La Patilla was launched in 2010 by Alberto Ravell, a Venezuelan journalist who was also co-founded Venezuela's Globovisión TV station. La Patilla since became one of the country's most popular news websites, according to Alexa, which reports website traffic. Ravell and La Patilla have been fiercely critical of President Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, who ushered in Veneuzela's socialist revolution in 1999.

In an interview with Colombia's W Radio yesterday, Ravell said he had yet to receive the court's ruling, but that he planned to appeal.

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