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Truthdigger of the Week: Venezuelan Newspaper Editor Facing Prison for His Investigative Journalism

    David Natera Febres speaking in Venezuela in 2007 on freedom of the press. (David Adame / AP)

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

The Venezuelan government is putting editor David Natera Febres away for doing his job.

Natera Febres was accused of criminal defamation because of a series of articles published in his newspaper in 2013 “about an extortion ring involving an army colonel, several businessmen, and top officials at the government-owned Ferrominera Orinoco iron mining company,” reports the international advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The court has sentenced Natera Febres to four years in prison, and, according to a post by the CPJ, he also was fined:

Natera Febres, the president and editor of Correo del Caroní, based in the eastern industrial city of Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar state, has 10 days to appeal. He remains free pending appeal but was prohibited from leaving Venezuela and must appear before court officials every 30 days. In addition, Judge Beltran Lira fined him 201,249 bolívares (about US$20,100 at the official rate, or about US$201 at black market rates) and banned the newspaper from publishing stories about the plaintiff in the case, businessman Yamal Mustafá.

The CPJ describes the action as an attempt to suppress the work of journalists critical of the government of President Nicolás Maduro.

“The sentencing of David Natera Febres is a clear attack on press freedom that will have a chilling effect on independent, investigative reporting in Venezuela,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas in New York. “Under President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuelan authorities have used a variety of tactics to restrict the media, including filing defamation lawsuits, in an attempt to control the flow of information.”

The Caracas-based free speech group Espacio Público added that Correo de Caroní’s office and printing press could be confiscated due to civil penalties resulting from the case.

The Venezuelan legal system appears to be singling out Natera Febres. The extortion case was also investigated by the attorney general’s office and military intelligence. Many of the paper’s stories were allegedly based on government information, and Ferrominera’s president was fired and three company managers were sentenced to prison as a result of the investigation.

Journalists in Venezuela were disturbed by the silencing of one of the country’s few critical voices, and the only adversarial newspaper in the country’s east. “They [the government] are penalizing investigative journalism,” independent journalist Alba Perdomo told the CPJ.

CPJ research shows that authorities under Maduro have used defamation laws to hinder critical reporting.

Aside from the lawsuit, Correo del Caroní faces other threats to its existence. Most of its advertising has disappeared amid Venezuela’s economic crisis, and a shortage of the paper on which newspapers are printed (which publishers import from Canada and the United States) has forced the publication to cut its size from 32 pages to eight pages and reduce the frequency of its print publication from daily to weekly.

Over the past 15 years, the Venezuelan government has been cheered by many U.S. leftists for now-deceased President Hugo Chávez’s defiance of George W. Bush; Chávez survived a coup attempt by local groups that the Bush administration supported. Reports that Venezuela is silencing dissidents like Natera Febres are a disconcerting reminder that people and institutions that can appear heroic from one perspective can be harrowing from another.

For being willing to risk his freedom for the sake of his principles, we honor David Natera Febres as our Truthdigger of the Week.

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