Venezuelan journalists went on alert today after rumors started circulating that 22 newspaper editors and media executives have been banned from leaving the country.
The unverified reports struck a nerve in a country where privately run media outlets are subject to constant harassment from the government, prompting some newspaper editors to appeal to the outside world for help.
“Justice doesn’t exist in Venezuela,” Miguel Otero, editor-in-chief of El Nacional told a Colombian news channel. “The justice system in Venezuela is an instrument that the presidency uses to criminalize dissidents.”
The news of the alleged travel prohibition broke in Spanish newspaper ABC, which reported that a Venezuelan judge has issued a travel ban against executives from independent media outlets El Nacional, La Patilla and TalCual, and ordered them to report to court once a week.
In April the same three media outlets republished an ABC story that allegedly linked Diosdado Cabello, the president of Venezuela’s congress, to drug cartels. Cabello is now suing the Venezuelan media outlets for defamation.
The Venezuelan government has not yet commented on the veracity of the travel ban, and the media directors say they haven't been notified that their passports were clipped. El Nacional's Otero said he hasn't received any citations banning him or other members of his newspaper from travelling abroad. Still, he said he wouldn't be surprised by the move.
“We know that Cabello has filed a lawsuit against us,” Otero told Colombian news channel NTN on Tuesday evening. “And they might be thinking of a travel ban because they think we are going to flee the justice system. But we will defend ourselves in court. I’ve been fighting lawsuits for the past 15 years and I’ve never left the country.”
La Patilla’s director Alberto Ravell also said he had not received any official word from the government, but added that he would not change his website's editorial policy.
There's a precedent for issuing travel bans against media directors.
Teodoro Petkoff, director of TalCual, and one of Venezuela’s most outspoken government critics, is already banned from leaving the country because of another defamation lawsuit filed by Cabello last year.
Petkoff recently received a prestigious journalism award in Spain, but was unable to collect it in person. The award was instead received on his behalf by former Spanish president Felipe Gonzalez, who spoke about attacks to freedom of expression in Venezuela.
Petkoff’s newspaper has also been slapped with several government fines and lawsuits that have crippled its finances. The newspaper now publishes only one print issue per week.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.