Venezuelan paper ordered to pay $13 million to official in defamation case

·2-min read
Venezuela's National Constituent Assembly President Diosdado Cabello holds a news conference in Caracas

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's supreme court has awarded $13 million to top socialist party official Diosdado Cabello in a defamation case against a newspaper, but the paper's lawyer said on Saturday the outlet could not afford to pay.

Cabello, the second-highest ranking official in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) after President Nicolas Maduro, sued the El Nacional newspaper in 2015 after it reprinted a Spanish newspaper article asserting U.S. officials were investigating Cabello for alleged ties to drug trafficking.

Venezuela's Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) on Friday ruled that El Nacional must pay damages to Cabello worth 237,000 petros, a digital currency launched by Maduro in 2018 tied to the price of oil. The petro's current value is $56, according to Venezuela's central bank.

Juan Garanton, an attorney for El Nacional, said in a telephone interview on Saturday that the paper would ask the court to clarify how it arrived at that figure, a first step toward potentially asking the court to lower the amount.

"It is an astronomical amount," Garanton said.

Cabello denies any links to drug trafficking.

Neither the PSUV, the court nor Venezuela's information ministry responded to requests for comment.

El Nacional is part-owned by prominent Madrid-based Venezuelan journalist Miguel Henrique Otero and other relatives of his late father, Miguel Otero Silva, one of Venezuela's most celebrated writers.

Opponents of Maduro's government accuse it of using the justice system to silence its critics, including in the media. The Caracas chapter of Venezuela's National College of Journalists on Saturday called the ruling "a further step toward the liquidation of freedom of expression in Venezuela."

Government officials frequently accuse independent media outlets of publishing false information as part of a campaign backed by the opposition and the United States to destabilize the government.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)