Venezuelan authorities on Friday seized the headquarters of a newspaper critical of President Nicolas Maduro's government, to cover $13 million in compensation that a court had ordered it to pay a top official in a defamation case.
"At this very moment, a judge surrounded by national guards entered the building of El Nacional to seize everything," tweeted newspaper president-director Miguel Henrique Otero.
In April, Venezuela's Supreme Court of Justice ordered the daily to pay $13.4 million for causing "serious moral damage" to Diosdado Cabello, the second most powerful person in Venezuela after Maduro.
"The process of paying the compensation has begun," Cabello said on Twitter.
In 2015, Cabello, second in command of the governing Socialist Party, took the newspaper to court for reproducing a report by Spanish newspaper ABC that accused him of links to drug trafficking.
Cabello, who was sanctioned by the United States in 2018, denies any links to drug trafficking.
Jorge Makriniotis, the newspaper's manager, called the office seizure "a new attack on democracy, freedom of expression, private property".
"With this measure they will not break our critical editorial stance on the government," Makriniotis wrote on Twitter.
Press freedom curtailed
El Nacional had asked the Supreme Court to explain how it came to the astronomical figure of $13 million, given a previous decision reached in 2018 ordered the newspaper to pay one billion bolivars, worth around $600 on the black market at that time.
The emblematic newspaper was founded in 1943 by Venezuelan writer Miguel Otero Silva, but ceased its print version in 2018 due to a lack of funds and paper that is tightly controlled by the state, which limits it to friendly media.
It has spent two decades clashing with the Chavism movement of the late former president Hugo Chavez and his successor Maduro, who accuses the newspaper of conspiring with the opposition to overthrow him.
Having once employed 1,100 people and produced various sections including a magazine, El Nacional is now limited to 100 employees working on an online edition.
More than 100 media outlets have shut down since Maduro came to power, according to the NGO Espacio Publico.
Venezuela is ranked 148 out of 180 countries on Reporters without Borders' 2021 Press Freedom Index.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)