CARACAS, Venezuela – The head of Venezuela's congress says he is asking courts to bar news executives from leaving the country while he's suing them for alleged defamation.
Those targeted include the head of El Nacional, the largest Venezuelan newspaper still consistently publishing articles critical of the government.
National Assembly chief Diosdado Cabello said Wednesday he had followed through with his threat to sue the executives and their outlets for carrying reports in January from the Spanish newspaper ABC linking him to the drug trade. The reports said his bodyguard had defected to the U.S. to testify that Cabello heads a drug ring made up of politicians and high-level military officers.
Cabello, who is the second most powerful figure in Venezuela's ruling socialist party after President Nicolas Maduro, said he is pursuing both civil and criminal complaints, and is asking a court to take the executives' passports and freeze their assets.
He mocked the journalists on his national television show Wednesday for expressing dismay at the charges.
"None of them have even said sorry. And now I'm the bad guy, who they accused of being a drug trafficker without any proof?" he said. "Who is going to defend my human rights?"
Cabello has confirmed that his one-time bodyguard, Leamsy Salazar, defected to the U.S. last winter and may be cooperating in a prosecution that would name him as the head of a drug ring. But he denies any ties to trafficking.
He announced in April that he would sue El Nacional, the Venezuelan weekly Tal Cual and the popular online news site La Patilla, as well as ABC. Now he is also going after their directors.
Critics of Venezuela's government have said the lawsuit is part of a broad strategy of censorship and suppression of free expression.
Many combative media outlets have vanished here in recent years, some of them shut down directly by the government, some acquired by new owners friendly to the administration and others simply driven out of the business by newsprint shortages and other economic difficulties.
Otero said Thursday that he worries El Nacional could also become financially unsustainable. He said he intends to return from Miami to face charges, though he doubts he will get a fair hearing.
On Wednesday, La Patilla editor Alberto Federico Ravell said he would return from Colombia to deal with the suit.
"What's at stake is freedom of expression, democracy and the electoral process," he said.
Tal Cual founder Teodoro Petkoff is already in Venezuela. Cabello named a total of 22 people in his suit, according to Ravell and Otero, but the identities of the other defendants have not been made public.
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