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Venezuelan anti-Maduro daily forced to close

December 14, 2018

The print edition of the Venezuelan anti-government daily El Nacional will appear for the last time Friday, shutting down due to a mixture of political pressure and a crippling economic crisis that left it unable to source newsprint.

The presses of the 75-year-old daily will fall silent after two decades of confrontation with the leftist governments of Hugo Chavez and his successor, President Nicolas Maduro, during which dozens of media outlets have been closed down.

“They have managed to silence radio and television and have made the independent print media disappear,” said Miguel Henrique Otero, the newspaper’s chairman who in editorials regularly slammed Maduro as a dictator.

The newspaper will continue its criticism of the socialist government via a website.

“It was impossible to continue financing the paper,” editor Argenis Martinez told AFP.

El Nacional has faced serious problems since 2013, when the government created a company that monopolized the import and sale of newsprint.

More than half the 134 newspapers then in circulation in Venezuela were forced to close, according to a press freedom group, Espacio Publico.

The National Union of Press Workers has slammed an “escalation” of attacks on the press as Maduro cracked down on opposition to his socialist government following deadly street protests last year.

In 2017, 52 radio stations and eight television channels — including the local CNN Spanish service — went off the air.

“It’s a great pain, but it’s a pain that we were preparing for,” the paper’s arts editor Hilda Lugo told AFP. “We held out longer than we thought we would be able to.”

The paper survived for a time on loans and donations of paper from other Latin American newspapers such as Argentina’s La Nacion, O Globo in Brazil and Chile’s El Mercurio.

But it could not escape Venezuela’s crippling economic crisis.

– Circulation drop –

The daily went from 72 pages to a 16-page edition, and cut publishing to five days a week in an effort to ease costs. Circulation dropped to 5,000 copies a day, down from 250,000 in 2014 for its weekend editions.

The final blow came in August, when Maduro hiked the minimum wage by 3,000 percent in a vain attempt to keep pace with hyperinflation.

Many newspapers were forced into mass layoffs. Like many of its competitors, El Nacional found itself unable to pay its staff.

In 2015 the paper was sued for defamation by Maduro’s number two, Diosdado Cabello, for having reprinted Spanish press reports linking him to drug trafficking.

Similar suits against ABC in Spain and The Wall Street Journal were thrown out by the courts, but the socialist leader won his case in Venezuela and the paper was forced to pay damages.

Martinez, as the editor, was further punished with a nearly four-year ban on leaving the country.

Cabello scathingly refers to the paper as “El Nazional” and Maduro has regularly castigated it and other newspapers as conspiring against his government and ignoring the achievements of Chavez.

Press groups have pointed to a rise in the number of attacks on journalists. The SNTP said it registered 113 attacks in the first six months of 2018.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.