Diosdado Cabello, a senior government official, has filed a defamation lawsuit against the newspaper El Nacional. (REUTERS/Marco Bello)

By running stories of official brutality and corruption, this nation’s largest independent newspaper — El Nacional — threatened Venezuela’s mighty and defended its meek. Now the paper has found itself covering perhaps its most crucial story.

Its own fight to stay alive.

A judicial case against the 75-year-old outlet — lodged by one of President Nicolás Maduro’s top lieutenants — coupled with the blocking of its website is threatening the paper’s future. At a time when traditional media is under fire from autocrats around the globe, the intensifying effort against El Nacional illustrates how some governments are going to new lengths to silence dissent.

In Venezuela, the pressure against the paper, experts say, is a sign that the government is ready to effectively shutter what is left of the free press.

“If El Nacional is closed, it would have a grave impact in Venezuelan media,” said Carlos Correa, a university professor and the executive director of Public Space, a Caracas-based nonprofit that tracks press freedoms. “It would signal an escalation of censorship and would definitely have a chilling effect on other outlets fearful to go through the same fate.” 

Since the rise of leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez, who became president in 1999 and ruled until his death in 2013, press freedoms in Venezuela have been under threat. The state TV channel started airing hours-long presidential speeches and news propaganda. In 2004, Chávez passed a law allowing the official censure of outlets by a state watchdog, CONATEL. A host of television station and newspaper owners were pressured to sell to friends of the government or close their doors.

In contrast to Communist Cuba, a handful of independent media outlets in Venezuela managed to survive the tilt toward authoritarianism. Yet pressures against the press have redoubled under  Maduro — Chávez’s successor — who critics say staged a fraudulent election this year to secure another six-year term.

As he has arrested dissenters and quashed the political opposition, Maduro and his government have also moved to silence the free press, shutting down 54 radio and television stations over the past 18 months. Since 2015, government officials have filed lawsuits in the pro-Maduro courts against the owners of at least 25 outlets on charges of libel, defamation and incitement. 

This year, five news websites have been blocked and thus removed from the Internet, and six newspapers have stopped circulating, joining 26 that have done so since 2013, when the government took control over printing-paper distribution and began selectively squeezing supply.

El Nacional has remained unbowed, running allegations of electoral fraud, images of protests, and reports on crumbling hospitals and malnutrition, the products of a severe economic crisis. But an old case against El Nacional has now resurfaced, leaving the newspaper at risk of falling into government hands.

In 2015, El Nacional’s editors republished a piece from the Spanish newspaper ABC about a U.S. investigation into the narco-trafficking links of Diosdado Cabello, a senior member of Maduro’s government. The response was swift. Cabello, who has denied the accusations, filed a defamation lawsuit against El Nacional and its owner, Miguel Henrique Otero.

Fearing imprisonment, Otero — whose grandfather founded the newspaper — fled to Madrid, where he has been living in self-imposed exile. The paper went years with no word on the lawsuit’s status. But on June 3, a pro-government legislator made an announcement in a televised interview. A ruling had been issued, he said, that ordered El Nacional to pay 1 billion bolívares in damages — or $10,400 at the official exchange rate. If it didn’t, the lawmaker said, Cabello could “take control” of El Nacional.

Otero said his lawyers subsequently discovered a ruling had been issued and confirmed the amount of the fine. In the event of non-payment, the ruling said, the paper could be seized and sold at auction.

He was not surprised. In May, CONATEL had opened a case against El Nacional’s website for allegedly violating media laws by spreading messages that “disregard authorities” and “incite hate.” The government insisted the website abstain from publishing information that could “alter public order.” 

The official attacks have put the paper in the uncomfortable position of covering itself: “The case against El Nacional is political retaliation,” read one recent headline.

“This is more subtle than in traditional dictatorships, but the government is still asphyxiating outlets,” Otero said.

In 2015, Cabello also filed a suit against the Wall Street Journal in the United States for reporting his alleged links to the drug trafficker. The case was dismissed. Since then, the United States has placed sanctions on him for links to drug trafficking.

Venezuela’s Ministry of Communications did not respond to requests for comment. But on the country’s national journalists’ day last week, Maduro praised Venezuela’s “free press.”

“We are a country of free men and women and are never willing to fool anyone,” he said in a televised event.

Like many newspapers around the globe, El Nacional has faced its share of financial setbacks. Its circulation — 120,000 a day in 2013 — has shrunk to 20,000. Its 340 employees are a quarter of what it had ten years ago.

 The paper has focused its efforts on a growing and successful website, which had been garnering 15 million unique monthly visitors. This month, however, it became the target of an unsuccessful effort to block its URL, a move that experts say signals the government may be finding sophisticated ways to increase web censorship.

 A number of digital sites have flourished here in recent years, making news more accessible in Venezuela than in countries with restricted Internet such as Cuba. But following Maduro’s consolidation of power in the May election, rebel media sites that ran stories critical of the government, including La Patilla and El Pitazo, are finding themselves blocked.

 “They’re clearly doing something they didn’t dare do before,” said David Moran, editor of La Patilla, of Maduro’s government. “It’s evidence that attacks to the press are escalating.”

Inside El Nacional’s newsroom in Caracas, there are dozens of empty desks. The remaining reporters are aware of the dangers they face. One of El Nacional’s video reporters, Abraham Tovar, said he was thrown to the floor and hit with glass bottles by pro-government thugs while covering a protest last year. Though none of El Nacional’s reporters have been arrested, 22 journalists have been detained by the government without justification this year, according to Public Space. 

In 2013, Otero said, pro-Maduro buyers approached him with an offer to buy the paper. “They admitted they were emissaries of high-ranking government officials and told me the government was willing to pay for the company,” he said.

Otero refused to sell and is now seeking to fend off an auction of the paper by appealing in court. 

“It’s not a matter of money,” Otero said. “It’s a matter of principle. Our plan? Not much. To survive.”