Telecomunicaciones y tecnología

Venezuela parliament leader squeezes media bosses over drugs story

By Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's powerful parliament head Diosdado Cabello has sought a travel ban on some media bosses he is suing for slander over reproducing a story from a Spanish newspaper accusing him of running a drug ring.

Local media said the court hearing the case had granted the request against 22 media figures.

Cabello sued opposition-leaning newspapers El Nacional and Tal Cual and website La Patilla for picking up an article by Spanish newspaper ABC alleging his former security chief had fled to the United Sates with evidence the Socialist Party's No. 2 controlled a military-run drug cartel.

Opposition leaders and U.S. officials have for years made accusations of money-laundering and drug-trafficking against the governments of President Nicolas Maduro and predecessor Hugo Chavez.

Officials call them unfounded smears that are part of a wider, U.S.-led campaign to end 16 years of socialism in the OPEC nation.

"They accused me of being a drug trafficker without any proof," said Cabello, a former soldier, on his late-night Wednesday television show. "I've requested, as a victim ... that they be prohibited from leaving the country."

A Venezuelan judge earlier this month imposed the travel bans as a cautionary measure, according to journalists, a lawyer and the national press workers' union.

Judicial officials could not be reached for comment.

Miguel Otero, El Nacional's editor, said he and his peers had also been ordered to report to court weekly.

"This is part of a government strategy to silence independent journalism," added Otero in an interview from Miami, saying he left Venezuela three weeks ago but would return in days. "I'm not running away."

Venezuela's media arena was once virulently anti-government, and even contributed to stirring up a brief coup against Chavez in 2002.

Under Maduro, however, three of the best-known media groups have gained new owners, bringing with them an overhaul of coverage and a softer stance towards the authorities.

Critics say the state is intimidating journalists to reduce coverage of Venezuela's economic crisis, violence and corruption, while Maduro frequently accuses foreign media and pro-opposition outlets of bias against him.

El Nacional is one of the most critical outlets still in mass circulation, and as such is being targeted, Otero said.

"We never accused him (Cabello) of being a drug trafficker; what we did is repeat a story. He's an important personality in the country, and that was big news for Venezuelans," he said.

(Editing by Ted Botha)