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LATIN AMERICA

Prosecutors freeze bank accounts of Venezuelan newspaper publisher

"El Nacional" and "Sexto Poder" face measures that could lead to their closures

Venezuela’s top prosecutor has ordered the bank accounts of the publisher of El Nacional, one of the country’s leading dailies, to be frozen as part of a corruption investigation into alleged illegal activities.

It is the second time in recent weeks that prosecutors have ordered a newspaper editor’s bank accounts be frozen in what media and human rights organizations have called a crackdown on freedom of expression by the government of President Nicolás Maduro.

On Monday night, Otero said he had not received any notice from the public prosecutor’s office of any crime he is being charged with. Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz announced on Saturday on her official Twitter account that Otero’s bank accounts would be frozen. Later, her office issued a press release saying the action was related to a lawsuit filed by former Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña, who claims the El Nacional publisher owes him $3.5 million.

The prosecutor has also ordered that Otero be prohibited from conducting any financial transactions related to his properties or personal belongings.

In his lawsuit, Peña, who served as mayor from 2000 to 2004, alleges that he personally leant Otero the money in January 2003 when the newspaper was going through a difficult period because of a lack of advertising. Fedecamaras, the umbrella federation that groups all of Venezuela’s chambers of commerce, decided to join a strike by petroleum industry workers at the time, which greatly affected El Nacional’s advertising revenue. One out of three newspaper employees was laid off and the payout of Christmas bonuses to workers was postponed.

Otero, who claims he never got a loan from Peña, said that the actions taken by the Maduro government are designed to choke the free press in Venezuela.

The prosecutor’s office said that it wanted to know where Peña got so much money and why Otero allegedly asked for it.

In the release, the prosecutor’s office said that it wanted to know where Peña got so much money and why Otero allegedly asked for it.

A top manager at El Nacional told EL PAÍS that the money that Peña allegedly gave Otero was never used to help the newspaper’s operations. “It would have been a lot of help at the time,” the manager said.

A similar action was taken earlier this month when Leocenis García, the controversial editor of the media group, Sexto Poder (Sixth Power), was accused of tax evasion and other alleged financial crimes related to cash transfers and currency exchange petitions.

A court sided with the Venezuelan prosecutor’s office and ordered a “technical closing” of the Sexto Poder’s six media outlets. The most well-known of these are the weekly Sexto Poder, which has ignited controversy for its front page photomontages of government officials and prominent citizens. The most contentious of these editions was one where García presented the top six female officials in government – including the chief justice of the Supreme Court – dressed as cabaret dancers. A court pulled the publication off the streets for six days.

Until the lawsuit was filed at the end of December 2012, both Otero and Peña were considered to be close political allies and had strong friendship. Peña was the editor and a columnist at El Nacional for many years and was considered one of the nation’s leading investigative journalists in the 1990s.

Both Otero and Peña backed Hugo Chávez when he first ran for president in 1998. Later, Chávez nominated Peña for a spot in the Constituent Assembly that was organized shortly after he won the presidency, and the former editor abandoned journalism.

He later ran for mayor of Caracas, but after the 2002 coup attempt, in which Chávez was removed from power for 48 hours, Peña had a falling out with the government. Prosecutors later accused him of ordering the police to kill scores of Chávez supporters during the upheaval.

He went into exile after deciding not to run for re-election, and now lives in Miami where he is reportedly battling cancer. Two Venezuelan journalists who have seen him recently, report that the 69-year-old former journalist looks ill and has serious economic problems.

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