CARACAS — 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 censure 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.