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Venezuela parliament leader squeezes media bosses over drugs story

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.

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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 the OPEC nation’s 16 years of socialism.

“They accused me of being a drug trafficker without any proof,” said Cabello, a former soldier, on his Wednesday night television show. “I’ve requested, as a victim ... that they be prohibited from leaving the country,” he added, saying he was also seeking to prohibit them from selling assets.

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 toward the authorities.

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

“Through the use of state institutions and the manipulation of justice, the national government has inflicted a new blow to Venezuela’s already diminished press freedom,” the national press workers’ union said in a statement.

Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Ted Botha