- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2010

CARACAS, Venezuela | Venezuela’s only remaining TV channel critical of President Hugo Chavez has become the government’s latest target in what its opponents fear is a widening crackdown to silence dissent.

Guillermo Zuloaga, owner of Globovision, was arrested last week on a warrant charging him with making remarks “offensive” to the president, Attorney General Luisa Ortega said. Mr. Zuloaga was later released, but the judge issued an order preventing him from leaving the country while prosecutors proceed with their investigation.

The arrest could be a decisive development in Mr. Chavez’s drive to rein in a channel that he has accused of trying to undermine his government. Globovision has been the only stridently anti-Chavez channel on the air since another opposition-aligned channel, RCTV, was forced off cable and satellite TV in January. RCTV was booted off the open airwaves in 2007.

Mr. Ortega said prosecutors are investigating Mr. Zuloaga for remarks he made during a recent Inter American Press Association meeting on the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba, where he joined other media executives in criticizing Mr. Chavez’s government for limiting free speech and cracking down on critics.

“A Venezuelan judge comes along and orders the detention of a criminal in Venezuela who owns a media outlet,” Mr. Chavez said during a visit to Ecuador. “And then they attack the government of Venezuela … for attacking press freedom, for attacking journalists and the news media — what cynicism. It’s the cynicism of the [U.S.] empire.”

Following his release, Mr. Zuloaga appeared at Globovision’s studios, where employees cheered and applauded. He called the accusations against him “ridiculous,” saying all citizens have the constitutional right to express their opinions regarding public figures such as presidents. He denied he was planning to flee the country, saying: “I’m staying here.”

Earlier, TV footage showed him being led through the airport, where he was arrested, while some people chanted “Freedom!” He later was escorted into a Caracas courthouse.

Arresting Mr. Zuloaga shows Mr. Chavez’s government is “acting like a totalitarian government, like Cuba,” said Alejandro Aguirre, president of the Inter American Press Association, which is based in Miami and has clashed with Mr. Chavez for years on free-speech issues.

Mr. Ortega’s office said in a statement that prosecutors are investigating Mr. Zuloaga for allegedly violating a law prohibiting Venezuelans from spreading “false information through any medium,” including newspapers, radio, television, e-mails or leaflets, “that cause public panic.”

Mr. Zuloaga, Globovision’s majority shareholder, could face a five-year prison sentence if convicted, the statement said.

He has previously been singled out by authorities. Last May, prosecutors began investigating him for a suspected “environmental crime” related to wild animals he had hunted and mounted in his Caracas home. The following month, prosecutors charged Mr. Zuloaga with usury, alleging unlawful markups at two Toyota dealerships that he jointly owns after authorities seized 24 vehicles being stored at a home he owns.

Mr. Zuloaga’s arrest also came three days after opposition politician Oswaldo Alvarez Paz was detained for remarks made on a Globovision talk show March 8.

Mr. Alvarez Paz has been charged with conspiracy, spreading false information and publicly inciting crime after remarking that Venezuela has turned into a haven for drug traffickers. He also said he backed allegations by a Spanish judge that Venezuela’s government has cooperated with the Basque separatist group ETA and Colombian rebels.

Mr. Chavez has dismissed those accusations as lies. Mr. Alvarez Paz stands by his words and denies breaking the law.

Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional, said Mr. Zuloaga’s arrest shows Mr. Chavez’s government is growing more authoritarian and starting to “look more like a traditional dictatorship.”

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