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.”

“That’s what dictatorships do: arrest and take people away, jail them and convict them for crimes of opinion,” Mr. Otero said. He said he thinks the government is acting now because Mr. Chavez has been losing popularity and “they’re nervous.”

Mr. Chavez remains the country’s most popular politician, but his support has dipped as the economy contracts and as Venezuelans cope with inflation, rampant crime and rolling blackouts in parts of the country. His popularity slipped below 50 percent in polls late last year, and has hovered between 40 percent and 50 percent in recent months, said pollster Luis Vicente Leon of the Caracas-based firm Datanalisis.

Carlos Correa, director of the rights group Espacio Publico, condemned Mr. Zuloaga’s arrest. “These types of actions against freedom of expression, and against the right that all Venezuelans have to listen to plurality, distinct visions, must be rejected,” he said.

Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza urged Venezuelan authorities to release Mr. Zuloaga. He added that if Mr. Zuloaga is tried, “it be done with respect for the presumption of innocence and with all the guarantees offered to him by the law.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the OAS, said Mr. Zuloaga’s detention shows “the lack of independence of the judicial branch and the use of the criminal justice system to punish critical statements.”

The U.S. government has raised similar concerns in the past, saying in a State Department human rights assessment this month that “harassment and intimidation of the political opposition and the media” have intensified in Venezuela in the past year.

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