Venezuelan TV boss flees 'regime of terror'
The Guardian, Rory Carroll
Guillermo Zuloaga, the majority shareholder and CEO of Globovisión, said he was the victim of political persecution and that Venezuela no longer enjoyed democracy or the rule of law.
"The government tries to maintain an external democratic facade, but every day it is more difficult," he told the Guardian in an email interview from an undisclosed location. "In Venezuela, we are living under a regime of terror."
Zuloaga, 67, went into hiding on Friday after the authorities issued an arrest warrant for him and one of his sons, also named Guillermo, over charges of usury and conspiracy in relation to a car dealership they own.
The TV boss said it was a trumped-up charge and that he was going to be jailed in La Planta, a riot-scarred prison in the capital, Caracas.
"It was the president who directly ordered my detention on radio and TV," he said. "I don't think there could have been clearer evidence of the lack of judicial independence and the impossibility of a fair trial."
Earlier this week, Chávez denied any involvement and said the courts were merely doing their job. Last week, however, he complained that Zuloaga was free despite making inflammatory comments about him, after which the attorney general reactivated a 2009 case which accused the Globovisión CEO of "illegally storing" 24 new Toyota vehicles to manipulate prices.
Human rights watchdogs said the arrest warrant appeared to be politically motivated.
"No government in the world has the right to silence critics or those who oppose the state with criminal proceedings," Frank La Rue, the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of expression, said.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a pan-regional group, warned that media harassment was growing in the run-up to September's legislative election.
The fate of Globovisión hangs in the balance. Nelson Mezerhane, a minority shareholder, has been in Florida since a state takeover of his troubled bank on Monday. In a speech yesterday, Chávez said his government was looking to seize Mezerhane's assets, including his stake in the channel.
"If they do not return, the owners of the bank, well, my friend ... I take it," he said, using a colloquial Spanish expression related to playing cards.
Another minority shareholder and former station director, Alberto Ravell, left under murky circumstances in February.
Staff at the channel wondered this week whether they would be paid this month.
Government supporters said the channel's blue logo would soon turn red in honour of Chávez's socialist revolution.
The cable news channel reaches few homes outside Caracas, but government critics value it for covering opposition marches and lambasting the revolution, most recently over food found rotting in more than 2,300 shipping containers.
In 2002, Globovisión was one of four private networks to support a US-backed coup against Chávez – part of a media onslaught against the leftwing leader's effort to transform the South American oil producer. He said the networks were the mouthpieces of oligarchs.
Since then, one of the networks has been pushed off the airwaves and two have neutered their coverage, leaving Globovisión as the last opposition TV voice amid proliferating state channels lauding the president.
Zuloaga said foreign Chávez supporters, such as the academic Noam Chomsky and the actor Sean Penn, should "better inform" themselves about abuses of executive power.
"They are being extremely irresponsible and unjust to the Venezuelan people," he said.
The TV boss has joined other opposition leaders who have fled – mainly to Colombia, Peru and the US – after being accused of crimes. Others have been jailed in Venezuela.
In a recent BBC interview, Chávez, who has won successive elections, ridiculed the notion of a political crackdown and said courts were punishing corruption.
Venezuela enjoyed full freedom of expression, including the freedom to insult the president, he said. Newspaper cartoons regularly lampoon him as an authoritarian jackboot.
However, media watchdogs said the climate for journalists was deteriorating. Last week, a court sentenced Francisco Pérez, a columnist for El Carabobeño newspaper, to three years and nine months in jail for accusing a "chavista" mayor of nepotism.
"It is a brutal, unacceptable judgment with very few international precedents," the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists said.
Two journalists from another paper, La Mañana, are under investigation for their coverage of the rotting food scandal.
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