The owner of Venezuela's only remaining TV channel that takes a critical line against President Hugo Chavez was arrested Thursday, raising concerns the government is pursuing a widening crackdown to silence opponents.
Guillermo Zuloaga, owner of Globovision, was arrested on a warrant for remarks that were deemed "offensive" to the president, Attorney General Luisa Ortega said.
Zuloaga said military intelligence agents detained him at an airport in the northwestern state of Falcon as he was preparing to fly on his private plane with his wife to the Caribbean island of Bonaire, where they planned to vacation.
The arrest could be a decisive development in 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.
Ortega said prosecutors are investigating 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 Chavez's government for limiting free speech and cracking down on critics.
Pro-Chavez lawmaker Manuel Villalba urged prosecutors on Wednesday to investigate Zuloaga for allegedly saying that Venezuela's government is cracking down on its critics and purportedly commenting that it was a shame a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez failed.
"He must assume his responsibility," Villalba told state-run Radio Nacional.
Zuloaga called his arrest an outrage, but did not address the accusations against him. Television footage showed him being led through the airport while some people chanted "Freedom!" He later was escorted into a Caracas courthouse.
Arresting Zuloaga shows 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 Chavez for years on free-speech issues.
The Attorney General's Office said in a statement that prosecutors are investigating 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."
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 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.
Thursday's arrest came as pro-Chavez lawmaker Cilia Flores, president of the National Assembly, announced that opposition politician Wilmer Azuaje had been detained for an unspecified crime. Azuaje, a former Chavez ally, has alleged corruption by members of Chavez's family in their home state of Barinas — accusations the family has denied.
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.
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.
Chavez has dismissed those accusations as lies. Alvarez Paz stands by his words and denies breaking the law.
Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional, said Zuloaga's arrest shows 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," Otero said. He said he thinks the government is acting now because Chavez has been losing popularity and "they're nervous."
"They want to create so much fear hanging over people that it silences opponents," he said.
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.
Chavez's 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
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.
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization
of American States, expressed concern saying Zuloaga's detention shows
"the lack of independence of the judicial branch and the use of the
criminal justice system to punish critical statements."
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.