By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – The State Prosecutors Office formally charged the head of the 24-hour news station Globovisión, which frequently points out Chavez government foibles, with “generic usury” in connection with the discovery of two dozen cars officials claim were being hoarded for speculative purposes.
Officials say they came across 24 vehicles during the raid on May 21 of a residence belonging to Globovisión President Guillermo Zuloaga in Los Chorros, a prosperous suburb of east Caracas.
The charge of “generic usury” was brought under a law that has only been on the statute book since April 24 this year, and shows just how far the Chavez government is willing to go in an effort to silence opponents, according to Zuloaga. “I didn’t know it existed,” he said.
Zuloaga took the prosecutors’ decision with avuncular aplomb. “The first thing I have to say is that they treated me with enormous amiability, respect and great deference, for which I’m enormously grateful to the prosecutors,” he told reporters outside the prosecutors’ premises around noon on Thursday.
He had not been informed of any other charges, such as environmental offences, about which there had been some speculation. “One of the prosecutors loves hunting and we were talking about that,” he said.
“Neither the doctora nor I see this as a case meriting judicial procedures,” he claimed, referring to the prosecutor with whom he’d met. In this, he may have revealed more than might suit Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz’ peace of mind.
Ortega Díaz issued a summons against Zuloaga after President Hugo Chávez recently proclaimed Zuloaga had to be arrested and put in prison for defamation. For Chavez, the gloves are off and anything remotely resembling a reasoned approach may carry the threat of inducing the presidential wrath.
In making his demand for action, Chávez had demanded to know whether Ortega Díaz knew how to do her job – and he did so in terms clearly implying that if she didn’t, he would make room for somebody else who did.
As Zuloaga made his appearance, Ortega Díaz said she was studying the possibility of unifying all the complaints made to prosecutors against “a media company” that was “generating anguish and uncertainty in the population” into one single case.
This was seen in some circles as potentially a step towards widening any prosecution into one of conspiring to sow disorder and disillusion among the people, a charge Chávez and his ilk frequently level against critics in the media and elsewhere.
Zuloaga is next scheduled to return to the State Prosecutors Office next week to make statements for the defense after his counsel, Perla Jaimes, has reviewed documents setting out the prosecution case. The time and date of this second appearance had yet to be set, reports said.
Zuloaga insisted that he had no intention of leaving the country. “I believe in Venezuela and I love Venezuela and I’m going to stay here,” he declared.
“We’ve got nothing to fear because the vehicles had already been sold,” he said. “I think this is something aimed at trying to frighten Globovisión, which is never going to happen.” Trying to shut up or close down the media was no way to confront the reality of what was happening, he warned.
This was a markedly more relaxed Zuloaga than last week, when he vowed to sue officials involved in the raid ordered by Commerce Minister Eduardo Salám. Then, Zuloaga had spoken of paid officials using time and space on the media to insult him and make false accusations.
While Zuloaga adopted a laid-back approach, feeling was notably more aroused elsewhere. Staff from Globovisión had accompanied Zuloaga to the State Prosecutors Office to show their support for him. They cheered as he came out of the building and shouted their opposition to any move by the government close down the channel.
Meanwhile, the Caracas Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Services issued an inordinately long nine-point statement denouncing what it called the “criminalization” of the rights to private property and freedom of expression. The Bolivarian Constitution adopted during Chávez’ first year in power in 1999 was “clear and precise in the recognition of human rights and citizens’ rights, the statement added.
In its statement, the chamber underlined the “importance of recovering rights and guarantees.” It was “essential for the health, peace and progress of the country” that nobody felt persecuted, pushed aside or harassed – and all the more so when people responsible for “terrible crimes” were at liberty, protected by impunity and the “automatic solidarity” of those on the same side as them.
The government frequently takes issue with the media’s coverage of Venezuela’s at times astonishingly violent, high crime rate. Officials accuse reporters and editors of over-egging the omelette, even though at times they’d be hard pressed to do so.
In Paris, an international committee including the Inter-American Press Institute – which has crossed swords more than once with the Chavez regime in the past – and other organizations concerned with press freedoms took up the writing cudgels on behalf of the media in Venezuela.
In another lengthy statement, the committee complained that Chávez and members of his government had raised their “verbal violence and systematic threats against journalists and media proprietors that take an independent editorial line.” It also noted that the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) had launched another “administrative procedure” against Globovisión which could lead to “temporary or permanent closur
e” of the station.