By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – The government stepped up its campaign of action against Globovisión, the 24 hour private sector new channel noted for its criticism and skepticism of President Hugo Chávez's government in Venezuela.
The tax collection agency, Seniat ,sent the station a demand for BsF5.73 million (US$2.67 million) including interest, claiming that Globovisión was in arrears on payments due on advertising during the two-month national strike against Chávez around the turn of 2002-03.
The demand from Seniat followed only hours after the National Guard staged a second raid late Thursday night on a residential property belonging to Globovisión President Guillermo Zuloaga in Los Chorros, an upmarket suburb in east Caracas.
Seniat was said to have claimed that Globovisión had not declared revenues on advertisements it had broadcast during the strike half a dozen years ago. Ana Cristina Núñez, a lawyer representing Zuloaga, said publicity agencies had supported the strike by “lending” their television slots to non-government organizations so that they could transmit “institutional messages.”
Globovisión would lodge an appeal against the tax demand, she said. Ahead of her statement, there had been talk, much of it showing signs of having been inspired in government circles, that Globovisión was about to ask the people to contribute so that it could pay the fine.
Nuñez denied this. “Globovisión doesn’t want to do any damage to this population that’s affected by the economic situation the country’s going through,” she declared. “Globovisión is going to face this penalty.”
Globovisión Director General Alberto Federico Ravell condemned the Seniat’s demand as “judicial and governmental terrorism” against the channel. Much the same applied to a ruling by the Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ), which upheld a fine against Globovisión of BsF600,000 (US$279,000) on Thursday, he said.
As to the raid on Zuloaga’s property, this hadn’t been carried out during the day but at dark of night, Ravell said. Instead of taking care of the citizenry, the National Guard had busied itself “taking away desiccated animals.”
Warning that the Seniat could take similar action against other channels, Ravell claimed that Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz had “received instructions” that he was to be the next target of attack for having supposedly used the media to “destabilize the government and drive the Venezuelans mad.”
The aim of the second raid on Zuloaga’s property remained unclear. Unconfirmed reports said that Zuloaga – who was formally charged on Thursday with “generic usury” in connection with the discovery of supposedly 2 dozen hoarded cars from his dealership on his property in the first raid on May 21 – was now suspected also of having organized hunting expeditions on national territory.
Prosecutors specializing in environmental issues are said to have taken part in the raid, and armoured cars and trucks were seen in the vicinity of the residence. The aim of the raid was said to have been to search for wildlife in the grounds of the property, according to a report on the Globovisión website.
According to Zuloaga’s lawyer, Perla Jaimes, officials took away several hunting trophies, intending to establish whether these were of national or foreign origin, and whether they belonged to any protected species. If it turned out that the animals had not been hunted in Venezuela, then no law of the country had been broken, said Jaimes, who had been allowed into the property as the raid continued.
In line with the notably laid-back attitude adopted by Zuloaga when he had been charged the day before, Jaimes said she would leave it up to the prosecutors to “determine procedure.”
But Núñez was rather more outspoken. She told reporters that the measures taken against Globovisión and its chief were not coincidences, and nobody could be in doubt about that.
Núñez also cast doubt on the legality of the raid, describing it as just another way of frightening people by using the armed forces in what she claimed had been a “peaceful situation.” The raid had begun without the presence of either the proprietors of the property or their legal counsel, she claimed.
Globovisión Vice President Carlos Zuloaga echoed this complaint. He also claimed that while the media had not been allowed on to the property, a crew from state channel VTV had been seen at the door of the residence.
Zuloaga said that if the intention of all this was to get Globovisión to change its editorial line, it wouldn’t work. If that was what “they” wanted, Zuloaga added, “they” would have to close down the channel.
Predictably, the raid and Seniat’s move dominated the news agenda Friday, and not in the least bit surprisingly, the Globovisión website.
National Assembly Deputy Julio García Jarpa, a hitherto low-profile legislator who sits on the environment committee at the legislature and has come to the fore during the storm around Globovisión, said Thursday’s raid had been strictly within the law.
García Jarpa claimed that hunting trophies of “several animals in danger of extinction on the planet” had been found on the walls of the residence. These, he asserted, had apparently been “hunted in a clandestine manner” outside the country.
This appeared to contradict Jaimes’ argument that if the animals in question had been hunted abroad, then no law in Venezuelan had been broken. García Jarpa argued that the Globovisión chief would have to “demonstrate that the animals had been duly registered and authorized by the scientific community in the country of origin.”
García Jarpa said that he and his colleagues were awaiting information from the Attorney General’s Office in order to “activate the mechanisms of investigation, and we’re going to classify these species to determine if there’s a crime.” If that were the case, he continued, the result could be fines or, if it were necessary, prison.
Regarding the demand from Seniat, Aristóbulo Istúriz, a former education and sports minister who is now one of several vice presidents of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), said that if anybody didn’t agree with a penalty they could always ask for a “review” of that decision. “These senores have the right to a defense” and Venezuela was on the way to going from “the impunity to the conquest of justice,” he said.
Public Defender Gabriela Ramírez called a press conference to declare that freedom of expression was “fundamental” but that human rights enshrined in the San José Pact did not extend to inciting hatred and discrimination.”
Ramírez’ remarks were seen as a response by the government to a statement on Thursday by a committee of organizations committed to freedom of speech. The statement had voiced concern about the media situation in Venezuela, and the Globovisión case in particular.
Fanny Marquéz, a senior official at Seniat, denied that the demand sent to Globovisión was of a “political character”. Speaking on state television, she insisted the Seniat had informed Globovisión that the time for “hiding information” had lapsed.
The channel had broadcast “political propaganda” without declaring that to Seniat, Marquéz claimed, and for that it had to pay the penalty. The state channels Televen and Venevisión had paid the taxes due from them during the period in question, and the only stations that hadn’t were Globovisión and Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), she claimed.
RCTV went off the air when Chávez refused to renew its broadcasting licence two years ago. At the time, it was argued that the licence still had several years to run.