PARIS – Reporters Without Borders denounced the Venezuelan government for the recent arrests of prominent critics of leftist President Hugo Chavez, including the head of a television network.
“The arrests of two well-known opponents of President Hugo Chavez for statements made in public, together with the government’s recently declared intention of regulating the Internet, have raised serious concerns about the future of free speech in Venezuela,” the Paris-based group known as RSF said Friday in a statement.
“Given the government’s tendency to treat any criticism or verbal attack as an act of ‘conspiracy against the state’, one wonders whether Venezuelans are still allowed to say anything at all about their country and their president,” the organization said.
The president of opposition-aligned Globovision, Guillermo Zuloaga, was briefly arrested this week for remarks against Chavez and has been ordered not to leave Venezuela.
Zuloaga was detained Thursday morning at an airport in northwestern Venezuela as he was preparing to travel in his private plane to the Caribbean island of Bonaire.
Attorney General Luisa Ortega said an investigation had been launched against the TV executive for saying at a recent meeting of the Inter American Press Association in Aruba that Chavez was to blame for the shooting of protesters during an abortive 2002 coup against the president.
Zuloaga could be charged with insulting the president and “inciting collective panic by means of false information through the press.” The second charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
RSF noted that in Venezuela, the “charge of insulting the president – a monarchic heritage that has been abandoned or repealed in most democratic countries – results in an almost automatic conviction.”
Zuloaga’s brief detention and arraignment followed the jailing Monday of the former governor of the oil-rich Venezuelan state of Zulia, Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, pending trial for inciting crime, conspiracy and spreading false information.
The charges are based on a comment he made March 8 on a Globovision news show, where Alvarez said: “Venezuela has become a drug-trafficking hub.”
Former Gov. Alvarez could face up to 16 years in prison if convicted on all counts, RSF said Friday.
“The charges brought against Alvarez are doubly unfounded,” RSF maintained. “How on earth could his comment be regarded as ‘inciting crime’ or ‘conspiracy’? There are also absolutely no grounds for accusing Zuloaga of ‘inciting collective panic.’”
At the same time, RSF acknowledged Zuloaga’s support for the failed 2002 coup against Chavez and said that the media executive’s actions at the time “arguably could have constituted grounds for a conspiracy charge.” EFE