CARACAS (Reuters) - Police briefly detained the head of Venezuela’s main pro-opposition TV station at an airport on Thursday for his criticism of President Hugo Chavez’s government during an international media forum.
The move against Guillermo Zuloaga, president of Globovision network, followed the arrest of an opposition politician earlier this week and is likely to fuel accusations that the Chavez government is increasingly stifling dissent.
Venezuela’s socialist leader says he will not tolerate illegal incitement in the media or on the Internet, and accuses opponents of an increasingly desperate campaign against him in the run-up to a legislative election in September.
Zuloaga was picked up at Punto Fijo in western Venezuela where he said he was about to fly in his private jet to the Caribbean island of Bonaire.
Police flew him instead to Caracas, where he was freed after questioning and slapped with a prohibition on traveling during a probe into his remarks. “I was not fleeing the country,” he told reporters after his release.
Zuloaga, whose network has a history of disputes with Chavez, told a recent Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) meeting in Aruba that Chavez was restricting civil rights.
“You cannot talk about freedom of expression in a country when the government uses force to close media,” he said, according to a version of his comments carried by state media.
“President Chavez won elections and has legitimacy in his origins, but he has focused on being the president of one group of Venezuelans and trying to divide citizens.”
The National Assembly, which is dominated by Chavez supporters, had called this week for Zuloaga to be investigated for making “false and serious” accusations against Chavez that the lawmakers said had damaged the government’s reputation.
Attorney-General Luisa Ortega Diaz said he was being investigated for possible offenses of giving false information and offending the president.
The first charge carries a jail term of between three and five years. The second has a sentence of between three and fifteen months.
“In Venezuela, nobody is pursued unless they have committed a crime,” Ortega told local media.
Last year, Zuloaga’s home was searched and cars stored there were confiscated when authorities accused him of price speculation. He was also accused of breaking wildlife laws by having illegal stuffed animals. Those cases were later dropped.
Zuloaga’s TV station takes an aggressive, anti-government stance in its news-heavy programming. But it struggles for ratings among Venezuelans who tend to prefer the frothy soaps and lifestyle shows that crowd the airwaves.
The move against Zuloaga came three days after the jailing of a former state governor and presidential candidate, Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, who had accused the government of links to subversive groups in a Globovision interview.
The opposition politician’s detention on charges of conspiracy, spreading false information and inciting hate brought a torrent of protests, including from Venezuela’s opposition parties and Washington.
Alvarez and Zuloaga join a list of several dozen Chavez opponents now in jail, living in exile or facing probes in the South American oil-exporting country.
While foes say Chavez is turning Venezuela into a socialist dictatorship, supporters argue their president is a victim of propaganda and a U.S.-led campaign of vilification.
For them, he is taking on Venezuela’s traditional elite and reversing decades of exploitation in the OPEC member nation through policies for the poor, like free clinics and schools.
Chavez’s traditionally high popularity has suffered this year, as Venezuelans endure a recession and the impact of a severe electricity crisis. But while the opposition senses an opportunity to hurt him at the vote in September, most analysts expect Chavez to retain his majority.
Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis, Andrew Cawthorne and Patricia Rondon in Caracas; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Paul Simao