CARACAS, Venezuela -- Globovision TV, a frequent critic of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, bowed to government pressure and said Friday that it will pay a contested $2.1-million fine the day after the penalty was upheld by the Supreme Court and a government official threatened to close down the station.
Calling the fine “unjust and disproportionate,” Globovision Executive Vice President Carlos Zuloaga said the broadcaster’s board of directors decided to pay under protest. The fine was levied last year for what the government described as biased coverage of prison riots that “encouraged illegality.”
Still uncertain was whether the station will have to pay late penalties and interest that could amount to about triple the original fine.
Press freedom advocates have criticized the Chavez government for the fine, saying it’s the latest example of attempts to squelch dissent. In 2007, the government denied the renewal of the broadcast license of another opposition channel, RCTV, provoking widespread student protests that later that year contributed to the defeat of a referendum, Chavez's only electoral loss since he took office in early 1999.
Communication and Information Minister Andres Izarra told reporters Thursday at an event tied to next week’s official kickoff of the presidential election campaign that the Globovision case showed the rule of law prevailed in Venezuela.
"The regulator imposed a fine for law violations, the channel appealed and then the case reached the highest levels of the Supreme Court, which took an independent decision,” Izarra said. “The executive branch had nothing to do with it,” he said, adding that failure to pay the fine would force Globovision's closure.
Chavez, who faces former Gov. Henrique Capriles of Miranda state in the presidential election Oct. 7, has threatened to revoke Globovision’s broadcast license on numerous occasions but has not followed through.
Globovision President Guillermo Zuloaga, whose residence has been raided by police on two occasions, is facing two criminal charges, including one for allegedly spreading false information during a speech before the Interamerican Press Assn. in 2010. Facing an arrest warrant, Zuloaga has fled the country and is living in Miami.
Other members of Globovision’s board, including María Fernanda Flores and Nelson Mezerhane, are also facing criminal charges, which they have said constitute government intimidation. Globovision offices and studios have been attacked more than 10 times, including with grenades and small-arms fire, injuring workers. Station employees say there have been 250 cases of police harassment.
--Mery Mogollon in Caracas and Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia
Photo: Globovision TV channel Vice President Carlos Zuloaga, center, is seen Friday outside the Supreme Court in Caracas. Credit: Juan Barreto / AFP/Getty Images