Mérida, March 26th 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – On Thursday, Venezuelan authorities temporarily detained Guillermo Zuloaga, the president of a prominent opposition-aligned television station Globovision, for disseminating false information about the two-day coup d’état against democratically elected President Hugo Chavez in April 2002.
Zuloaga, a rich media magnate who was arrested last year for hoarding automobiles, was detained minutes before boarding a private plane to the Caribbean island of Bonaire on Thursday. Following a hearing, Zuloaga was released from custody but prohibited from leaving the country until investigations are completed.
The charges stem from Zuloaga’s statements during an Inter-American Press Society conference in Aruba this week. Zuloaga narrated the 2002 coup d’état from the perspective of the coup plotters, alleging that Chavez resigned from office after ordering armed government supporters to open fire on peaceful opposition protestors on April 11th, 2002.
Investigations carried out after the coup revealed that opposition-aligned policemen were responsible for the sniper shootings of both pro-Chavez and opposition protestors, and that prominent television stations, including Globovision, manipulated video images to frame Chavez’s supporters as the culprits in order to legitimate the coup regime.
Legislator Manuel Villalba, who heads the media commission in the National Assembly, filed a complaint against Zuloaga for his remarks, and the Attorney General’s Office assigned National Investigator Maricarmen Fuentes to the case. Fuentes tipped off authorities that Zuloaga may be at risk to flee the country, prompting Zuloaga’s temporary detention on Thursday.
Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz announced Zuloaga’s arrest and said his words constituted “an attack against the Venezuelan state.” She cited Article 296 of the Penal Code, which states that using the media to incite panic or violence in the population shall be punished with between two and five years in prison.
When confronted by the press at the airport, Zuloaga denied the charges and repeated his pro-coup narration of the April 2002 events. Referring to Chavez’s return to power two days after the coup began, Zuloaga commented, “If everything had been done well, perhaps we would have a different Venezuela today.”
After his hearing on Thursday, Zuloaga said he was “surprised” by the charges against him. “I was simply going for a quick trip to Bonaire in my plane… In no respect was I fleeing anything,” he said. “All I did was report a series of historical facts,” Zuloaga added.
Zuloaga also told the press he had been treated well by Venezuelan authorities during his arrest and detention. “They treated me with much kindness and seriousness… I can’t complain,” he said. The Attorney General’s Office said Zuloaga’s right to due process has been and will be fully upheld.
This is not the first time Zuloaga and his television news network have been under legal scrutiny. Last year, Globovision was fined for tax evasion, and Globovision director Alberto Ravell was investigated for inciting panic by reporting false information about an earthquake before official seismic reports were released.
Zuloaga’s arrest also follows the arrest on Monday of former Zulia governor Oswaldo Alvarez Paz for disseminating false information. Alvarez Paz appeared on a political talk show on Globovision accusing the Chavez government of supporting terrorism and drug trafficking, accusations which the Chavez government denies and says are part of a U.S.-backed media campaign to justify military intervention.
International Human Rights organizations have protested the arrests, calling them a violation of freedom of expression.
The Inter-American Human Rights Commission, a branch of the Organization of American States that recognized the coup regime after Chavez’s overthrow in 2002, announced its “profound concern about the utilization of the state’s punitive power to criminalize human rights defenders, penalize peaceful social protests, and persecute the people who the authorities consider political opponents.”
Human Rights Watch called the arrests “a bad precedent” and accused the government of “arresting a person for a critical expression that is protected in any democracy.” The U.S.-based NGO’s Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco said Venezuela is “entering into a darker period in which Draconian laws are being implemented.”
Venezuelan officials responded that Zuloaga’s and Alvarez Paz’s declarations were of the type that is not protected under the law in most democracies, since they aimed to incite plausible acts of violence and the overthrow of the government.
National Assembly President Cilia Flores called Zuloaga and Alvarez Paz “white-collar delinquents who commit crimes and the pass themselves off as political prisoners.” She said the arrests “demonstrate that Venezuelan institutions work, that in Venezuela crimes do not remain unpunished.”
Both Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and Venezuelan Ambassador to the OAS Roy Chaderton dismissed the critiques from Human Rights Watch and the IAHRC.
Maduro said the IAHRC was being used in a “politicized manner” and called on the international community to “react.” Chaderton ordered international organizations to stop unduly “interfering in internal affairs.”
Maduro also reiterated that Zuloaga and Alvarez Paz “are two people who are repeat offenders in crimes linked to the violation of the constitution and the promotion of public hatred and coup d’états.”