NEW: The penalty is the latest salvo in long-running dispute between Globovision and the government
The broadcaster is fined 7.5% of its gross income for violating the law
The government accuses the network of inciting anxiety in the public
The $2.2 million fine could mean the end of Globovision
Venezuela’s telecommunications regulator, Conatel, fined private television broadcaster Globovision Tuesday 7.5% of its gross income for alleged violations of the country’s media responsibility laws, marking the latest salvo in the long-running feud between the broadcaster and the government.
Globovision said it would appeal the fine of 9,300,000 bolivares fuertes ($2.2 million), which the station said risked bankrupting it. Conatel’s director, Pedro Maldonado, however, said during a news conference that the fine could not be appealed.
Globovision is Venezuela’s last remaining television broadcaster that is openly critical of President Hugo Chavez.
The fine stems from Globovision’s coverage of a standoff at the Rodeo II prison in June and July.
The station violated a law that prohibits stirring anxiety in the public and instigating intolerance for political reasons, Maldonado said. These are violations under a media responsibility law passed in December.
The goal of the law is to establish “social responsibility” in those who provide television, radio and Internet service. The law affects all text, images, sound or context sent or received in Venezuela.
Maldonado said the sanction does not seek to suspend the transmission of Globovision, a 24-hour news station.
But Maria Fernanda Flores, a vice president of the network, said paying that sum could spell the end of its broadcast.
“This fine represents the bankruptcy of Globovision,” she said.
The government official said Globovision had “a couple of days” to pay the fine.
Globovision defended its coverage of the prison standoff, which started with a riot that killed at least 22 people and turned into a nearly monthlong standoff between prisoners and national guard troops.
The broadcaster said it was denied access at the scene and completed its reporting fairly and in a balanced way given its limitations.
Claudio Paolillo, a member of the freedom of expression committee of the Inter-American Press Association, likened Chavez to a dictator in an interview with Globovision and said the fine was a roundabout way to shutter the station.
“The political objective is to shut down all the voices who are critical or independent,” he said.
Chavez and his top leadership did not immediately comment on the move.
The broadcaster is the last remaining TV network that carries an anti-Chavez line, since the president refused to renew the license of another opposition station, RCTV, allegedly over telecommunication regulation violations. The station had to go off public airwaves and transmit solely on cable.
Over the years, the government has launched various investigations into Globovision – for everything from reporting about an earthquake before an official report had been issued, to failing to pay about $2.3 million in taxes. Station officials have said the charges are politically motivated.
Last year, the government secured a 25.8% interest in the broadcaster when it took over two companies, which owned a 20% and 5.8% stake in Globovision, respectively.
The government’s interest was sufficient to name a representative to the broadcaster’s board, Chavez said then.
His government has also gone after the owner of Globovision, Guillermo Zuloaga, who is wanted in Venezuela for allegedly illegally storing vehicles at his Caracas home with the intent to sell them for a profit.
The TV magnate, who is living in exile, has said he is being persecuted for political purposes and that the charges are trumped up. His son is also wanted.
International groups accuse Chavez of using a friendly judiciary to silence critics and the press. The president, however, maintains there is robust freedom of the press in Venezuela.
The country’s constitution protects freedom of expression, but those who exercise it will be responsible for that content, the government has argued.