By DAN MOLINSKI AND JOSé DE CóRDOBA
CARACAS, Venezuela&lsqauo;The principal owner of Venezuela's last remaining
opposition television station has fled the country, as President Hugo Chávez
continues to ratchet up the pressure on his rivals months ahead of crucial
September legislative elections.
Guillermo Zuloaga fled Venezuela after a warrant was issued for his arrest
last week, a station representative confirmed.
"He's no longer in Venezuela," said Edith Ruiz, director of institutional
relations at Mr. Zuloaga's Globovision television station Wednesday. She
said his exact whereabouts outside of Venezuela were unknown.
Venezuelan authorities issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Zuloaga on Friday on
charges that a car dealership his family owns had hoarded automobiles. Mr.
Zuloaga denies the allegation.
In a call to Globovision earlier in the week, Mr. Zuloaga said the
government's accusation against him was trumped up for the sole purpose of
shutting down the station.
Officials at the president's office and the Attorney General's office
weren't available to comment Wednesday on the news of Mr. Zuloaga's
In March, Mr. Zuloaga was briefly arrested for saying on a television show
that the nation lacked freedom of expression. But he was released after an
Over the years, Mr. Chávez has moved to take over the airwaves, opening a
plethora of state-run channels that give the president fawning coverage.
In 2007, the government went after private broadcasters, ordering that the
license of the biggest and most outspoken broadcaster, RCTV, not be renewed.
The move forced it off the airwaves. The government then later forced the
channel off cable television as well.
Other TV broadcasters, cowed by the government, softened their coverage of
the government. But Globovision has remained the exception, infuriating
Mr. Zuloaga is the second major shareholder and director of the station to
flee or refuse to return to the country in the last few days. Globovision
director Nelson Mezerhane, who is also president of Banco Federal, a midsize
bank seized by Venezuelan authorities Monday, said earlier this week he
wouldn't go back to Venezuela because he feared judicial persecution.
Venezuelan authorities said the bank wasn't meeting liquidity requirements,
an allegation Mr. Mezerhane says is false.
"This is part of a political agenda," said Mr. Mezerhane in an interview. He
was outside Venezuela when the bank was seized. "The president wants to bend
Globovision to its will and put it at the service of the state."
During recent days, Mr. Chávez has taken to the airwaves to urge both
Messrs. Mezerhane and Zuloaga to turn themselves in. He has denied that
their legal problems stem from their association with Globovision. "That's a
lie," said Mr. Chávez in an address. "They are running for some reason. ...
He who hasn't done anything wrong, doesn't fear anything."
Some analysts say Mr. Chávez's apparent attack on Globovision is an attempt
to distract Venezuelans from growing economic problems and spreading
Venezuela's economy contracted nearly 6% in the first quarter of the year.
Inflation, meanwhile, is running at about 30%. While shortages of basic
foods have proliferated, so have corruption scandals in the government's
multibillion-dollar food purchasing program. Thousands of tons of imported
food, bought by the government's main purchasing arm, have been found
rotting in Venezuela's main port&lsqauo;creating a public outcry.
Given that bleak landscape, a number of analysts wonder if Mr. Chávez will
force Caracas-based Globovision off the air now that its principal owner,
Mr. Zuluaga, is an international fugitive. Others say Mr. Chavez won't go as
far as to shut down the station&lsqauo;which would bring international
condemnation&lsqauo;but will pile on further pressure to muzzle the station.
"I don't think the president wants to shut down the channel," said Alberto
Federico Ravell, a shareholder and former editor in chief of Globovision who
stepped down from his post under pressure earlier this year. "He just wants
to strangle it with measures against its owners, tax audits and other
The latest arrest warrant issued for Mr. Zuloaga has raised an outcry from
governments and international human-rights groups. In Washington, the U.S.
State Department said earlier this week the arrest warrant was "the latest
example of the government of Venezuela's continuing assault on the freedom
of the press."
Other international groups have also come out in recent days to protest the
latest arrest warrant for Mr. Zuloaga. "If the government is using Zuloaga's
prosecution as a pretext to silence and intimidate the only remaining
critical broadcaster, the rights of citizens to be informed will be
seriously restricted and Venezuela's democracy will suffer yet another
blow," the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday on
During his 11 years in power, Mr. Chávez has frequently been accused of
trying to silence his critics by trumping up charges against them so he can
have them arrested and put in jail.
A former state governor, Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, was arrested in March for
saying on a television show that Venezuela has become a haven for drug
traffickers. Mr. Chávez said such statements break a law that prohibits
"spreading false information" or making any incendiary comments deemed
threatening to peace and stability.
Write to Dan Molinski at Dan.Molinski@dowjones.com