Last anti-Chavez TV station faces probe, shutdown

CARACAS, Venezuela -- When Venezuelans tune to Globovision, they see protests against faulty public services or a talk show guest saying Hugo Chavez could be executed by his opponents, just like Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Now Chavez seems to be gearing up for a final showdown with Globovision, Venezuela's only remaining opposition television station on the open airwaves.

Broadcast regulators are investigating the all-news channel for inciting "panic and anxiety" during a minor earthquake when it criticized the government for slow response.

"We've been subject to dozens of investigations, but this one is undoubtedly the most absurd," said station director Alberto Federico Ravell, a bespectacled, tough-talking man who relishes poking fun at the president.

Chavez has called Ravell "a crazy man with a cannon."

"There is a crazy man with a cannon in Venezuela, but it's not me," Ravell quipped in response.

There is little neutral ground left in polarized Venezuela, and the media reflect this -- either championing the government or touting the opposition.

What Chavez intends to do with the TV station remains unclear. But he seems to be building to a confrontation, asking for sanctions against Globovision again Thursday in a speech in which he labeled TV executives "white-collar terrorists."

Earlier last week, he threatened severe measures against any media inciting unrest: "You are playing with fire, manipulating, inciting hatred and much more. All of you: television networks, radio stations, newspapers."

Many newspapers and radio stations remain critical of the government. But television is a different matter. Two formerly critical stations, Venevision and Televen, have held their tongues to avoid sanctions since they were accused of supporting a 2002 coup attempt.

Another anti-Chavez channel, RCTV, was booted off the airwaves in 2007 and now draws a much smaller audience of paid viewers on cable. About a fifth of Venezuelans subscribe to cable.

Globovision is the remaining counterweight to state television, which airs only praise for Chavez while attacking opposition politicians on a late-night talk show called "The Razorblade."

In an October broadcast, newspaper editor Rafael Poleo said Chavez should be careful or he could end up "hanging" like Mussolini. The Fascist leader was shot dead, then hung upside down and stoned by his detractors.

"If Globovision is closed it would show that Chavez is crossing the line from an authoritarian government to a dictatorship," Ravell said.

Its studios already have the feel of a bunker under siege. An 18-foot wall topped with an electric fence and barbed wire surrounds the Globovision building -- a reminder that it's a favorite target for rowdy Chavez supporters, who have repeatedly tossed tear gas canisters and covered the walls with graffiti. Video cameras are trained on the street outside.

Carlos Lauria of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said he is disturbed by Chavez's moves against Globovision.

"The consequences of a shutdown would be very damaging for Venezuela's democracy," Lauria told the AP. "The government would be consummating its effort to restrict criticism."

The latest Globovision investigation comes after Chavez easily won a February referendum that ended term limits and empowered him politically. His popularity remains high -- at about 59 percent, and opponents say he's using it to sideline dissent and push through controversial laws and economic measures.

Last month, opposition leader Manuel Rosales fled to Peru and was granted asylum after being charged with corruption. Others face similar charges, including the jailed former Defense Minister Raul Baduel -- now a prominent Chavez critic.

Venezuela's television and radio regulatory agency, Conatel, now is determining whether Globovision violated a strict law against "broadcasting messages provoking, supporting or inciting disturbances of public order."

The station couldn't reach the head of Venezuela's seismological agency for comment after the May 4 earthquake, which rattled Caracas but caused no deaths or damage. So Ravell went on the air and appealed for calm, while criticizing what he called a sluggish government reaction.

The channel initially broadcast information about the 5.4-magnitude quake from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Ravell said regulators could fine Globovision or shut it down for 72 hours. If they're found to have broken the law again, the station could face a permanent shutdown.

Pro-Chavez lawmaker Augusto Montiel said "the time has come to act and apply the law."

Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro also demanded sanctions, saying: "One thing is reporting on a quake and another is using it to try to create anxiety and terror ... or trying to take advantage of it politically."

Chavez urged authorities last month to impose sanctions on Venevision, Globovision, RCTV and Televen for allegedly backing a short-lived 2002 coup. Most of those stations broadcast cartoons and movies instead of protests that aided his return to power.

Enrique Santos, president of the Miami-based Inter American Press Association, said he fears Globovision will be forced to air only on cable like RCTV.

"There is no doubt that we are seeing a similar strategy at play," Santos said.

Chavez, who views the stations as mouthpieces of the wealthy, puts it another way:

"You oligarchs, your time is up."