Globovisión is the last remaining Venezuelan television station that is openly critical of President Hugo Chávez. In May 2010, Globovisión president Guillermo Zuloaga was arrested for making offensive comments about Chávez while discussing a government crackdown on the Venezuelan media at an Inter-American Press Association conference.
That was only part of a years-long campaign against Globovisión authorized by President Chávez, who promised to close the station. He claimed Globovisión had backed a failed 2002 coup that attempted to depose him.
Zuloaga was forced to flee the country after arrest warrants were issued against him for spreading false news, offending Chávez in public remarks, usury and conspiracy. He sought asylum in the U.S., where he remains in exile, and said the charges were part of a vendetta by Chávez.
“We are the last independent broadcaster standing, and the government is doing what it can to shut us down,” stated Globovisión vice-president María Fernanda Flores.
On October 18, 2011, National Telecommunications Commission chairman Pedro Maldanado announced that Globovisión was being fined 9.3 million bolívares ($2.16 million) due to its “editorial conduct” during its coverage of a prison riot and standoff in June 2011. The station’s “offenses” included giving an “apology for crime,” fomenting “the anxiety of the citizenry” and promoting “hatred and intolerance for political reasons.”
Maldanado said Globovisión repeatedly aired emotional interviews with prisoners’ family members – about 300 times – and that audio of background gunfire was added to some of the video footage. He also claimed that the station failed to broadcast appearances by government officials which were aired by government-friendly media.
“It’s a public disservice,” Julio Rafael Chávez Meléndez, vice chairman of the National Assembly’s Commission on Media and People’s Power, said of Globovisión. “Even still, they are allowed to air their stories, which clearly fulfill the opposition’s political goal.
But we also can’t just let them run wild and trample over our laws without consequence.
So while they can defend their right to exist as a supposed news broadcaster, we must defend our right to apply the law. This is not about silencing the opposition.”
Maldanado downplayed the $2.16 million fine, saying that it represented only 7.5% of the station’s gross revenue in 2010. Globovisión’s legal advisor, Ricardo Antela, countered that the government was trying to bankrupt the company.
“There is no way to pay this fortune they are fining us,” said Flores, who vowed to do everything possible to keep the station on the air.
Considering the gravity of the problems in Venezuela’s prison system, it is difficult to imagine how Globovisión could exaggerate much in its reporting. In early June 2011, a riot between rival gang members broke out in the El Rodeo I prison near Caracas, Venezuela’s capital. Twenty-two people, including 19 prisoners, were killed. On June 17, 2011, nearly 5,000 government troops arrived at the facility intent on disarming the rioting prisoners. They took control of El Rodeo I the next day; one prisoner was killed during the operation.
According to National Guard General Luis Hotta Dominguez, 7 rifles, 3 carbines, a submachine gun, 4 revolvers, 20 handguns, 91 extra clips, 8 hand grenades and 5,000 rifle rounds were discovered in El Rodeo I. The soldiers also found 99 pounds of cocaine, 26 pounds of marijuana and 100 cell phones. Approximately 2,500 prisoners were relocated to other facilities.
As the soldiers were regaining control of El Rodeo I they came under heavy fire from the nearby El Rodeo II prison, which killed three National Guard troops and wounded 18.
The military presence was reinforced by 400 elite army para-troopers. Yet repeated attempts to enter the Rodeo II facility were beaten back by gunfire. A 27-day siege ensued, during which Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami claimed that only 50 of the 1,000 prisoners in El Rodeo II were hostile gang members while the rest were essentially being held hostage.
Despite having cordoned off an area with a one-kilometer radius around the prison complex, prisoners’ family members were able to protest outside the facility. At one point, troops in riot gear used tear gas to drive them back.
Following the almost month-long standoff, El Aissami was able to negotiate a surrender of the prison. This initially led to the release of 148 prisoners who were mostly infirm or ill, then the eventual release of another 869 prisoners who were not involved in hostilities.
After the gang members surrendered, the government confirmed that five prisoners had been killed in internal fighting and one had died due to illness during the siege. One gang leader, Francisco “El Yofre” Ruiz Estanga, 20, was arrested while another, Yorvis “El Oriente” Lopez Cortez, 26, escaped. The pair had reportedly masterminded a plan to take 22 prison officials hostage in April 2011.
Driving forces behind high levels of violence in Venezuelan prisons include extreme overcrowding, underfunding, appalling prison conditions, armed gangs and official corruption. Around 560 people were killed in the nation’s prison system in 2011, which was designed to house around 12,500 prisoners but instead holds about 50,000, many of whom have not yet gone to trial. [See, e.g.: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.50; Aug. 2010, p.50].
Less than two weeks into the standoff at El Rodeo II, the prison’s warden, Luis Aranguren, and National Guard Captain Jose Camargo Gomez were arrested and charged with corruption, criminal association, and providing arms and explosives to prisoners. Ten other officials were also arrested, including the deputy director of El Rodeo I and the El Rodeo II operations chief. They were charged with providing arms to prisoners and drug trafficking.
The Venezuelan government has pledged about $100 million for prison reform, but El Aissami said that “the sheer drama, urgency and complexity of the problems besetting the prison system” will take some time to resolve.
In August 2011, newly-appointed Minister for Prisons Iris Varela announced plans to release 40% of the nation’s prison population to ease overcrowding.
“Of the country’s 50,000 prisoners, 20,000 should be out of jail,” he said. “In prison there are people that do not pose a danger to society, such as shoplifters who have no history of violence. They can be handled outside prison.”
However, the violence did not stop. On September 25, 2011, gang leaders at the Uribana prison refused to let 1,550 visitors go. The hostages, which included 1,300 women, were released a week later following negotiations. Government officials promised to improve prison conditions and treatment of visitors. Some elderly and ill hostages were released earlier; one young female hostage was reportedly raped by prisoners and hospitalized.
Following several escape attempts, a three-week standoff between military troops and armed prisoners ended on May 18, 2012 at the La Planta prison. The incident involved gunfire and the deployment of tear gas, and several injuries were reported. The facility was closed and prisoners were moved to other prisons.
And in August 2012, armed gang members at the Yare I prison complex rioted, resulting in 25 deaths, including a visitor. Another 29 prisoners and 14 visitors were injured during that disturbance.
“The transformation of the Venezuelan prison system is another big lie that we’ve been told by this government,” said political opposition leader Henrique Capriles. “How many more will die?”
Meanwhile, on March 6, 2012, Venezuela’s Supreme Court upheld the $2.16 million fine levied against Globovisión for its prior coverage of the riot and standoff at the El Rodeo I and II prisons.
“This decision doesn’t surprise us because we are about to begin an election campaign in which the government tends to take judicial actions to intimidate the independent private media,” said Flores.
The Supreme Court ordered a freeze on Globovisión’s assets in late June 2012, shortly before the start of national election campaigns, and the station paid the fine in full one day later.
In October 2012, Chávez was elected to a fourth term as president. The Venezuelan government holds a 25.8% interest in Globovisión after taking over two other broadcasters that had financial stakes in the station. Since taking power Chávez has faced almost total opposition from the privately-owned media, which has included support for CIA-sponsored coups against the elected government.
Sources: www.businessweek.com, www.huffingtonpost.com, www.cato-at-liberty.org, www.cnn.com, www.foxnews.com, www.csmonitor.com, www.insightcrime.org, www.npr.org, Washington Post, BBC, www.cpj.org, www.corspecops.com, www.abcnews.go.com
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