Venezuela court orders embargo on channel's assets

Venezuela's Supreme Court on Thursday ordered an embargo on nearly $5.7 million in assets belonging to a television channel that takes a critical line against President Hugo Chavez's government. The decision came as regulators sought to force the channel to pay a fine totaling more than $2 million.

The Supreme Court said in a statement that it had ordered an embargo on Globovision's assets totaling 24.4 million bolivars, or $5.7 million.

The channel has been trying to challenge the fine imposed by regulators for its coverage of a prison uprising last year. But Ricardo Antela, a lawyer for the news channel, said it now plans to pay to original fine to avoid a larger penalty.

"There are only two options left: pay the fine of 9 million bolivars ($2.2 million) or expose ourselves to an embargo of almost 25 million," Antela said. If Globovision were to face the higher penalty, he said, it could lead to the "the closing of the channel."

He said that Globovision's executives have decided since "there isn't going to be justice in this case," they will go to court to pay the original fine on Friday. Antela said they also plan to pay interest as determined by the Central Bank.

Once the fine is paid, the court's order of an embargo on assets should be lifted, he said. The lawyer said the court had ordered a jury to convene to formally put in place the embargo on Globovision's assets.

The court said it had responded to a request by the National Telecommunications Commission due to the channel's failure to pay the fine initially imposed in October. Government officials did not immediately comment on the court's decision.

Globovision, a 24-hour news network, has been the only anti-Chavez channel on the air since another opposition-aligned station, RCTV, was forced off cable and satellite TV in 2010. RCTV had been booted off the open airwaves in 2007.

Telecommunications regulators last year imposed the fine against Globovision accusing it of "apologizing for crime," ''altering the public order" and promoting political intolerance during its coverage of an intervention by troops to quash rioting at El Rodeo prison.

The commission's director general, Pedro Maldonado, said at the time that for four days Globovision broadcast 18 emotional reports with relatives of the prisoners and repeated them almost 300 times, adding the sound of gunfire over the reports.

The June 2011 prison riot erupted after troops raided one of two adjacent prisons looking for weapons. The raid set off gunfights that left three dead, and the standoff finally ended with negotiations after 27 days. Authorities said four inmates who escaped also were slain by soldiers.

Globovision has accused Chavez's government of trying to shut it down, and has said it did nothing wrong.

Globovision still has three pending appeals seeking to challenge the fine, while two have been rejected by courts, Antela said. The Supreme Court previously upheld the $2 million fine against Globovision in March.

The channel's majority owner, Guillermo Zuloaga, fled into exile in 2010 after a court issued an arrest warrant on charges of usury and conspiracy. He has accused prosecutors of carrying out a vendetta on orders from Chavez.

Maria Fernanda Flores, a vice president of the channel, denounced the Supreme Court's latest decision as "a new blow against freedom of expression and a way to intimidate" Globovision ahead of the country's Oct. 7 presidential election.

Chavez is seeking another six-year term in the vote. Globovision has provided an important outlet for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles to get out his message, while state television and other state-run media are largely monopolized by coverage of Chavez's appearances.

"This decision doesn't surprise us because we're about to begin an election campaign in which the government tends to take judicial actions to intimidate the independent private media," Flores told reporters.

"Don't worry, Globovision is going to be in the election campaign," she said. "We don't kneel before power."