CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez stepped up his threats against Venezuela's only remaining opposition-aligned television channel on Saturday, calling its owner a fugitive criminal and accusing him of conspiring against his government.
Chavez demanded that authorities including the attorney general and the Supreme Court take action in a pending criminal case against Globovision owner Guillermo Zuloaga, who fled the country earlier this year after a court issued an arrest warrant.
"Something must be done," Chavez said on state television. If Zuloaga does not return to face justice, Chavez said, "something must be done in relation to this channel and the properties this man has here."
Zuloaga, who has been charged with usury and conspiracy, denies wrongdoing and says prosecutors are carrying out a vendetta on Chavez's orders.
Zuloaga criticized Chavez at a forum in Washington on Wednesday, denouncing him as a threat to democracy in the region.
"I don't care what they say about me," Chavez said. "But how is it there's a television channel here whose owner is a fugitive of justice, and not only is he a fugitive, but he also has the nerve to go ... rail against his country, against this government, against this president?"
Chavez has waged a long-running battle against Globovision and has threatened the channel before, but had softened his tone in the past several months while focusing on September congressional elections — in which the president held on to a majority but the opposition made significant gains.
Globovision — which carries news and talk shows with an anti-Chavez slant — has been the only opposition channel on the air since another one, RCTV, was forced off cable and satellite TV in January. RCTV had been booted off the open airwaves in 2007.
Chavez has often accused opponents of trying to topple him, and on Saturday accused Zuloaga of being among conspirators who are plotting.
Chavez said he has intelligence that some of his enemies have put a price on his head and claimed — without offering any details or evidence — that he suspects Zuloaga is among them.
"According to very reliable information that I have, they say they have $100 million to give to whoever kills me," Chavez said. "And he is one of them, and he's the owner of a channel that is broadcasting right now in Venezuela."
There was no immediate response from Zuloaga, who is the channel's president and majority shareholder. He has repeatedly said Venezuelan authorities are trumping up a host of false accusations to try to force Globovision to soften its critical editorial line — which he has vowed not to do.
Zuloaga fled the country in June after a court ordered him jailed on charges of usury and conspiracy for keeping 24 new vehicles stored at a home he owns. Zuloaga, who also owns several car dealerships, has called those charges bogus and politically motivated.
The attempt to arrest Zuloaga has drawn criticism from press freedom groups and the U.S. government.
His lawyer, Jenny Tambasco, said in July that Zuloaga did not plan to return to Venezuela to face the charges because he believed he would not receive a fair trial.