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Venezuela: Hugo Chavez Fines Anti-Government TV Channel

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- Opponents of President Hugo Chavez have been hit with a double-blow this week: a court ruling that threatens to sink the presidential hopes of one key contender and a $2 million fine that will squeeze the finances of a staunchly anti-government TV channel.

The back-to-back decisions by the Supreme Court and National Telecommunications Commission have provoked an outcry by opposition leaders and human rights activists who say judges and government regulators are increasingly acting as agents of the president by selectively targeting his foes.

The actions against candidate Leopoldo Lopez and the channel Globovision represent a significant tightening of a squeeze on critics as Chavez prepares for a tough re-election fight after undergoing cancer treatment.

"The government is trying to show it is firmly in control and can play offense, even at a time when questions are being raised about Chavez's vulnerability in next year's elections," said Michael Shifter, an analyst and president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

"Chavez wants to depict Lopez and Globovision as symbols of the old, discredited political order," he said. "The aim is to rally his political base of hard core Chavistas, to prepare for the election campaign."

The government and its backers reject such allegations.

The telecommunications agency's chief, Pedro Maldonado, said Globovision is being fined the equivalent of more than $2.1 million because it violated broadcast regulations, in part by repeatedly airing emotional interviews with relatives of inmates during a prolonged prison rebellion that involved gunfights between troops and inmates.

He said Globovision played such interviews about 300 times and added gunfire to the sound of some tracks.

The TV station has until Dec. 31 to pay, and its majority owner, Guillermo Zuloaga, assured viewers Tuesday night that he will come up with the money.

He denied wrongdoing, saying the news channel is being penalized for coverage the government disliked.

"I think there's no doubt that President Chavez fears the independent media," Zuloaga said. "I want to watch him lose the elections."

Zuloaga had to make the comment by telephone because he fled to the United States last year after prosecutors issued an arrest warrant on charges of usury and conspiracy for keeping 24 new vehicles stored at a home he owns. Zuloaga, who also owns several car dealerships, calls the charges bogus and has accused prosecutors of acting at Chavez's behest.

Globovision last year became the country's sole remaining anti-Chavez TV channel when another opposition-aligned station, RCTV, was forced off cable and satellite TV less than three years after the government refused to renew its broadcast license.

As long as it remains on the air, Globovision is likely to be a key outlet for the voices of opposition leaders during the next presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Monday upheld a decision by the country's top anti-corruption official disqualifying Lopez from holding office until 2014 due to alleged irregularities.

Opposition politicians have accused the authorities of trumping up corruption accusations against convenient targets while largely turning a blind eye to corruption within the government. The international watchdog group Transparency International regularly rates Venezuela among the countries perceived as most corrupt in its annual index, while the government says it is making strides in rooting out graft.

Chavez's chief rival in the 2006 presidential race, Manuel Rosales, fled into exile in 2009, saying prosecutors were falsely accusing him of corruption.

Lopez is one of about 1,300 officials who have been temporarily disqualified from holding office over the past 11 years due to corruption cases, acting Comptroller General Adelina Gonzalez said.

Lopez, a former Caracas district mayor, was sanctioned for multiple accusations, including that a nonprofit group to which he belonged received donations from 1998 to 2001 from the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, where he and his mother worked at the time.

The comptroller general also sanctioned Lopez in 2004 for alleged irregularities in the movement of funds from one portion of his budget to another during his term as mayor.

Lopez denies wrongdoing and notes he was never sentenced by any court.

"They're wrong if they think we're going to kneel before their attempts to take our rights away from us," Lopez told cheering supporters this week. "This is a fight for our rights."

The Supreme Court ruling dismissed a Sept. 1 decision by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which had ordered Venezuela to let Lopez run for office and found his political rights had been violated.

The Supreme Court upheld the bar on Lopez holding office, yet said he would be free to run if he chooses.

Lopez said that "confusing decision" seems intended to leave a threat hanging over his candidacy. Prosecutors said criminal investigations against Lopez remain open.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner criticized the Supreme Court's decision in Lopez's case, urging Venezuela "to adhere to its international commitments." Venezuela's Foreign Ministry shot back with a statement condemning what it called U.S. attempts to meddle in its affairs.

Supreme Court president Luisa Estella Morales portrayed the ruling as strictly in line with the law and upholding established anti-corruption measures.

"What we consider unfeasible is for Venezuela to go backward in the advances it's made in the fight against corruption," she said.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court echoed some of Chavez's criticisms of the regional human rights court, accusing it of "usurping functions as if it were a colonial power."

Even some of Lopez's chief rivals are criticizing the Supreme Court decision.

"Everyone has a right to participate," said leading opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, adding that the ruling's "political content is quite clear."

Sarah Wasserman, chief operating officer of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, said the court's decision on Lopez "sends a clear message that judicial independence in Venezuela remains an illusion."

"The Supreme Court ruling will be an ongoing reminder that it serves the interests of the Chavez government," she said.

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