Opponents’ Arrests Reignite Free Speech Debate in Venezuela

BY Larisa Epatko  March 29, 2010 at 6:36 PM EST

Recent arrests of outspoken critics of the Venezuelan government have revived the debate over whether President Hugo Chavez is using heavy-handed techniques to silence government opponents or enforcing the country’s laws against the spread of false information.

On March 22, authorities arrested Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, a former opposition governor and presidential candidate, for saying during a television appearance that Venezuela was a center of operations that facilitates drug trafficking.

Four days later, Guillermo Zuloaga, the president of Globovision — Venezuela’s main opposition TV channel — was arrested for comments he made at a meeting in Aruba, including accusing Chavez of ordering troops to shoot on protesters in 2002, which led to an attempted coup.
Both men were accused of spreading false information.

Most recently, the National Assembly, in a rare move, lifted the immunity of one of its delegates, Wilmer Azuaje, a former member of Chavez’s party who has since moved over to the opposition. Azuaje has been criminally charged for striking a police official. On Sunday, the Supreme Court barred him from talking to the news media about the charges.

Chavez’s opponents say these moves represent a campaign against them, and that the courts are biased against them. Chavez denies he controls the courts and asserts that authorities are pursuing those who have broken the law and who are trying to destabilize the country by spreading false allegations against the government.

“This is a kind of media war, as Chavez likes to call it, between what he calls the right-wing media and himself,” Charlie Devereux, GlobalPost’s correspondent in Venezuela, told us in a phone interview.

“Chavez first of all started by expanding state media that he says is the people’s voice, but others would argue in reality is really the government’s voice,” said Devereux. The next move was closing stations that refused to comply with the law that requires stations to run Chavez’s speeches. There are now rumblings of running the Internet through the state telecommunications agency, which some worry could shut it down if they so chose, he said.

Listen to more of Devereux’s explanation of events here: