Venezuelan regulators fined a TV channel more than $2 million on Tuesday for its coverage of a deadly prison riot that became a political headache for President Hugo Chavez.
The hefty fine against Globovision sharply raises the stakes in an intermittent conflict between the government and the country's only remaining channel that takes a staunch anti-Chavez stance.
Globovision was fined for its coverage of a prison riot that erupted in a prison in June after troops raided an adjacent prison 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's majority owner, Guillermo Zuloaga, called the fine "one more attack by a government that has only fear of freedom of expression." In a phone call aired on Globovision, he said he would come up with the money to pay the fine if necessary.
Telecommunications regulator Pedro Maldonado said the channel was being disciplined for its "editorial conduct," which included making an "apology for crime" and fomenting "the anxiety of the citizenry" as well as "hatred and intolerance for political reasons."
Maldonado, who heads the National Telecommunications Commission, said the violations of the country's broadcast regulations resulted in part from repeatedly airing emotional interviews with prisoners' relatives. He said such interviews were played about 300 times and that audio was added to some of the tracks, including the sounds of gunfire.
He also said the channel had not picked up some appearances by government officials that were broadcast by state media.
Maldonado said the fine of more than $2.1 million in Venezuelan currency is equivalent to 7.5 percent of the channel's gross revenue last year. It's unclear how long the channel has to pay.
"I assure you I'm not going to let them shut us down for a fine," said Zuloaga, who fled into exile last year 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 and has sought asylum in the United States.
Referring to the fine, Zuloaga said: "There's no doubt that President Chavez fears the independent media."
Gonzalo Marroquin, president of the Inter American Press Association, defended the station in a statement and said the fine "is part of a government strategy to close the channel Globovision with a veneer of legality."
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.
Other privately owned TV channels have curbed their criticism of Chavez in recent years.
Ricardo Antela, a Globovision legal adviser, denied the accusations by the regulatory agency and said the government is aiming to bankrupt the channel.