CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The head of one Venezuela's last two nationally circulating opposition newspapers accused the leftist government on Monday of trying to intimidate and silence it.
Miguel Henrique Otero, editor and publisher of El Nacional, was responding to a weekend announcement by Venezuela's chief prosecutor asking to have his bank accounts frozen.
"It is a brazen act" to call for "such a measure against someone via Twitter without me even knowing what I'm accused of," Otero told The Associated Press by phone.
Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz used her official Twitter account Saturday to request that Otero's bank accounts be frozen. Her office issued a press release saying the action was related to a lawsuit by a former Caracas mayor who claims Otero owes him $3.5 million.
The former mayor, Alfredo Pena, fled Venezuela a decade ago and his whereabouts are unknown. The release said Ortega wanted to determine how Pena obtained the money and why Otero owed such a sum.
Asked whether freezing his bank accounts could affect El Nacional, Otero said, "I don't think so, but I haven't seen the court papers." His lawyers also hadn't seen the documents, he said.
That is not unusual in today's Venezuela, whose government is accused by international human rights groups of employing a pliant judiciary as a tool of political repression since the late President Hugo Chavez gained firm control of all state institutions.
Otero said he considered Ortega's action an attempt to "silence, intimidate (and) discredit" the newspaper.
"They have a policy of besieging, buying up and threatening news media," he said. "This is clearly part of that process."
One of Otero's lawyers, Juan Garanton, said it was highly unusual for the chief prosecutor's office to get involved in a private affair between two individuals. He also said the alleged debt doesn't exist and can't be confirmed by Pena because the former mayor long ago left the country.
The AP sought comment from the chief prosecutor's press office but was told by a spokesman that he had nothing to add. The spokesman would not identify himself. The AP also sought comment from the communications minister, who did immediately respond to an email request.
Maria Fernanda Flores, former general manager of Globovision TV, called Ortega's action part of a campaign to silence all media critical of President Nicolas Maduro's government.
"Out of panic, out of fear, it's meant to oblige censorship and self-censorship," said Flores, whose April resignation from the last remaining opposition TV station was a condition of its sale to businessmen friendly with the government.
Globovision's previous owners were repeatedly sanctioned by the Conatel telecommunications agency, which fined it millions of dollars for purported transgressions such as tax filing errors and running allegedly incendiary reports on a 2011 prison riot. The former owners said they simply could no longer afford to continue broadcasting.
Pro-government broadcasters now dominate Venezuela's airwaves, mostly drowning out dissenting voices.
Speeches by opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who claims fraud cost him a surprisingly tight April 14 presidential election, are no longer broadcast live by Globovision. So Capriles has taken to broadcasting weekly appearances on the Internet.
Flores expects the opposition to increasingly publish online. "The problem is that Internet bandwidth in Venezuela is so poor that streaming video freezes up," she said.
Chavez, who died March 5 after a long battle with cancer, had accused El Nacional of being among news organizations that backed the failed 2002 attempt to overthrow him.
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and Frank Bajak reported from Lima, Peru.