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Venezuela’s tax and customs agency SENIAT has fined the country’s only private news channel Globovisión, for its role in the oil industry shutdown in late 2002 to early 2003. A press release posted on the SENIAT website said that Globovisión Tele, C.A. was notified of the fine on Monday.

Globovisión responded to SENIAT, also on Monday, in a public communiqué, defiantly stating that they will “take all legal actions that are at their disposal so that this resolution is declared null and Globovisión does not owe the National Treasury one cent.”

The communiqué argues that in Globovisión’s ten years they have regularly “put their signal at the disposition of particular citizens and both public and private organizations to express themselves.” But SENIAT sees it differently.

According to Lucila Ascanio, the SENIAT manager in charge of the Capital Caracas, free advertising time on Globovisión during the oil industry shutdown given to private groups represent donations that must be declared. The channel’s failure to declare these donations has resulted in a fine of US$1.5 million.

But beneath the legal to-and-fro is a lively rhetorical battle being waged since the early years of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s tenure.

Beginning most prominently in 2001 after Chávez announced a rush legislative package including the controversial land reform law, Venezuela’s private media launched a coordinated, uninhibited offensive against his government. Shortly after the land reform law and forty-eight others were passed in December, 2001, Chávez was briefly overthrown by a military coup, supported by business elites and the main labor confederation. Speaking live on Venevision (one of Venezuela’s main private news channels) on April 11th-the day of the coup-coup-leader Vice-Admiral Victor Ramírez Pérez told journalist Ibéyiste Pacheco, “We had a deadly weapon: the media.”

Writing shortly after the coup was reversed by massive pro-Chávez protests and loyal elements of the military, French journalist Maurice Lemoine described Venezuela’s private media, noting “After Chávez came to power in 1998, the...privately owned channels...[and] newspapers...have taken over the role of the traditional political parties, which were damaged by the president’s electoral victories.”

“Their investigations, interviews and commentaries all pursue the same objective: to undermine the legitimacy of the government and to destroy the president’s popular support,” continued Lemoine.

Later in 2002, Venezuela’s opposition-centered around the alliance between the main Chamber of Commerce Fedecamaras, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), and the private media-called a general strike. The strike succeeded in seriously damaging Venezuela’s life-blood oil industry, but failed in its stated goal of forcing the president to resign.

Nonetheless, Globovisión claims in the communiqué that their donation of free air-time to opposition groups calling for Chávez’s overthrow and encouraging Venezuelans to take to the streets was part of a “common practice in Venezuelan television.”

SENIAT, however, makes no mention of any donations of Globovisión’s air-time other than during the 2002-03 oil industry shutdown: “SENIAT proceeds to notify...Globovisión...of owed tax-revenue for the donation of [advertising] space during the strike of December 2002 and January 2003...including fines, taxes, and interest.”

“This action by SENIAT is an outrage...against Globovisión,” reads the company’s communiqué, with which the government is attempting to use “tributary pressure to debilitate it and make it abandon its mission of creating spaces for citizens to express all kinds of opinions, even those that question the actions of the [government].” “Even more serious,” it continues, “it is a direct attack against the Venezuelan citizens and organizations whose liberty of expression [the government] has limited in attempting to close legitimate spaces for expression.”

At present, the issue remains a legal one between the state tax and customs agency SENIAT and Globovisión. Given the controversial nature of Venezuelan media politics, however, the issue is likely to receive considerable play in the domestic and international media.