CARACAS, Venezuela—Globovision, the last television network in Venezuela openly critical of President Hugo Chávez, accused the government on Thursday of attempting to drive it off the air by preventing the station from transitioning to the country’s new digital TV signal.
A day earlier, Vice President Nicolás Maduro officially launched digital transmission of the country’s leading broadcasters, announcing plans to hand out decoders that would turn analog televisions into digital. Officials didn’t say how long the transition would take.
But Globovision wasn’t on the list of channels officials said would be available, and the company says it has been excluded from all meetings the government has held with other broadcasters about the planned transition.
Government officials said the “test period” would include 11 channels, three of which would be private networks. They added that more broadcasters would eventually be included.
“We called this a death sentence because for now we can still broadcast, but eventually there will only be a digital and at that moment we will be gone,” said Ricardo Antela, a lawyer for Globovision. “Our opinion is that this move is because of our editorial line. We are independent but this is the only channel where you can hear the voices of the opposition.”
The government has yet to respond to Globovision’s requests for an explanation for the exclusion, Mr. Antela said. A government spokesman declined to comment and calls to Venezuela’s national telecommunications regulatory body, known as Conatel, went unanswered.
Globovision has remained a thorn in the side of the Chávez government even as the firebrand socialist has tightened his grip over the media during his 14 years in power. In 2008, Mr. Chávez pulled the broadcasting license of RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest and most-popular television channel, and has closed dozens of radio stations for regulatory infractions.
Mr. Chávez, who is in a military hospital in Caracas battling cancer, has clashed with the network on numerous occasions, accusing it of conspiring against his government and distorting the news in favor of the opposition.
In 2010, the government acquired about a 25% stake in the firm after completing a takeover of Banco Federal, a midsize bank whose president, Nelson Mezerhane, was a major shareholder of the network. The move hasn’t softened Globovision’s editorial stance.
Mr. Mezerhane and fellow Globovision owner Guillermo Zuloaga both fled to the U.S. in 2010, ahead of arrest warrants they have claimed are politically motivated. Mr. Mezerhane is accused of stealing bank customers’ deposits while Mr. Zuloaga is charged with illegally storing more than 20 new vehicles from a car dealership he owns at a private residence.
Last year, Globovision paid a fine of more than $2 million levied by media regulators who accused the channel of reporting distorted and false news coverage of a prison riot and attempting to stir widespread unrest.
In 2009, a group of militant pro-Chávez thugs attacked Globovision’s headquarters, but were later arrested by authorities who denounced the action.
“The Chávez government has used legislative threats and regulatory bodies to gradually and progressively break down the Venezuelan private press, while building an unprecedented state media empire that has been used to launch smear campaigns against the opposition,” said Carlos Lauría, Americas senior program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.
“In terms of Globovision, this is the only remaining critical broadcaster still standing that has fought against fines, administrative proceedings and even direct violence against its staff and has been forced to defend itself in court,” he said.
Mr. Chávez has repeatedly waved off criticism from international media watchdogs and human-right groups who accuse his government of restricting free speech, saying these organizations are attempting to undermine his government and are aligned with the U.S. and its allies.
Mr. Chávez’s moves against media in Venezuela have created a blueprint for other populists in the region, who have gone after powerful media groups and reduced freedom of the press, analysts say.
“It’s a model of governing that has spread among these Bolivarian countries,” like Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador, said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch. “The president changes the law to control broadcast media and then uses the bully pulpit to go after any media that opposes them.”
In Argentina, President Cristina Kirchner is locked in a bitter battle against the country’s sole independent broadcaster, Grupo Clarin. In the past few years, Mrs. Kirchner’s administration has greatly expanded the number of openly pro-government broadcasters, while passing a media law that analysts say is clearly aimed at dismantling Clarin.
Like Globovision in Venezuela, Clarin has become openly hostile to the government—polarizing opinions even further.
In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has waged his own fight against big media companies, whom he has referred to as “cavemen” and “sewers with antennas.” His government has shut at least 11 radio stations in the past year, many of which were critical of his presidency, according to the CPJ.
In recent years, Mr. Correa’s government pressed criminal charges against three owners of the newspaper El Universo and a columnist for defaming the president in a column. The men were sentenced to three years in jail and the newspaper fined $40 million, but Mr. Correa lifted the charges after an international outcry.
Mr. Correa, having won easy re-election last weekend, is pushing a new media law that critics say will make it risky to have any negative political coverage.