Peru Opposition Leaders Criticize TV Takeover

LIMA, Peru (Reuters) -- Opposition leaders in Peru criticized the government on Wednesday for taking temporary control of one of the country's largest television stations, accusing it of trying to restrain free speech.

President Alan García, a former socialist who has moved toward the right, defended the seizure on Monday of Panamericana Televisión by Peru's tax agency. He said the company owed $39 million in back taxes, and he insisted that press freedoms would be preserved.

In many South American countries, leftist leaders have been battling in recent years with broadcast stations and newspapers, and in some cases administrations have taken over or shut down broadcasters who have been critical of their governments.

Panamericana Televisión does not take a particularly hard stance against Mr. García's government, but opposition politicians contended that the seizure was a sign that Mr. García wanted to control the news media.

"I find it very suspicious," a former Peruvian president, Alejandro Toledo, who founded the opposition party Peru Posible, said in an interview on the local television station Canal N. "The government is moving to monopolize power."

Lourdes Flores, who has twice run for president and who leads Peru's largest right-of-center coalition, accused the government of moving to control the news media with an eye on the next presidential election, which will be in 2011.

Ms. Flores told reporters that she thought the government wanted control of Panamericana Televisión. "It will do everything it can to get it, at least through the elections," she said.

Mr. García, who is barred from running for a second consecutive term, denied that the move was politically motivated.

"Freedom of the press will be scrupulously respected," he told reporters at the National Stadium in Lima.

Peru's tax agency is expected to turn Panamericana Televisión back to the private sector within six months.

"Just as all Peruvians pay taxes when they buy things, a media company -- like all companies -- must pay," Mr. García said.