CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — To its critics, the Venezuelan newspaper 6to Poder represents pure yellow journalism.
The irreverent weekly recently ran a front-page photomontage of Venezuelan politicians' heads atop bodies in skimpy swimwear and asked readers which were the sexiest. Another photo collage, shortly before President Hugo Chavez announced he had cancer, depicted him in a hospital robe as if about to undergo surgery.
But when a judge ordered the newspaper to stop publishing last weekend after an issue that particularly enraged Chavez's allies, it became a flashpoint in a renewed debate over free speech.
"With strange speed, simply because that was the order, the weekly was prohibited from circulation due to the pure will of the government," opposition newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff wrote in an editorial in his daily, Tal Cual.
He said the court ruling set a disturbing precedent, comparing it to previous government decisions that forced 32 radio stations and the opposition television channel RCTV off the air.
The newspaper landed in trouble last Sunday as the latest issue was hitting the stands. A photomontage labeled "Chavez's women in power" depicted the Supreme Court president, the elections chief and four other prominent female officials as cabaret dancers in revealing skirts and high heels.
The text below described an imaginary scene in "the Cabaret of the Revolution," saying the women danced with high kicks to "attract the public to the Revolution" led by Chavez. An accompanying article promoted the view that various top officials who hold independent offices have become subordinated to Chavez.
The reaction was swift.
That same day, Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales denounced the article and the photo as offensive to women and an attack on public institutions. Other officials demanded legal action.
A judge ordered the newspaper to temporarily cease publishing, which was a first in Venezuela. The paper's director, Dinora Giron, was arrested at her home. She was released Tuesday after authorities said she was being investigated on criminal charges of insulting public officials, instigating hatred and publicly offending women.
The newspaper's editor and president, Leocenis Garcia, went into hiding. On Wednesday, he released an open letter to Chavez asking for the paper to be allowed to resume publishing and saying if that condition was met, "I'm willing to turn myself in within 48 hours."
The case against 6to Poder, or Sixth Power, has been criticized as a violation of free speech by the Miami-based Inter American Press Association, which has often clashed with Chavez's government and accused it of using tighter broadcast laws and criminal investigations to intimidate critical voices in the news media.
The country has many newspapers that are openly critical of Chavez, and the president's allies have defended the court's decision by arguing that 6to Poder flagrantly violates journalistic ethics all the time.
They cite, among other things, the paper's decision earlier this year to run a front-page photo of top anti-corruption official Clodosbaldo Russian in a hospital bed after he suffered a stroke. He was apparently unconscious and died shortly afterward, and officials criticized the paper for what they called a violation of privacy.
Pro-Chavez lawmaker Desiree Santos Amaral defended the court's order, saying the latest photomontage was an example of various irresponsible actions by the newspaper.
"It can't be considered humor," Santos said in an interview published Thursday in the government newspaper Correo del Orinoco. "They want to disparage the authorities making the people believe the country is a brothel run by President Chavez."
In a debate in the National Assembly on Monday, she called 6to Poder's editor a criminal and accused him of repeatedly engaging in unethical behavior.
"He's not a journalist," Santos said, noting there are various civil court cases pending that accuse Garcia of libel and slander.
Garcia, who according to his employees is the newspaper's majority shareholder, writes an opinion column in which he has alleged irregularities in the state oil company.
He was previously jailed for more than two years on charges including illegal possession of a weapon and damaging property including a computer and a table during a rampage at a newspaper office. He was released in 2010, and soon after founded 6to Poder.
Gabriela Ramirez, the country's public ombudswoman, was among those pictured in the latest montage and said "it didn't make us laugh." She said on state television that she and other officials called for the investigation in part because "we have to protect our institutions."
Defense lawyer Pedro Aranguren said he will appeal the judge's order that shut down the newspaper.
Several journalists showed up for work as usual in their small Caracas newsroom this week, saying they hope the decision is overturned. They said the paper has about 20 full-time employees.
Copy editor Lourdes Acosta said she was surprised by the outcry and suspects the photomontage was used as excuse to crack down for other articles the paper has published.
Reporter Jesus Linares, who leads an investigative team, said that he didn't know who produced the altered photo but that Garcia took responsibility for publishing it.
"If at some point they felt offended by the photomontage, well, we apologize because that was never the intention," Linares said. "We never thought all of this would happen."
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap