Judge halts media mogul's trip

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A senior judge has warned Jesus de Polanco, chairman of the Spanish media empire Prisa, that he is shortly to be summonsed to answer allegations of fraud in the group's television company, Canal Plus. Prisa says it is being harried by government sympathisers seeking to punish the group for its ties to the former ruling Socialists.

Judge Javier Gomez de Liano on Friday refused permission for Mr Polanco to travel to the United States later this month to accept an honorary doctorate at Brown University. The judge said he would be demanding Mr Polanco's appearance in court at that time. Prisa condemned the ruling as "incomprehensible and gratuitous".

Prisa Group, which owns Spain's leading newspaper El Pais and has a shareholding in The Independent, launched its successful pay-per-view television operation jointly with Canal Plus of France and a clutch of Spanish banks in 1989. In January, the venture was relaunched as Sogecable, to include a new digital satellite channel.

Within weeks, a law professor sued Mr Polanco and the Canal Plus board, accusing them of misappropriating 23bn pesetas (pounds 115m) paid in the early 1990s by subscribers as deposits for decoders. The professor, Francisco Javier Sainz Moreno, said Canal Plus invested the deposits instead of keeping them in a special account. He also accuses Mr Polanco and his fellow directors of defrauding subscribers of VAT benefits conceded by the former Socialist government. Prisa denies acting improperly.

While investigating the suit, the judge told Mr Polanco he could not leave the country without asking permission. When Mr Polanco asked, permission was refused. Advance warning of Mr Sainz Moreno's complaints were given ample coverage in publications belonging to Prisa's rivals.

Prisa believes government sympathisers are piling on the pressure following a surprise agreement last Christmas Eve between Canal Plus and the other main private channel, Antena Tres, over rights to football - key to the success of digital television in Spain.

The deal dashed the government's hopes of launching its own digital operation, in co-operation with the Mexican media giant Televisa. Ministers dispatched to parliament a bill enabling the government to restrict broadcasts of major sports events by digital pay-TV programmers. Prisa condemned the measure, but the government said it was defending the public interest.