World

TV station closed as Venezuelans protest

Venezuela's oldest private television station went off the air at midnight Sunday as thousands banged on pots and pans to protest President Hugo Chavez's decision not to renew the licence of the opposition-aligned channel.

Venezuela's oldest private television station went off the air at midnight Sunday as thousands banged on pots and pans to protest President Hugo Chavez's decision
not to renew the licence of the opposition-aligned channel.

Fireworks exploded across Caracas as crowds of Chavez's supporters celebrated the expiration of Radio Caracas Television's licence and the birth of a new public service station that was created to replace it.

The studios of RCTV — an opposition-aligned TV station with nationwide reach — were filled with teary-eyed people who applauded, embraced and shouted "freedom!" in the final minutes on the air.

They said a prayer, and a presenter declared: "Long live Venezuela! We will return soon." Then the screen turned black, and within seconds was filled with the insignia of TVES, the new state-funded channel assigned to the frequency.

Chavez said Saturday he was democratizing the airwaves by turning RCTV's signal over to a public service channel.

"That television station became a threat to the country so I decided not to renew the licence because it's my responsibility," Chavez said.

RCTV's top executive, Marcel Granier, said on a morning talk show that Chavez's action "marks a turn toward totalitarianism."

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the station's headquarters to protest the shutdown.

"I want to live in a free country," said Elianna Castro, 17, a student who said she hoped to become a journalist.

Chavez backers applaud move

But red-clad government supporters gathered elsewhere to show support for the measure.

"RCTV was exclusionist; you never saw blacks or Indians on its screens, and its programming promoted violence," said Gerardo Sanchez, 52, a student in a state cultural program.

The socialist president and his supporters accuse RCTV of supporting a failed 2002 coup against him, violating broadcast laws and regularly showing programs with excessive violence and sexual content.

In 2002, RCTV and other private channels broadcast opposition calls for protests to overthrow Chavez, but they largely ignored coverage of his return to power amid protests by his supporters.

Andres Izarra, who now heads the state-financed channel Telesur, said he quit his job as a newsroom manager at RCTV in 2002 because of the way "everything was censored" during the coup.

"The order was 'zero Chavismo on the screen.' Nothing related to Chavez, his allies, his congressmen, members of his party," Izarra told the Associated Press. "When I hear the owners of RCTV talk about freedom of expression, it seems to me a great hypocrisy."

Most media in private hands

Most Venezuelan news media are in private hands, including many newspapers and radio stations that remain critical of Chavez.

But the only other major opposition-sided TV channel is Globovision, and it is not seen in all parts of the country.

The president of the Miami-based Inter American Press Association, which represents 1,400 publications, said Sunday he was "very worried that press freedom could perish completely" in Venezuela.

"The concession of radio electric frequencies should not serve to reward or punish media outlets for their editorial line," Rafael Molina told a news conference. He noted that less-critical stations were able to renew licences that also expired Sunday.

Information Minister Willian Lara argued that RCTV was rejected because "it systematically violates the constitution. It is strictly a legal case."