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Tens of thousands of citizens took to the street - some to celebrate, others to protest - after Venezuela's oldest television network lost its licence and went off the air on Sunday, prompting numerous IFEX members to comment that President Hugo Chávez was limiting freedom of expression.

Demonstrators from both sides of the issue rallied in Caracas on 27 May after President Chávez refused to renew the licence of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), a station allied with the opposition, after 53 years of being on the air. The BBC reports that in one of the largest demonstrations in Caracas, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at up to 5,000 protesters, some of whom tossed rocks and bottles at police.

The President said he made the decision because the channel openly supported an April 2002 coup attempt and "became a threat to the country." He also said the channel aired shows that failed to meet public interest standards.

But a number of press freedom groups say the closure was arbitrary and would erode free speech. "The closure of RCTV is a serious violation of freedom of expression and a major setback to democracy and pluralism," says Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF). "President Chávez has silenced Venezuela?s most popular TV station and the only national station to criticise him, and he has violated all legal norms by seizing RCTV?s broadcast equipment for the new public TV station that is replacing it."

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) concluded after a three-month investigation that the government's decision was "predetermined and politically motivated." "In the months before and after the announcement, the government held no hearings, followed no discernible application process, and provided RCTV no opportunity to respond to assertions made by top officials," says CPJ.

CPJ also found that other news outlets have limited their critical programming for fear of losing access to the airwaves. Of the three channels which sided against Chávez in the coup two have since neutered their news coverage, reports Human Rights Watch. A fourth, Globovision, continues to attack the government but reaches only 10 percent of viewers, says the UK-based "Guardian" newspaper.

RCTV, which airs a large number of soap operas and reality TV shows, will still be available on cable, but losing its public broadcast frequency will deprive it of most of its audience. In place of RCTV, the new state-sponsored channel TVES was launched with programmes that Chávez said would better reflect society.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its Venezuelan affiliate, the National Union of Press Workers (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Prensa, SNTP), say the closure could mean job losses for up to 3,000 RCTV workers, who were not consulted in the decision.

The decision not to renew RCTV's licence has deepened the vast political rift in Venezuela. While thousands of protesters banged pots and marched with tape across their mouths during RCTV's last public broadcast on Sunday, thousands of others rallied in support of the non-renewal, saying the government was right to replace a channel notorious for anti-Chávez propaganda.

In the weeks prior to the decision, followers of the revolutionary movement Tupamaros painted messages supporting the non-renewal of RCTV on the station's walls, accusing RCTV of producing "terrorist" journalism, reports the Institute for Press and Society (Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, IPYS).

Some leftwing politicians, academics and commentators in Europe have also backed the government, citing that 90 percent of the media in Venezuela is privately owned and virulently opposed to Chávez. "This is not a case of censorship," said a group of prominent individuals, including John Pilger and Howard Pinter, in a letter to the "Guardian". "Imagine the consequences if the BBC or ITV were found to be part of a coup against the government. Venezuela deserves the same consideration."

The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) said in an open letter to Chávez that while RCTV's position during the coup was "deplorable" - because the station "violated Venezuelans' right to information in moments crucial for democracy in their country" - it recommended that the government implement an appropriate process to investigate and bring to trial those responsible.

Even after RCTV aired its last public broadcast, AMARC reports that the following day in Rubio, Táchira state, a group of reporters from a local television station were beaten up and forced to hand over their footage of a student protest against the closure.

In a separate development, IPYS reports that an entertainment reporter was gunned down on 19 May during a birthday party at his mother's house in Maracay, central Venezuela. An armed man burst into the house and shot Nelson Álvarez Narváez, a columnist with the newspaper "El Siglo de Maracay", six times. The motives are unknown.

Visit these links:
- RSF:
- CPJ letter to Chávez:
- CPJ special report "Static in Venezuela":
- IFJ:
- AMARC on attack on reporters:
- Human Rights Watch:
- IPYS on Tupamaros:
- IPYS on Álvarez:
- BBC News:
- Letter in the "Guardian":
- "Guardian":
(Photo: AP)

29 May 2007

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