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RCTV ceases broadcasting, amid escalating reactions to government's decision to not renew its frequency concession

(IPYS/IFEX) - As was expected, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) television station stopped broadcasting at 11:59 p.m. (local time) on 27 May 2007, after its frequency concession was not renewed by the government. The government's decision provoked strong reactions among both the public and other opposition media, in the days preceding and after RCTV's final broadcast.

On 23 May, the Politico-Administrative Bench of the Supreme Court (Sala Político-Administrativa del Tribunal Supremo de Justicia) declared inadmissible a request by RCTV to suspend the order not to renew its frequency concession, which meant the television station would stop broadcasting on 27 May. The Court, however, agreed to hear another legal action on the case. On 17 May, the Constitutional Bench (Sala Constitucional ) of the Supreme Court had declared inadmissible a legal action presented by RCTV against President Hugo Chávez and Minister of Telecommunications and Information Technology Jesse Chacón, for the non-renewal of the station's frequency concession.

The case began on 28 December 2006 when Chávez decided not to renew the station's concession; according to the government, the decision was taken because of the role played by the station during acts of violence which took place in April 2002. The president's order was ratified by the communications minister. On 11 May, the government created the Social Television Foundation (Fundación Televisora Social, TEVES), a station that will be financed by the State and will use RCTV's broadcast frequency. Its board of directors was sworn in on May 21.

IPYS is concerned not just about President Chávez's decision regarding RCTV, insofar as the allocation of radioelectric space concessions should be based on technical, not political, reasons, but also about the Supreme Court's ruling, as it undermines press freedom and freedom of expression. For this reason, IPYS asks the Supreme Court to initiate the trial expeditiously.

On 25 May, the Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court ordered as a precautionary measure that the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) take provisional control of RCTV's broadcasting equipment in order to guarantee that TEVES - the new television station that will now use RCTV's frequency - could broadcast throughout the country. The measure allows CONATEL to have access to and use the microwave systems, teleports, transmitters and other television equipment belonging to RCTV. The Supreme Court also ordered the Ministry of Defence to watch over and guard the premises and broadcasting equipment needed by the new station, which are located throughout the country.

The government's decision provoked a variety of reactions among the public, as the end of RCTV's broadcasts approached.

On 25 May, the facade of Globovisión television station's headquarters was painted with graffiti rejecting the station's criticisms of the government and expressing support for the closing-down of RCTV. The graffiti was painted by a group of members of the organization "Colectivo Alexis Vive" of Caracas's 23 de Enero neighbourhood. Some of them were wearing hoods.

On 27 May, another group of demonstrators painted similar phrases on the front of a building housing RCTV's subsidiary, Radio Caracas Radio, in downtown Caracas.

In a separate incident, also on 27 May, the state-owned television station Venezolana de Televisión's team of journalists, directed by journalist Daniel Castellanos, was assaulted by a group of demonstrators who were protesting against the end of broadcasts by RCTV, in front of CONATEL's headquarters. The demonstrators threw bottles at and insulted the reporters, who were behind the Metropolitan Police's security barrier. The police were guarding CONATEL's headquarters. The day before, that same team had been assaulted by demonstrators who were protesting in the centre of Caracas, also because of the RCTV case.

Also on 27 May, officials of the Ministry of Communication and Information prevented Globovisión television station journalist José Vicente Antonetti from attending a press conference by Minister William Lara on the RCTV case for the international media. The officials alleged that only those reporters accredited as foreign press had permission to enter. However, other Venezuelan private and state-owned media outlets such as Venevisión, Radio Nacional de Venezuela, Venezolana de Televisión and VIVE TV, were allowed entrance.

That same day, the General Director for Social Responsibility and Independent National Production of the Ministry of Communication and Information (Directora General de Responsabilidad Social y Producción Nacional Independiente del Ministerio de Comunicación e Información, MINCI), María Alejandra Díaz, warned during a press conference that the media will be sanctioned with 72-hour suspensions of their broadcasting if they broadcast messages that "promote discrimination or incite war".

The warning - based on articles 28 and 29 of the Radio and Television Social Responsibility Law, known as the "Ley Resorte" - was made after some television stations broadcast a communiqué by the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) which states its preoccupation for the situation of the freedom of expression in the country, after the government took the decision not to renew RCTV's concession.

Díaz, who is also a member of the TEVES board of directors, believes that IAPA's communiqué promotes misunderstandings about the law and causes public confusion.

Since 27 May, the Board of Directors for the Social Responsibility body, which is the entity in charge of the observance of the "Ley Resorte", is keeping an extraordinary watch over the behaviour of the media.

IPYS believes that the official's warning promotes self-censorship, as the media may stop reporting on certain issues for fear of being punished.

On 28 May, members of the Metropolitan Police and the National Guard fired buckshot at journalist Anushka Bonaluque, of Lima, Peru's television programme "Cuarto Poder", when she was covering a protest march by university students and journalists against the government's decision not to renew RCTV's concession. The journalist was hit by 25 pellets that wounded her in the back and arms. The attack took place in Brión de Chacaíto square, in southeast Caracas, where the protest was concentrated.

Also on 28 May, the Minister of Communication and Information, William Lara, asked Venezuela's General Prosecutor to initiate an investigation against Cable News Network (CNN) and television station Globovisión for broadcasting information that, according to him, incites people to violence. Lara believes this is part of an international campaign against Venezuela organized by these media outlets.

The minister presented his accusation after showing images broadcast by CNN in which President Hugo Chávez appears next to the image of an Al Qaeda leader; and another one in which a presenter describes the march in favour of RCTV which took place in Caracas accompanied by images of a march that took place in Mexico against the murder of a journalist. He also presented a video recently broadcast by Globovisión which recalled the murder attempt against Pope John Paul II in 1981. According to Lara, Globovisión is promoting Chávez's assassination with these images.

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