May 27, 2007
A riot police armored vehicle is used to spray water against opposition supporters during a protest outside of the National Commission of Telecommunications (CONATEL), in Caracas, Sunday, May 27, 2007. Police broke up an opposition protest using a water cannon and tear gas after hundreds took to the streets Sunday to condemn a decision by President Hugo Chavez to force Radio Caracas Television channel, the sole opposition-aligned TV station with nationwide reach, off the air by not renewing its broadcasting license.
CARACAS, Venezuela --
Police broke up an opposition protest using a water cannon and tear gas after thousands took to the streets on Sunday condemning a decision by President Hugo Chavez to force Venezuela's most widely watched channel off the air.
Soaked protesters scattered while the stream of water swept the street, then sang the national anthem as they returned to face a column of riot police and National Guard troops outside the state telecommunications commission.
Radio Caracas Television, the sole opposition-aligned TV station with nationwide reach, was due to go off the air at midnight because Chavez refused to renew its broadcast license.
Police said some of the protesters threw rocks and bottles, prompting them to respond with the water cannon. Police said at least four officers were lightly injured.
Inside the channel's studios, meanwhile, TV personalities embraced, wept and chanted "freedom!" before the cameras, mixing an emotional on-air goodbye with denunciations of Chavez's government.
"We are living an injustice," said Eyla Adrian, a 35-year-old presenter, her eyes welling with tears. "I wish that tonight would never come."
Chavez said he is 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 license because it's my responsibility," Chavez said in a speech over the weekend.
RCTV's top executive, Marcel Granier, said Chavez's decision "marks a turn toward totalitarianism."
The socialist president and his supporters accuse RCTV of supporting a failed 2002 coup, 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 while giving scant coverage to Chavez's 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 because he was disgusted with 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 said. "When I hear the owners of RCTV talk about freedom of expression, it seems to me a great hypocrisy."
Granier insisted his channel has never sought to destabilize the government.
Hundreds of protesters gathered at the station's studios to condemn the shutdown.
"I want to live in a free country," said Elianna Castro, a 17-year-old student who said RCTV is one of the few channels that airs complaints about problems like rampant crime.
Thousands of red-clad government supporters held demonstrations 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. Dozens of Chavez supporters on motorcycles roared through Caracas in a caravan, waving red flags.
RCTV, founded in 1953, is Venezuela's oldest private TV station and has regularly been the top channel in viewer ratings. But Chavez calls its soap operas "pure poison" that promote capitalism.
Venezuela's Supreme Court has ruled that the replacement station can use RCTV's broadcasting equipment and told the military to guard it.
Granier denounced the seizure of transmitting equipment by troops. "That is theft," he told reporters.
Most Venezuelan news media are in private hands, including many newspapers and radio stations that remain staunchly critical of Chavez. But the only other major opposition-aligned TV channel is Globovision, which is not seen in all parts of the country.