June 1st, 2007
The Carter Center called for dialogue Thursday between President Hugo Chavez and opponents protesting his decision to force an opposition TV channel off the air, while relative calm returned to the streets after three days of demonstrations.
The Atlanta-based organization founded by former President Jimmy Carter expressed concern about the potential for escalating violence after the government halted broadcasts by Radio Caracas Television on Sunday. Police have repeatedly clashed with angry crowds hurling rocks and bottles since Chavez refused to renew the station's broadcast license.
"Healthy democracies require spaces for political dialogue and debate to allow divisions about the future direction of the country to be addressed in peaceful ways," the Carter Center said.
The Paris-based media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders accused Chavez of seeking to stamp out the country's opposition media entirely.
In parts of Caracas, Venezuelans walked to work along sidewalks Thursday littered with rocks and debris from the protests.
Justice Minister Pedro Carreno said that 182 youths including some minors were detained during the protests, and 107 of them had been presented to public prosecutors.
Humberto Prado, the director of a local prison watch group Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, told The Associated Press that 259 protesters have been arrested since the weekend and that 76 youths between the ages of 18 and 23 remain in custody. He said authorities in some cases refused to give them access to lawyers for more than 34 hours.
Carreno told state-run TV that two suspects were arrested for their alleged role in the killing of a student from the Andres Bello Catholic University who had taken part in the protests. Andreina Gomez Guevara, 24, was shot three times at a gasoline station in Caracas by hired gunmen, Carreno said.
The university condemned the shooting in a statement, but said it believed the case was unrelated to Gomez Guevara's participation in the protests.
Thousands of student protesters chanting "freedom!" have marched through Caracas since Sunday when RCTV was taken off the airwaves. Although the marches were generally peaceful, there were several scuffles between students and Chavez supporters.
The Carter Center, which has observed past elections in Venezuela, said it is concerned that "non-renewal of broadcast concessions for political reasons will have a chilling effect on free speech."
Reporters Without Borders said in a statement Thursday that RCTV's removal from the airwaves is a "prelude to the progressive disappearance of all the opposition press."
Chavez accused RCTV of helping incite a failed coup in 2002 and violating various broadcast laws. He said his decision to replace it with a new state-funded public channel, TVES, was a step toward "democratizing" the airwaves.
During the 2002 coup, RCTV and other private channels broadcast opposition calls for protests to overthrow Chavez while giving scant coverage to his return to power amid protests by his supporters. RCTV denied wrongdoing, but critics argue many countries would yank the license of any channel that allows government foes to openly call for a rebellion.
The Carter Center said if denial of a license is based on alleged crimes, such as backing a coup, "these should be tried through the justice system before