NATALIE OBIKO PEARSON
June 02, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela --
Thousands of red-clad supporters of President Hugo Chavez strode through the Venezuelan capital Saturday seeking to counter a national outcry over the government's removal of an opposition TV station from the air.
The march was in response to a week of large, sometimes violent protests by students who warned that freedom of expression is threatened by Chavez's refusal to renew Radio Caracas Television's broadcast license, which forced it off the air May 27.
Reggaeton music blared and fireworks crackled as thousands of "Chavistas" gathered at an opposition stronghold in wealthy eastern Caracas before converging with other marches in the capital.
Information Minister Willian Lara said the march would "demonstrate before the world that the non-renewal of (RCTV's license) ... is a democratic conquest," claiming the private media has been "held ransom by a small economic group."
Chavez accuses RCTV of inciting a failed coup in 2002 and violating various broadcast laws.
Many marchers said they backed RCTV's removal because they opposed the sexual and violent content of its entertainment shows, and found the news programs biased.
Meanwhile, in Mexico City, a small group of demonstrators gathered outside the Venezuelan Embassy to protest Chavez's decision. Foreign governments and press groups have also condemned the move.
Although many of Venezuela's media outlets, including newspapers and radio stations, are privately owned and critical of Chavez, the RCTV case concerns some because it was the only opposition-aligned TV station with nationwide reach. Chavez has said another major TV channel critical of the government, Globovision, could also face sanctions.
The issue has revealed Venezuela's deep political divide: Globovision has aired almost nonstop coverage of the protests with opposition commentary, while state TV initially ignored them before denouncing them as opposition movements.
Retiree Alfredo Cambeiro said Chavez supporters like himself recognize the need for a critical press but that the country lacks a truly objective outlet. He said he hopes the new state-funded channel that replaced RCTV will fill that hole.
"I want to see substantive, constructive criticism," Cambeiro said.