Protesters rally against radio shutdown

Thousands of protesters rallied against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's plan to shut down 32 radio stations and two television stations. Protesters accused the government of censoring the media to advance Chavez's leftist-populist program.


AFP - Thousands of demonstrators on Saturday gathered around the offices of 34 broadcasters that were taken off the air in Venezuela after President Hugo Chavez argued they abused free speech.

Protestors railed against what they described as censorship, denouncing Chavez's leftist government as a "dictatorship" in chants.

Earlier crowds gathered in front of the national telecommunications regulator Conatel, which announced the closures.

Conatel's head, Diosdado Cabello, said Friday that 32 radio stations and two television stations would be shut down in the latest bid to tighten reins on the media as Chavez advances his leftist-populist program.

"It is not that we have shut some radio stations, we are implementing the law. We have put them back in the hands of the people and not the bourgeoisie," Chavez said in a televised address on Saturday.

Cabello said the closures were due to the stations' failures to meet legal operating requirements. The government has warned another 200 stations may face the same fate.

As some stations fell silent, there were hundreds of supporters in Caracas and other cities voicing opposition to the move.

Carlos Correa, director of the free speech NGO Espacio Publico, argued that the government is trying to "break national-level means of offering critical or independent content."

"We are witnessing the largest ever clampdown on free speech Venezuela has ever seen, unprecedented in its democratic era," Correa said.

He also expressed outrage that the government's new draft legislation on "media crimes" could send journalists to prison, and contains other proposed new legal limits on journalistic expression.

One of the leading radio networks silenced Saturday was CNB -- with five affiliates in Caracas, Valencia, Maracaibo, San Cristobal and Coro. Its news and feature programming was often critical of Chavez's government.

CNB owner Edgard Belfort said the move was "an opportunity to show us all that we are all stuck in this big problem. It is not just a problem for journalists, but a problem for all Venezuelans."

But Cabello insisted that the move was not censorship. He said there were procedural legal problems in all the cases of shutdowns, such as lapsed licenses and improper license transfers.

Radio is an important medium in Venezuela and News and Communications Minister Blanca Eekhout has charged there is an "international media campaign against the Venezuelan revolution," which she said made it necessary to step up media regulation.

"If media crimes cannot be prosecuted we will all be completely vulnerable," she said.

Journalist Vladimir Villegas, a former director at VTV state television, was troubled by the shutdowns.

"I think that you can carry out social transformation respecting diversity without having to silence your critics," he argued.

In 2007, Venezuela's government did not renew the license of private national television network RCTV, a tough anti-government critic. The government has threatened another network, Globovision, with a shutdown.

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