Anti-Chavez channel removed from cable


CHRISTOPHER TOOTHAKER

Published: Yesterday


Employees of the Radio Caracas Television, RCTV channel, sit beside a poster that reads in Spanish “journalists targets” outside of the channel offices in Caracas, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010. Venezuelan cable television providers have dropped a TV channel “Radio Caracas Television” which is critical of President Hugo Chavez from their programming, after a government official said the network violated broadcast laws.(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – A cable-television channel critical of President Hugo Chavez was yanked from the air early Sunday for defying new government regulations requiring it to televise some of the socialist leader’s speeches.

Venezuelan cable and satellite TV providers stopped transmitting Radio Caracas Television Internacional, an anti-Chavez channel known as RCTV, after it did not show the president’s speech Saturday to a rally of supporters.

While five other channels were also dropped from cable, some say the government took broader action to disguise its mission to shut down a popular, critical media outlet ahead of congressional elections and amid rising discontent over inflation, crime and electricity shortages.

Venezuelan pollster and analyst Luis Vicente Leon said the message is clear: “The government is willing to do everything to destroy its adversaries.”

“The government is willing to do everything to destroy its adversaries,” said Luis Vicente Leon, a Venezuelan pollster and analyst.

RCTV already was forced to switch to cable in 2007 after the government refused to renew its license for regular airwaves. Chavez accused the station then of plotting against him and supporting a failed 2002 coup.

Chavez said Sunday the latest action is about following the law.

“Whoever refuses to comply with the law, that’s what must be done,” he said on his weekly broadcast, calling for a round of applause for the telecommunications agency.

If channels don’t comply, he said, they won’t be allowed back on the air: “It’s their decision, not ours.”

Under the new rules, two dozen local cable channels, including RCTV, must carry government programming when officials deem it necessary, just as channels on the open airwaves already do. Chavez regularly uses that legal power to order broadcast TV and radio stations to carry his marathon speeches, which can last up to seven hours.

Though Chavez remains Venezuela’s most popular politician, he has slipped in the polls and is campaigning against an emboldened opposition to keep control of the National Assembly in September elections.

RCTV has asked the Supreme Court to block the new regulations. RCTV called the government’s actions illegal in a statement, saying the channel has done nothing wrong and has a right to defend itself.

In Caracas neighborhoods, Chavez opponents leaned out apartment windows early Sunday to bang on pots and pans. Others shouted epithets and drivers joined in, honking car horns.

The national journalists’ association called it a violation of human rights and freedom of speech. Its president, William Echeverria, condemned it as an “increase in censorship.”

The U.S. Embassy also saw cause for concern.

“Access to information is a cornerstone of democracy,” U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Robin Holzhauer said. “By restricting yet again the Venezuelan people’s access to RCTV broadcasts, the Venezuelan government continues to erode this cornerstone.”

Five international channels – Ritmo Son, Momentum, America TV, American Network and TV Chile – also were suspended after not providing authorities with required information about their programs and ownership, said Mario Seijas, president of Venezuela’s subscription television chamber. He said other cable channels are in similar situations and could be taken off the air if they don’t turn in required documents in the coming days.

Government figures say about 37 percent of Venezuelan homes received cable television in 2008. But some private companies say their research shows about six out of every 10 households have subscription TV service.

RCTV has a smaller audience than it did in 2007 but has remained popular. The channel claims that 90 percent of cable viewers say they watch RCTV.

“A hard-line current within the Chavez movement would have the government permanently take Radio Caracas off the air,” said Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela’s University of the East. “There are some Chavez movement leaders, however, who believe that the measure is ill-timed given the government’s current woes such as the rationing of electricity.”

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington said Chavez’s aim is censorship. “He is nervous about mounting problems and slipping popular support, so he is moving aggressively to tighten his grip on all fronts,” Shifter said.

In August, Chavez’s government forced 32 radio stations and two small TV stations off the air, saying some owners had failed to renew their broadcast licenses, while other licenses were no longer valid because they had been granted to owners who are now dead.

Globovision – the last opposition-aligned TV channel on the open airwaves – is also the target of multiple government investigations that authorities say could lead to the revocation of its broadcast license

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