Chavez yanks critics’ channel; students protest

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Hundreds of university students protested anew against President Hugo Chavez on Tuesday, accusing the socialist leader of forcing an opposition-sided TV channel off cable and satellite as a means of silencing his critics.

Demonstrators marched from Caracas’ central plaza to the headquarters of the leading government-run television channel where they condemned the removal of Radio Caracas Television Internacional, or RCTV, and accused state media of biased reporting.

“Tell the truth,” student leader Roderick Navarro told the channel’s representatives. “We don’t want this media outlet to continue dividing the people.”

Government officials argue that RCTV violated recently approved regulations that require two dozen local cable and satellite channels to televise mandatory programming, including Chavez’s speeches, whenever the government deems it necessary.

The channel, which has been fiercely critical of Chavez for years, did not transmit the president’s speech to his supporters over the weekend. RCTV was forced to move to cable in 2007 after Chavez refused to renew its license for regular airwaves, accusing the station of plotting against him and supporting a failed 2002 coup.

Five other channels were also dropped from cable, none of which is as widely watched as RCTV.

In a televised address, Chavez said one of them, TV Chile, contacted the telecommunications agency and will probably be permitted to return to cable and satellite.

For years, Chavez has frequently forced television channels to air his marathon speeches. But the rules had applied only to broadcast TV until last month, when the state-run telecommunications agency expanded them to include local pay-TV stations.

The new regulations have been roundly criticized by Chavez opponents, the Roman Catholic Church and media organizations.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, accused the president of cracking down on independent media that don’t share his socialist views.

“Chavez has sought to intimidate and punish broadcasters who criticize his government,” Vivanco said in a statement. “Now he’s also going after those who refuse to promote his own political agenda.”

Some recent protests over RCTV’s disappearance from cable have turned violent.

Two youths were killed on Monday amid skirmishes involving police, anti-Chavez students and government supporters in the western state of Merida. One of the victims was shot dead while the other was killed by an explosive, according to Merida Gov. Marcos Diaz.

Police and students also clashed in Caracas, where at least six demonstrators and a journalist suffered minor injuries.

Tuesday’s demonstration in the capital was peaceful.

  • Fabiola Sanchez