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Venezuelans protest closure of TV station

Students march against the shuttering of an opposition TV station popular as much for its soap operas as its news reporting.

Students hold a banner that reads "Struck out," a barbed remark aimed at President Hugo Chavez. Venezuelans opposed to Chavez have taken to displaying such banners at baseball games. (Charlie Devereux/GlobalPost)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans took to the streets Monday over one of the most polarizing issues in this South American country: the private media and its role in political life.

Tensions were already running high after the government announced a devaluation of the bolivar, a move that has halved Venezuelans' purchasing power, as well as nationwide electricity and water rationing. Then on Saturday, the government ordered that the opposition station Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) be shut down.

Popular as much for its soap operas as its news reporting, RCTV often takes an anti-Chavez slant in its programming, a rarity in a media market increasingly controlled by the government.

Chanting slogans such as “One, two, three, Chavez is struck out,” and “I don’t have light, I don’t have water so I’m asking you, Chavez, to go,” students marched to the headquarters of Conatel, the government telecommunications agency.

They were met by government supporters, including members of the Venezuelan Popular Unity, a group of left-wing militants who support Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution.” The group is led by Lina Ron, who was arrested last year after she was filmed leading motorbike-riding radicals in an assault on the offices of Globovision, another anti-Chavez TV station.

Venezuelan students march through the streets of Caracas.
(Charlie Devereux/GlobalPost)

At Monday's protest, police threw tear gas bombs at the students and fired plastic bullets. At least six demonstrators and one journalist were injured, the Associated Press reported.

The government had asked cable providers to close down the station after it refused to broadcast a speech by President Hugo Chavez on a day of marches marking the anniversary of the downfall of the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez. Under Venezuelan law, TV channels are obliged to air events and speeches deemed important by the president.

Chavez's detractors say he abuses the law for political gain. According to a study by the Media Monitoring Group, he ordered a "cadena" — which forces TV channels to interrupt their programming and broadcast his speeches — lasting an average of 45 minutes a day during his first 10 years in power.

The government changed the law to include cable channels in December, ruling that national stations must broadcast “socially responsible” programs. Critics say “socially responsible” is a byword for the government’s agenda.

Cable channels whose content is more than 70 percent foreign-produced are exempt, a category under which RCTV claims it falls.

The government ruled that RCTV and five other channels were classified as national channels. When RCTV declined to air Chavez’s speech, Diosdado Cabello, the head of the government telecommunications agency, said it was the cable operators who took the decision to take the station off the air because it was not adhering to the law.