34 Radio Stations Forced Off Air in Venezuela

Radio hosts hung their heads as their FM station was forced off the airwaves along with 33 other broadcasters targeted by President Hugo Chavez's government in what critics say is a campaign to muzzle his foes.

For the first time in decades, CNB 102.3 FM fell silent over the
weekend after Venezuela's telecommunications regulators revoked
some of the 34 stations' licenses and refused to renew others.

But CNB challenged the government action within hours by
starting to transmit programming over the Internet. Sportscaster
Juan Carlos Rutilo told his online listeners: "Today freedom of
expression is being restricted. ... Today you have one less
option."

Media groups and human rights activists note more than 200 other
stations are under investigation for allegedly not being properly
licensed and accuse Venezuela's leftist leader of pursuing a
widening crackdown to silence dissent.

In a similar step, one of Chavez's leftist allies, Ecuadorean
President Rafael Correa, announced Monday that "many" radio and
TV frequencies will revert to the state over what he called
irregularities in their licenses. He gave no specifics.

A majority of the stations affected in Venezuela aired
criticisms of the government, though they were not overtly
anti-Chavez and much of their programming ranged from American rock
to salsa and traditional Venezuelan music.

In the country's polarized media landscape, CNB took a
relatively balanced approach by interviewing pro-Chavez lawmakers
while also having opposition politicians among its talk show hosts.

Venezuela still has many private radio stations and newspapers
that take a hard line against Chavez and strongly criticize the
government through both news reports and commentary. But in the
last decade, the government has built a growing coalition of
state-run media outlets, and some TV channels once virulently
anti-Chavez have toned down their criticism.

The only stridently anti-Chavez television channel that remains
on the open airwaves, Globovision, is facing multiple
investigations that could force it off the air.

Tensions ran high at Globovision's studios Monday as government
supporters, riding motorcycles and waving the flags of a radical
pro-Chavez party, tossed tear gas canisters at the station.

The channel said one guard suffered a burned hand when he tried
to pick up one of the canisters, and a police officer posted
outside was hit in the head by a hurled object and required
stitches. Globovision broadcast video showing clouds of tear gas
outside the building as employees ran for cover. Two workers were
treated after inhaling tear gas.

Globovision's director, Alberto Federico Ravell, condemned the
violence and urged Chavez to control his backers. He said some of
some of the armed assailants threatened security guards.

Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami condemned "this violent
action against a television channel" and said authorities were
investigating.

The telecommunications agency's decision to act against the 34
radio stations set off an outcry from press freedom groups and
rights activists, who contend Chavez is trying to gradually push
aside critical voices.

Hundreds of Venezuelan protesters gathered outside the CNB radio
station over the weekend to express their outrage.

"I feel the country that I knew, where I was raised, is
slipping away," said Alix Villareal, a 43-year-old maid who cried
alongside other demonstrators. "I'm sad because little by little
they are taking away everything, and nobody does anything."

Public Works Minister Diosdado Cabello, who heads the
telecommunications agency, announced the decision to force the 34
stations off the air Friday, and denied the government is trying to
punish critics.

Cabello said the stations violated regulations by failing to
update their registrations or allowing their licenses to expire.
Others held licenses granted to a person who is now deceased, he
said.

"The state is retaking control of concessions that were being
used in an illegal manner during more than 30 and 40 years,"
Cabello said. "It's an act of justice."

Chavez has defended the decision to sideline the radio stations
as part of a "struggle against the media war, against the lies of
the bourgeoisie and the oligarchy" - terms he frequently uses for
his opponents.

It remains unclear what will become of the radio frequencies
that have been vacated. Chavez has suggested some could be handed
over to create "popular radio in the hands of the people."

While some of the 34 stations are now transmitting over the
Internet, most have simply shut down and are mulling their next
move.

Five of the 10 stations owned by CNB president Nelson Belfort
lost their licenses. The broadcaster's revenues are expected to
tumble, putting the jobs of its 200 employees at risk, CNB vice
president J.J. Bartolomeo said in an interview at the station's
offices in Caracas.

The station "is looking at all the possible alternatives so the
impact is reduced," he said.

Belfort, who also heads the Venezuelan Broadcasters Chamber,
complained that the telecommunications agency didn't allow for due
process. "We didn't have a right to defense," he said.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights
Watch, accused Chavez of leading "a frontal attack on freedom of
expression," saying Venezuela's government is trying to stifle
dissent.

Vivanco condemned a proposal now being discussed by Venezuelan
lawmakers to punish yet-to-be-defined "media crimes" with up to
four years in prison. In a statement last week, he called the
proposal "a recipe for censorship."


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