Thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets of the capital, Caracas, to protest the government's plans to take the country's oldest private television channel, R-C-T-V, off the air.
The government of President Hugo Chavez says it will not renew R-C-T-V's license. Its frequency is to be taken over by a new government-funded channel called T-V-E-S. Opponents say the move is part of a wider government attempt to silence criticism. R-C-T-V is known for broadcasting, along with entertainment programs, discussions about government corruption and inefficiency -- subjects that receive little attention from state-run media.
The protest against R-C-T-V's impending removal from the airwaves was organized by Venezuelan journalists. One of the organizers, Rafael Fuenmayor, a reporter from the Globovision twenty-four-hour news channel, told the Associated Press that "threats to freedom of expression affect all citizens equally; it doesn't matter if you are pro-government or against the government." Globovision is one of two major opposition-aligned television station in Venezuela, but its signal does not reach all parts of the country. Two other television stations recently toned down their coverage.
The Organization of American States criticized the Chavez government's moves against R-C-T-V. O-A-S Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said that failing to allow R-C-T-V to continue to broadcast "would be seen as a form of censorship against freedom of expression." The governments of Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Paraguay and the United States expressed support for Mr. Insulza's position.
International human rights groups have also criticized the Chavez government's plan to silence R-C-T-V. "President Chavez is misusing the state’s regulatory authority to punish a media outlet for its criticism of the government," said José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch. "The move to shut down R-C-T-V," he said, "is a serious blow to freedom of expression in Venezuela."
In a statement on threats to press freedom worldwide, President George W. Bush listed Venezuela among countries that severely restrict journalists and freedom of speech. "Where governments suppress, manipulate, and control access to information, journalists are on the front lines of the people's battle for freedom," said Mr. Bush. The United States, he said, "values freedom of the press as one of the most fundamental political rights and as a necessary component of free societies."