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Rice Urges OAS to Check on Press Freedoms in Venezuela

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Monday expressed concern about press freedom in Venezuela after the closing of the nation's largest private television station. In Panama City, VOA's Brian Wagner reports Rice asked leaders of the Organization of American States to send a team to Venezuela to study the situation.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to Panama Monday for a meeting of the 34-nation Organization of American States.

The theme of the annual general assembly is boosting the reliability of energy supplies, and developing new sources of energy in the future.

In opening comments to delegates, Rice called for nations in the Americas to work together to address the challenges posed by rising energy prices, concerns about fossil fuel emissions and the promise of renewable forms of energy. She noted that President Bush has pledged to reduce what he calls America's addiction to oil, and that he has authorized $12 billion for research into alternative energy.

Rice also voiced concerns about press freedom in Venezuela, where officials failed to renew the broadcasting license of Radio Caracas Television. The government's decision to end broadcasts by the nation's largest private television station has sparked condemnation by the international community and street protests at home.

Rice said the role of the media is crucial to the proper functioning of any democratic government.

"Disagreeing with your government is not unpatriotic and it most surely should not be a crime in any country, especially in a democracy," said Condoleezza Rice.

Rice asked OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza to send a team to Venezuela to consult with the government and opposition leaders about the decision to shut down the opposition-linked RCTV.

Venezuela's Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro rejected Rice's statement.

Maduro said Secretary Rice's comments were an unacceptable attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of a democratic country like Venezuela.

Maduro used his speech to the assembly unleash an attack against the United States for alleged human rights abuses against terrorism suspects, illegal immigrants from Latin America and others. He also denounced what he called new efforts by the U.S. government to destabilize the administration of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

In an unusual move, Rice asked for an opportunity to respond to Maduro's claims. She pointed to the example set by U.S. television and other media outlets, where she said there is open debate and criticism of U.S. policies.

"In a democracy, the citizens of a country should have the assurance that the policies of their government will be held up to criticism by a free and independent press without the interference of their government," she said.

Panamanian journalists organized a series of protests to voice their opposition to the Venezuelan decision against RCTV on Monday. More than 20 television and radio stations interrupted their news programs with 30 seconds of silence to show solidarity for employees of RCTV, and seven newspapers published full-page advertisements sponsored by Panama's National Council of Journalists.

Outside the site of the OAS general assembly, a group of Panamanian journalists waved banners saying President Chavez will not succeed in silencing the Venezuelan people.