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Venezuela TV Closing Raises Fears About Press Freedom

Venezuela's government is pressing ahead with plans to strip the public broadcasting license of a critical television station. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports the decision has sparked public protests and concerns about press freedom in the country.

Thousands of Venezuelans held street protests in Caracas this week to defend a television station that is to be taken off public airwaves in coming days. Supporters of Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, say it is being targeted for broadcasting opposition views and fierce criticism of the nation's government.

Venezuelan officials are refusing to renew RCTV's broadcasting license when it expires on Sunday, and say a new station will take its place. The government has accused RCTV of violating a variety of public decency rules and say it backed a failed coup against President Hugo Chavez in 2002. RCTV executives deny the coup charges.

Speaking Tuesday, President Hugo Chavez, suggested the decision to replace RCTV is in line with his government's socialist goals.

He said that television station now belongs to all the Venezuelan people, and will be called Venezuelan Social Television.

Officials say the new station will include programs made by community groups and independent producers, which will not be controlled by officials.

Several press freedom and human rights groups have expressed concern about the lack of transparency about the decision to force RCTV off the air. A team from the Committee to Protect Journalists met with Venezuelan officials earlier this year to discuss the allegations against RCTV, including claims of backing the 2002 coup.

Carlos Lauria, Americas program coordinator for the press group, said officials were reluctant to document the allegations against the station.

"We came to the conclusion that the government's decision was taken beforehand, was pre-determined, and it was clearly politically motivated," he said.

Lauria says that several television stations have been accused of backing the 2002 coup, by collaborating with coup plotters or slanting their coverage against the government. He says RCTV is being singled out now, because it has failed to tone down its criticism as other stations have done in recent years.

Rafael Lima, a former television reporter in Latin America, says the threat against RCTV is reminiscent of press crackdowns by Cuba and other authoritarian governments.

"They are going to use any excuse to shut down any opposing press. It's just the blue print of those governments," he said.

Latin America experts often compare the social and economic reforms engineered by President Chavez to the policies of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The comparison in this case may be unfair, says John Virtue, director of Florida International University's International Media Center, which helps train independent Cuban journalists.

"Castro's crackdown was very, very brutal," Virtue said. "And of course this has not happened in Venezuela, because the print press has not been touched."

Virtue says Venezuela continues to have a vibrant written press that embraces a variety of opposition and pro-government views.

Television remains the dominant medium in Venezuela, however, and the decision against RCTV shows the kind of power that the government wields. Carlos Lauria says the threat to strip broadcasting licenses has had a profound impact on the media environment.

"If you talk to journalists working for the private media, they will say there is no freedom of expression and the government is restricting any kind of coverage. If you talk to journalists working for the state media you will hear a completely different story," he said.

Lauria says that state-run broadcasting is seeing its influence rise under President Chavez, which he says only serves to exacerbate tensions with private media.

It is unclear if RCTV will continue to fight the government's decision after its broadcasting license expires Sunday. Authorities have said RCTV may be free to continue its broadcasts on cable television, where the station is likely to have a fraction of the viewers it has had on public airwaves.