Venezuela's replacement of a popular opposition television station with a new state-backed network drew fierce criticism that President Hugo Chavez is curtailing democratic freedoms. Demonstrators, including university students, gathered at several locations in Caracas Monday after Radio Caracas Television ceased broadcasting and was replaced with a new state-funded channel. Venezuelan security forces have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters. Injuries were reported. In Caracas, VOA's Brian Wagner reports angry crowds protested across the capital Monday.

The state-backed Venezuelan Social Television began operations shortly after midnight, occupying the same frequency used by Radio Caracas Television. Communications officials had ordered the private station to hand over control for its transmitting equipment, after refusing to renew RCTV's public broadcasting license.

The new station's inaugural broadcast included traditional Venezuelan song and dance and a statement from the station's president, Lil Rodriguez.

Rodriguez says Venezuela has emerged as a self-respecting nation and now it has a new resource to broadcast messages of dignity for the nation and its people.

Promotional material for the new station said programming will include news, sports, soap operas and documentaries aimed at embracing pluralism and cultural diversity in the nation. Some of the programs broadcast Monday included cartoons and documentaries about rural areas and farming projects in the nation.

RCTV executives have condemned the decision to remove the private station from public airwaves and have vowed to challenge the move in the courts. Critics held marches late Sunday outside the National Telecommunications Commission to oppose the government's decision. Police said 11 officers were injured in clashes with protesters.

RCTV employees and university students staged protests Monday in parts of the city to criticize what they say is an attack on free speech. Bank worker Marycel Montiel said she joined one protest to denounce the authoritarian policies of President Chavez.

Montiel says the closing of RCTV is an affront to free speech in Venezuela, and compared it to measures taken in Cuba. She says the Venezuelan people do not want the nation to become another Cuba; they want freedom.

The European Union's German presidency Monday expressed concern about the government's failure to hold and open competition for the TV license and said it expects Mr. Chavez to uphold freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, Information Minister Willian Lara warned of possible legal measures against other media outlets for alleged political attacks on the government. In a press conference, Lara accused U.S. broadcaster CNN and Venezuelan cable network Globovision of using video images to create subliminal messages and false information. He says officials may file lawsuits in Venezuelan courts and abroad against the broadcasters.

Globovision chief Alberto Federico Ravell rejected the charges as ridiculous and baseless.