Chavez Vows to Strip License of Caracas TV Station

Caracas Television in Venezuela is critical of President Hugo Chavez. Now Chavez is promising to deny the station's license. Citizens and free-press groups worry that the move could damage democratic freedoms.

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In Venezuela, critics of President Hugo Chavez say he has never welcomed criticism, and now he's on the verge of silencing one of his most determined foes. Chavez has said that he will not renew the license of a major television station when it expires in May because he says Radio Caracas Television is a tool of the American empire. Press freed groups say they're alarmed by the decision, NPR's Juan Forero reports.

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

JUAN FORERO: It's early morning in Caracas, but a big crowd has formed outside the station known by its call letters, RCTV. They carry bullhorns and Venezuelan flags, and they charge that RCTV is out to topple Chavez. William Diaz(ph) is among the leaders of the protest.

Mr. WILLIAM DIAZ (Activist): (Through translator) They insult the president from here every day. This channel kneels before the American empire.

FORERO: Inside, television host Miguel Angel Rodriguez is on the air. He's a wiry inquisitor who is never soft on the Chavez administration. He accuses it of corruption, incompetence and taking Venezuela to Cuba-style communism.

Today his guest is Amerigo Martin. He is a prominent leftist who opposes Chavez.

Mr. AMERIGO MARTINE (Venezuelan Politician): (Through translator) We can't say that Chavez is a Hitler. That would be an exaggeration. But we're headed that way. If this regime began as an extreme authoritarian regime, it's on the way to becoming a totalitarian system.

FORERO: It's constant criticism like this that has fueled the government's anger. The government also accuses RCTV of supporting a 2002 coup that temporarily deposed Chavez.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

FORERO: With the overthrow, RCTV and other stations celebrated. And then, when the interim government began to collapse and it looked like Chavez would return, RCTV and the others took their news programs off the air.

Now stronger than ever, the Venezuelan leader is accelerating the state's role in key sectors. The telecommunications company is being nationalized. So are electric utilities. And he says Venezuela will this year take majority control of four huge oil projects from companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP.

On May 28th, Chavez says, RCTV's concession will end for good.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Through translator) Let them cry. Let them pout. Do whatever they want to do. The concession for that fascist channel is over.

FORERO: Marcel Granier is the director of the station. He acknowledges having supported opposition efforts. But he flatly denies supporting a coup and he says he tries to be fair.

Mr. MARCEL GRANIER (Director, Radio Caracas Television): If the president wants to come to station, he's free to come. If his ministers want to come to station, they are free to come. And on several occasions we have invited them and many times they declined the invitation.

FORERO: Press freedom groups note that non-renewal of a license is not censorship as long as the motivation is not political. Government officials say RCTV has violated laws, but they've been unclear which laws.

Carlos Lauria(ph), a Argentine journalist, led a delegation from the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists that recently met with government officials.

Mr. CARLOS LAURIA (Journalist; Delegate, Committee to Protect Journalists): When we met with the government, they said that RCTV were coup plotters. They said that they destabilize the government. Well, those arguments which have been given by different public officials, including President Chavez, are basically political arguments.

FORERO: If RCTV shutters, it's the end of a 54-year-old station that's been an icon here. RCTV produces the famous soap operas called telenovelas, exporting them to more than 80 countries. It has 3,000 employees, 250 of them working in the news department in bureaus nationwide.

In one of its studios it produces the top-rated soap "Te Tengo en Salsa," or "You're in the Hot Sauce."

(Soundbite of TV show "Te Tengo en Salsa")

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

FORERO: This soap is about two brothers who fall for the same woman. One actress on the program, Martha Olivo, came to work at RCTV in 1953.

Ms. MARTHA OLIVO (Actress): (Through translator) This is my life. This has been my home.

FORERO: For now the station is operating normally. Soaps and variety shows continue to be filmed in 16 studios. Carpenters prepare sets. Workers like Jeanette Leon(ph) are trying to put on a confident face.

Ms. JEANETTE LEON (Employee, Radio Caracas Television): We're really a big team and we're very optimistic that we're going to get through of this situation, and we're going to keep working as we're been doing it all these years.

FORERO: Still, no one knows for how long except perhaps President Chavez.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas, Venezuelan.

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