Violent Protests Against Media Social Responsibility Measures Shake Merida, Venezuela

On Monday, violent protests against the temporary suspension of cable channels that violated media social responsibility laws in Venezuela left one pro-government and one opposition student dead, more than twenty police injured, and parts of downtown Merida burnt and damaged, while peaceful protests occurred in other major cities.

Mérida, January 26th 2010 ( – On Monday, violent protests against the temporary suspension of cable channels that violated media social responsibility laws in Venezuela left one pro-government and one opposition student dead, more than twenty police injured, and parts of downtown Merida burnt and damaged, while peaceful protests occurred in other major cities.

Local university students from the notoriously violent right-wing student organization known as the M-13 blocked three of Merida’s major avenues by burning tires and stolen vehicles. Wearing masks, they broke down city walls, looted and burnt local shops, and threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at police over the course of twelve hours.

The M-13’s riotous, campus-based demonstrations are well-known in Mérida. The protests have recurred with similar levels of violence for several years, intensifying in key moments to disrupt elections and to protest government policies.

State security forces appear to have done little to prevent the repeated riots, and, as was the case yesterday, usually resort to containing them within a geographic area using tear gas and plastic shrapnel, while the downtown area is filled with smoke, gas, traffic, vandalism, and fear.

As the riots worsened throughout the day on Monday, an armed group of government supporters arrived in trucks, evidently with the intent of breaking up the protestors. Eye witnesses identified several members of a well-known group of militants called the Tupamaros, who chanted “Long live Chavez!” referring to the country’s socialist president, Hugo Chavez.

On Monday afternoon, a teenage activist from Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela named Yorsinio Carrillo was killed by a bullet to his abdomen as he approached a residential complex adjacent to the protests. On Monday night, a 28 year-old medical student named Marcos Rosales was killed and three others wounded in a gun attack by unidentified assailants near the riots. And, twenty-two police officers were injured, eight of them hospitalized with wounds caused by bullets, blunt objects, and fire, according to a press release from the local police station.

Minister for Justice and Internal Affairs Tarek El-Aissami assigned a four-person team from the national investigative agency to take on the cases related to Monday’s violence. “We are not going to permit violence to be imposed on the country. We are not going to permit that their protests impinge upon the people’s principal right to demand to live in peace,” said El-Aissami told the press.

El-Aissami said national opposition leaders use the students as “puppets” in their efforts to overthrow the government, while they “never show their faces.”

“They are right wing, fascist groups and the student movement who think that because they are students they have the right to set fire to the country, to destabilize and riot,” said the minister.

Merida Governor Marcos Diaz said snipers located in the residential buildings surrounding the riots were responsible for some of the shooting. The director of the Merida State Youth Institute accused the opposition-aligned mayor of granting BsF 20,000 (US $4,650) in public funds to the M-13.

Protestors’ Motives

In a press conference, Liliana Guerrero, the M-13-backed student body president at the University of the Andes in Merida, stated the protestors’ motives. “We call for greater security, an end to the rationing of electricity, and we declare ourselves against the closure of RCTV International,” said Guerrero.

In recent months, the government initiated programmed power outages to conserve electricity amidst a national shortage caused by drought-induced low water levels in the nation’s dams and, many argue, bad government management of national electricity production.

Also, the government recently extended the jurisdiction of the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television to cover cable companies whose operations are 70% domestic. The law establishes standards for child and adult programming, prohibits discriminatory content and incitement to violence, and obligates stations to broadcast major government announcements.

Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) is a television station that actively supported a coup d’etat against President Chavez in 2002 and moved to cable after its public broadcasting license was not renewed in 2007. To avoid the government’s recent measure, it re-named itself “RCTV International,” but the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) ruled that 90% of RCTV’s operations and content are domestic, so it must abide by the social responsibility law.

After RCTV International disobeyed the law by refusing to transmit a government announcement on Saturday, CONATEL temporarily suspended the station’s broadcasting permit and said it could continue broadcasting if it re-registers as a domestic company and obeys the law.

Rioters in Merida on Monday accused the government of persecuting RCTV and of violating freedom of expression. This message was echoed in much of the privately owned media as well as in many peaceful opposition protests that occurred in several other Venezuelan cities.

Meanwhile, government supporters rallied outside the CONATEL offices in Caracas in defense of the measure.

OAS Response

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC), an organ of the Organization of American States, emitted a critique of Venezuela’s media law on Monday, and OAS General Secretary Jose Miguel Insulza asked Venezuela to allow the commission to visit Venezuela review the measure.

In response, Venezuelan Ambassador to the OAS Roy Chaderton said the commission is trying “once again to please the incurable coup-mongers.”

“[RCTV] decided to censor a message from the Venezuelan chief of state, in violation of the norms which in Venezuela, like in any democratic system, regulate the functioning of the media,” Chaderton said in a statement.

“Every time the democratic government of Venezuela applies the law to those who in the past bought their immunity and impunity with money, political support, and bribery, the IAHRC, in recurrent violation of its own norms, receives and makes declarations about politicized accusations without waiting for the proper internal mechanisms to be exhausted,” Chaderton continued.

Opposition students and pro-government students held peaceful rallies against and in favor of the measure outside the offices of state-owned television station VTV today. President of VTV, Yuri Pimentel, received a delegation of five opposition students.