Pro and Con Demonstrations Over Venezuelan TV Station’s Demise

The rising controversy surrounding the case of RCTV, the private Venezuelan TV channel whose broadcast license expires next week, could be seen in the streets of the Venezuelan capital yesterday and Sunday.

Mérida, May 22, 2007 (— The rising controversy surrounding the case of RCTV, the private Venezuelan TV channel whose broadcast license expires next week, could be seen in the streets of the Venezuelan capital yesterday and Sunday. Opposition groups and journalists held a march in defense of "freedom of expression" as a part of a campaign of protests that will culminate on May 27th, when the broadcast license expires. Chavez, meanwhile, swore in the board of directors of the new public service channel (TVES) that will replace RCTV.

The marchers in support of RCTV carried what they called "the longest banner in Latin America," claiming that the non-renewal of the station’s broadcast license infinrges freedom of expression in Venezuela. Government supporters, however, maintain that removing RCTV and replacing it with a new channel will contribute to more diversity and freedom on the national airwaves.

The director of the new channel, Lil Rodriguez, was appointed by President Chavez last week and spoke at her swearing-in ceremony yesterday. A respected Venezuelan journalist, Rodriguez assured that the new channel will be different from other existing channels and will have new and different programming with educational, entertainment, and public service content.

"We are going to give back what the big media, and the entertainment empire tried to take away from us," said Rodriguez during her speech yesterday.

According to the directors of the channel, TVES will be open to independent producers regardless of their political position. The new public service channel, with over 300 hours of programming ready, will replace RCTV on the national airwaves in the early morning hours of May 28 th.

But while the government works to prepare the new channel in the final week before its inauguration, opposition groups are increasing their campaign of protests against the government decision. On Saturday, tens of thousands of people from the Venezuelan opposition, led by opposition political parties and celebrities from the local media, marched through east Caracas, finishing with a large rally in front of the RCTV headquarters.

Yesterday marchers carried a kilometer-long banner through the streets of east Caracas ending up at the Organization of American States (OAS) headquarters in Las Mercedes, which read "Freedom of Expression, S.O.S." in ten different languages and was carried through the upper-middle class neighborhoods of Chacao and Baruta.

The objective of the banner, according to one of the journalists participating, was so that "the whole world realizes what is happening in our country."

"This is like a message in a bottle to the world, to denounce the crisis of freedom of expression in Venezuela and the aggressions suffered by journalists and the media," said another participant.

Finishing at the OAS offices, the opposition marchers submitted a document explaining their concerns about the future of Venezuelan democracy. Opposition groups have complained to the OAS on other occasions in the hope that the organization would consider the case.

Pro-government groups have also held marches and rallies in support of the decision and against RCTV. On Sunday, as a response to the opposition march the day before, an anti-RCTV parade of cars wove through Caracas. The long line of cars and motorcycles trailed along the major roads of the Venezuelan capital honking horns and bearing signs against the private TV channel.

Government supporters accuse the channel of participating in a coup attempt in 2002 that temporarily removed President Chavez from power, and installed a transitional government. In the days following the coup, RCTV and other private channels refused to broadcast images of popular protest in favor of Chavez, and instead broadcasted cartoons and movies assuring that nothing was happening in the streets.

The controversy will come to a head on May 27th when RCTV’s license expires and will have to give up its frequency to the new public service station. The opposition campaign has planned a big final march through the streets of Caracas to culminate the campaign in support of RCTV.

The government plans to deploy thousands of police to protect the marchers from any violence. Officials have warned that radical opposition groups could use the May 27th march as an opportunity to destabilize the Chavez government.