President Hugo Chavez's decision not to renew the broadcast license of a television station critical of his government is intensifying fears of media censorship as the fiery leader accelerates his march toward socialism.
Last month, Chavez announced that Radio Caracas Television, Venezuela's oldest private station, would cease broadcasting after its license expires May 27.
Chavez accuses the station, widely known as RCTV, of spreading disinformation and broadcasting soap operas and other programs that violate the nation's 2004 media law restricting violence and sexual content over the airwaves.
He also charges that RCTV's general manager, Marcel Granier, took part in the 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chavez from power.
"They were part of the team of conspirators," said Saul Ortega, a pro-Chavez congressman. "It's a subversive channel that is outside the law."
Granier has denied participating in the 2002 uprising against Chavez and said the station's only crime is to challenge what he and other critics describe as the Venezuelan leader's growing stranglehold on power.
"What's in play is the right that people have to be informed and entertained," Granier told the Caracas newspaper El Universal. "What's in play is the right of journalists to do their job independently, without being threatened."
Groups ranging from Venezuela's Roman Catholic Church to the Organization of American States have condemned Chavez's decision to shut RCTV.
"It's hard to imagine a more obvious case of censorship," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch. "President Chavez decided to punish the television channel because he doesn't approve its editorial line..."
In addition to announcing plans to nationalize Venezuela's electrical industry and its largest telecommunications company, Chavez is seeking to strip Venezuela's Central Bank of its autonomy while uniting his supporters under a single leftist party.
The Chavez-dominated National Assembly is expected to grant the president decree-making powers so he can promulgate a host of "revolutionary laws."...
Programming on the state's longtime flagship station, Venezolana de Television, often resembles a giant campaign ad for Chavez and his populist policies. One broadcast last week equated capitalism with misery and hate, while praising socialism as embodying equality and collectivism.
"We have all been under pressure in the past few years," said Miguel Otero, editor of the Caracas daily El Nacional.
Julio Borges, leader of the Primero Justicia party, said RCTV is extremely popular among the nation's impoverished majority. Globovision, a 24-hour cable channel also critical of Chavez, has a far smaller audience consisting of mostly wealthier Venezuelans, he said.
"I can go on Globovision and I'm talking to 10 percent or 20 percent of the population in the best case," Borges said. "I go on RCTV and all of Venezuela is watching."