Using water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, the police used brute force against the close to 5,000 protesters. They had gathered on Monday to protest the shutdown of private TV channel Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), which had been critical of the government. Afterwards, small groups of demonstrators engaged in skirmishes with the police in several locations in the Venezuelan capital. At least three demonstrators and one policeman were injured.
Protests also occurred in the university town of Valencia on Monday. Four students were injured. At the protest rally in Caracas, RCTV anchorman Miguel Angel Rodriguez called out: "They will not silence us!" But the new public TV channel Tves was already broadcasting on RCTV's former frequency by then.
Venezuela's new public television channel Tves went on the air at 01:50 a.m. with a weighty historical movie: "Bolivar eterno" ("Eternal Bolivar") was the title of the mammoth work on South America's liberator. The show was produced last year by the Villa del Cine foundation, created by President Hugo Chavez in order to battle the "dictatorship of Hollywood." The show was followed by a morning workout program (07:00 a.m.), a documentary film on an expedition to Greenland (09:36 a.m.) and a brief seven-minute portrait of a cattle breeder (10:30 a.m.).
Though ratings haven't been released, it seems likely fewer people tuned in than had watched the soap operas on the private RCTV channel, which previously broadcasted on Tves's frequency. Its license expired on Sunday night. The channel's stars and starlets sang the national hymn with tears in their eyes during the final minutes before closing down. Then a giant "Fin" ("The End") flickered across the screen before it went black. Shortly thereafter, Tves began broadcasting.
The Inter American Press Association (SIP) criticized the Venezuelan government's refusal to extend RCTV's license as a blow against freedom of the press. The European Union also criticized the muzzle placed on the private channel, noted for its criticism of the government.
The action taken against RCTV represents yet another step in Venezuela's shift towards authoritarianism. When Chavez was first elected in 1999, the government controlled only one TV channel and two radio stations. Today it controls four government-owned TV channels, including the international news channel Telesur, and seven radio stations.
Chavez cherishes television as an instrument of rule, and he's on the air almost daily with his own program "Aló Presidente." The "socialism of the 21st century" he wants to implement works by remote control: Zap through the channels in Caracas and you'll always see the president's face somewhere. Each of the state leader's public appearances is broadcast live on the state channels. Those who miss out on his golden words can make up for the lapse by tuning in to one of the numerous rebroadcasts.
Private Channels as Propaganda Weapons
But the private channels aren't exactly bastions of independent journalism either. The two largest channels RCTV and Globovisión are abused by their owners as political and propaganda weapons against the government. Those in Venezuela who want to inform themselves about the political situation have to tune in to CNN en Español or the BBC over the Internet. No channel that is independent and critical of both sides exists in the country. Indeed, the media are as divided as Venezuela itself: Either you're for the president or you're against him.
Chavez has settled an old score by with the blow dealt to RCTV. The channel supported a putsch against him five years ago. The tradition-rich channel, whose earnings came mainly from its telenovelas, sided with the businessmen and military officers who had planned the coup d'etat.
When Chavez returned triumphantly into the presidential palace 48 hours later, the channel's days were already numbered. While Chavez chose not to close RCTV down, he never minced his words about his decision not to renew the channel's license beyond 2007. RCTV refused to be intimidated by the threats: On the orders of Marcel Granier, the channel's director and now self-styled frontline fighter for freedom of the press, RCTV's journalists engaged in vitriolic attacks against the president every day.
Cooperation with Capitalist Media Moguls
Generally speaking, Chavez doesn't really have a problem with capitalist media moguls -- that is, as long as they're not hostile to him. Chavez has reached a kind of silent handshake agreement with discrete tycoon Gustavo Cisneros, owner of a giant media empire and one of the wealthiest men in Latin America. As part of it, Cisnero's TV channel Venevisión, the largest and most important private network in the country, spares the president from critical reporting. Millionaire friends like whiskey importer Arturo Sarmiento have also had licenses for new private channels arranged for them by Chavez. "Politics has no business on TV," says Sarmiento.
Now the opposition has only one channel left with which to wage its political battles -- the private network Globovisión. Its journalists valiantly continue their attacks on the president. They like to refer to Chavez's dark skin and lower-class origins. Class and race hatred are part of the Venezuelan propaganda war.
Globovisión's license expires in 2014. Experts doubt the license will be extended -- assuming Chavez is still in power then.
In fact the government asked the public prosecutors office on Monday to investigate the channel because it allegedly called for attempts on Chavez's life. The supposed proof consisted of images, aired by Globovisión as part of a feature, of the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, to which the song "Have faith, this doesn't end here" could be heard. "They incite the assassination of Venezuela's president," Venezuelen Information Minister William Lara said.