CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans took to the streets Monday over one of the most polarizing issues in this South American country: the private media and its role in political life.
Tensions were already running high after the government announced a devaluation of the bolivar, a move that has halved Venezuelans' purchasing power, as well as nationwide electricity and water rationing. Then on Saturday, the government ordered that the opposition station Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) be shut down.
Popular as much for its soap operas as its news reporting, RCTV often takes an anti-Chavez slant in its programming, a rarity in a media market increasingly controlled by the government.
Chanting slogans such as "One, two, three, Chavez is struck out," and "I don't have light, I don't have water so I'm asking you, Chavez, to go," students marched to the headquarters of Conatel, the government telecommunications agency.
They were met by government supporters, including members of the Venezuelan Popular Unity, a group of left-wing militants who support Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution." The group is led by Lina Ron, who was arrested last year after she was filmed leading motorbike-riding radicals in an assault on the offices of Globovision, another anti-Chavez TV station.
At Monday's protest, police threw tear gas bombs at the students and fired plastic bullets. At least six demonstrators and one journalist were injured, the Associated Press reported.
The government had asked cable providers to close down the station after it refused to broadcast a speech by President Hugo Chavez on a day of marches marking the anniversary of the downfall of the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez. Under Venezuelan law, TV channels are obliged to air events and speeches deemed important by the president.
Chavez's detractors say he abuses the law for political gain. According to a study by the Media Monitoring Group, he ordered a "cadena" — which forces TV channels to interrupt their programming and broadcast his speeches — lasting an average of 45 minutes a day during his first 10 years in power.
The government changed the law to include cable channels in December, ruling that national stations must broadcast "socially responsible" programs. Critics say "socially responsible" is a byword for the government's agenda.
Cable channels whose content is more than 70 percent foreign-produced are exempt, a category under which RCTV claims it falls.
The government ruled that RCTV and five other channels were classified as national channels. When RCTV declined to air Chavez's speech, Diosdado Cabello, the head of the government telecommunications agency, said it was the cable operators who took the decision to take the station off the air because it was not adhering to the law.
Cabello said monitoring of the channel had concluded that 94 percent of its content was national. "They can be broadcast in Colombia, in Chile, in the United States, which is the panacea, in China. But wherever they want to be broadcast they are going to be forced to adhere to that country's laws."
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Reporters Without Borders both condemned the move. The closure "reveals yet again the government's allergic reaction to dissident voices within the country's leading broadcast media," the press freedom watchdog said.
Pedro Luna, a student at the Andres Bellos Catholic University in Caracas, said he was marching to protest the media's right to freedom of expression. "It needs to be fair on all sides — if you want a country to advance you need to know that there is difference of opinion, you can't look to have everyone thinking the same."
RCTV gained international fame in 2007 when Chavez revoked its terrestrial license as punishment for alleged complicity in a 2002 coup attempt, sparking large protests by the mainly anti-government student movement. The nationwide rallies helped lead to the defeat later that year of a referendum to remove presidential term limits. Chavez comfortably won another vote on the same subject last year.
RCTV continued operating on cable after its terrestrial signal was awarded to TVES, a newly created state channel that hews to the government line.
A fierce critic of Chavez, RCTV is not know for its balanced reporting, said Mariclen Stelling, director of the Caracas-based Media Observatory. By forcing the closure of the station, the government is playing by the letter of the law but not by the spirit of democracy.
"I always make a distinction between what's legal and what's legitimate," she said. "The government has always been careful to take measures that are legal. In this case Radio Caracas has not adjusted itself to the definition of an international channel and based on that Conatel is right, but what's in doubt is the legitimacy. Is this measure legitimate when it's against a channel that has confronted politically the government?"