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Last Updated: Monday, 28 May 2007, 08:30 GMT 09:30 UK
Rallies as Venezuelan TV closes
Employees of Radio Caracas Television cry as the channel's signal is cut
RCTV employees broke down as the channel was pulled off air

Thousands of people have demonstrated in Caracas as Venezuela's oldest TV network went off air after President Hugo Chavez did not renew its licence.

Opponents of the decision to take Radio Caracas TV off air massed outside the station's HQ to voice their anger while Mr Chavez's supporters celebrated.

Within seconds of screens going blank, the insignia of a new state-sponsored broadcaster, TVES, appeared.

Mr Chavez said RCTV had tried to undermine his government.

The fight continues, freedom is something you have to fight for permanently
Marcel Granier
RCTV general manager

The president says the new channel that took RCTV's place at midnight on Sunday (0400 GMT Monday) will better reflect the socialist revolution he has pledged to lead.

RCTV and rights groups say Mr Chavez is limiting freedom of expression.

Employees of Venezuela's most watched channel embraced and chanted "freedom", before bowing their heads in tearful prayer, during the final minutes on air.

"Long live Venezuela. We will return soon," a presenter said, before the national anthem was sung and the screen went blank.

'Fight continues'

Thousands of supporters of the station took to the streets, banging pots and pans to show their anger at the decision.

Chavez supporters
Many Venezuelans back Mr Chavez's decision
Meanwhile, fireworks exploded across the capital as Chavez supporters celebrated the end of the station.

All Sunday, the police had strived to keep both sides apart.

However, at the most volatile moment, a group of alleged Chavez supporters made it to within a few streets of the channel's headquarters and shots were fired, says the BBC's James Ingham in Caracas.

It is not clear who was shooting but the police responded in kind. The result was panic as people fled the scene, our correspondent says.

RCTV KEY FACTS
Venezuela's oldest private broadcaster, founded in 1953
Only opposition broadcaster with national reach
In 2002, broadcast opposition calls to overthrow Chavez
Airs large numbers of telenovelas and reality shows

Earlier, police used water cannon, tear gas and plastic bullets to disperse stone-throwing demonstrators.

In a broadcast all of the country's TV stations were obliged to run, Mr Chavez said it had been his decision to shut down the station.

"That television station became a threat to the country so I decided not to renew the licence because it's my responsibility," Mr Chavez said.

RCTV's general manager Marcel Granier said that Mr Chavez was acting illegally and described the move to take the station off air as "abusive" and "arbitrary".

"The fight continues, freedom is something you have to fight for permanently," he said.

'Involved in coup'

RCTV will still be available on cable, but losing its public broadcast frequency will deprive it of most of its audience.

Image of Hugo Chavez (l) and RCTV chief Marcel Granier
RCTV chief Marcel Granier spoke out against Mr Chavez's decision

In place of RCTV, the new state-sponsored channel launched with programmes that Mr Chavez said would better reflect society, including a film about independence hero Simon Bolivar.

The government provided $4m (2m) of funding for the new station's launch.

Mr Chavez says that private stations like RCTV were involved in a coup that nearly toppled him five years ago and that they have since actively tried to bring down his government.

Mr Chavez has stepped up his radical revolution since being re-elected in December 2006.

With the power to rule by decree he has nationalised key sectors of the economy and is drawing his supporters together under one unified party.


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