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Last Updated: Monday, 28 May 2007, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
TV row widens Venezuela's rift
By James Ingham
BBC News, Caracas

The political divide in Venezuela is enormous and the decision not to renew a licence for an opposition-aligned television station is exactly the sort of issue that widens that rift.

Pro-government supporters dance in the streets
Pro-government crowds welcomed RCTV's demise

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Caracas on Sunday, some to celebrate, others to protest that the country's oldest TV network was being stopped from broadcasting on its public channel.

President Hugo Chavez told his supporters to party and that is exactly what they did. But with opponents holding a rival rally not far away, the day ended with scenes of violence and disorder.

It started well enough. Salsa vibes filled the air in the centre of the city as revolutionary bands whipped the pro-government crowds into a frenzy.

"The beautiful revolution," they sang while people dressed in red T-shirts carrying socialist messages, danced away below them.

"This station should be closed," Doris Ramirez told me.

"RCTV does no good for the country. It doesn't represent the people and it disrespects the government."

Another woman told me she supported Mr Chavez because he helped the poor.

"I'm from the middle classes but I still vote for him because he's making such a difference. This TV station doesn't tell the truth."

Skirmishes

Across town, the mood was very different. Anti-government protesters were dressed in white T-shirts with S.O.S emblazoned across the front.

An emotional song written and performed by staff at RCTV blared out from speakers.

Demonstrators protest at against the decision not to renew RCTV's licence
Opponents denounced what they called an attack on freedom of speech

"No to the closure," they shouted. "Freedom," they chanted.

"Everyone has the right to watch what they want. He can't take away this channel," Emilio Berraterom said.

"Chavez thinks he owns the country. Well, he doesn't."

Reina Martinez waved her Venezuelan flag in my face. "We were born with RCTV," she said. "We don't agree with this president. He's not our president."

As the afternoon drew on, the protests got louder.

Government opponents played air raid sounds, blew whistles and banged pots and pans. Some converged on the headquarters of the broadcasting regulator to show their disapproval of the decision not to renew RCTV's licence.

With tight security in place, it was maybe no surprise that there were skirmishes. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd and driving through the streets on motorbikes, officers fired plastic bullets in the air.

With that rally moved on, attention turned to RCTV's headquarters. A few hundred people gathered near the station, where barricades had been erected and police were guarding the roads around the building.

The last moments of RCTV's output were emotional, with staff gathered in a studio for a final live broadcast. The people who had gathered outside joined in singing the national anthem.

Eerie sirens

But just after the switch- off at midnight, the emotional scenes became confrontational.

I was caught up in this, broadcasting from just outside the studios. It seems when a group of Chavez supporters got within a few blocks of the station, the police took action.

Opponents to the Venezuelan government clash with policemen guarding the entrance of the Telecommunications National Commission (Conatel) on 27 May
The atmosphere in the capital was tense throughout Sunday

Over the eerie air raid sirens, shots were fired in the air and people ran for cover. It was not clear who was firing at who, but a few minutes later, more shots rang out.

The atmosphere had become nasty. People ran as fast as they could down the narrow streets to get away from the clashes. We ran with them.

RCTV was no more, the protesters knew it and so they trailed home.

Across town the party wound up as RCTV's replacement, state-sponsored TVES, Venezuelan Social TV, continued to broadcast recorded programmes into the night.

RCTV's supporters say President Chavez has stamped on freedom of expression by silencing a channel that is often critical. They say they are determined to fight on to protect their rights.

The government says that the station violated broadcast laws and transmitted violent and morally degrading programmes. The decision to renew the licences of other broadcasters, ministers say, shows that Venezuela is democratic and pluralistic.

The arguments highlight, once again, how deeply divided Venezuela is.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Supporters and protesters take to the streets



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