The Government of Hugo Chavez closed down 34 radio stations across Venezuela over the weekend, prompting claims by opposition critics that he was trampling freedom of expression rights and triggering angry street protests in Caracas and other cities across the country.
President Chavez, below, has a record of trying to muzzle both radio and television broadcasters who criticise his push to turn Venezuela into a socialist state. In 2007 he ordered the shuttering of RCTV, a television channel that consistently questioned his policies. He has meanwhile opened an aggressive investigation of Globovision, another private TV broadcaster that now fears being shut down.
Officials insisted that the radio stations targeted in the current crackdown were being penalised, not for political reasons, but because they had committed various infractions connected to maintaining their licenses. "It's not that we have shut some radio stations, we are implementing the law," Mr Chavez said, before adding: "We have put them back in the hands of the people and not the bourgeoisie."
As protests spread, however, 200 people gathered outside the main offices of the CNB radio network which was forced to end its over-the-air transmissions on Saturday with continuing service available only on the internet. This is "only the beginning of the closures of free media in Venezuela," warned the station's director, Zaira Belfort. "This is a government attack. We want to keep living in democracy, and once again they've silenced us."
The move against the stations came only days after a draft law was introduced in the country's parliament that would define a series of new "media crimes", which, if approved, would allow the government to imprison journalists for up to four years.
"We are witnessing the largest ever clampdown on free speech Venezuela has ever seen," said Carlos Correa, director of the free speech advocacy group, Espacio Publico. He said the government intended to "break" independent media. While Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma said the government was "scared of freedom of expression".
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