Saturday, April 21st 2007 - 21:00 UTC

Venezuela: thousands march in support of freedom of speech

Thousands of Venezuelans from the opposition marched Saturday downtown Caracas in support of the oldest private television station Radio Caracas Televisión, RCTV, which is threatened with removal from the air if the government of President Hugo Chavez does not renew its license next May 27.

Waiving Venezuelan flags and placards in support of RCTV marchers called for freedom of speech and democratic rights. Meantime hundreds of Chavez supporters in red caps and T-shirts mounted a rival gathering nearby backing the government's decision not to renew the license of the station which they accuse of backing a 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chavez. Chavez's opponents charge that the former paratroop commander has decided not to renew RCTV's broadcast license when it expires May 27 in an attempt to silence a fierce government critic and also as a warning to other media outlets. Hundreds of police, including some in riot gear, were deployed across downtown Caracas to prevent any potential clashes. There were no reports of violence and the protesters reached their destination without confrontations. Chavez's decision has been criticized by international press freedom groups, the Catholic Church and others, and RCTV says the government has not presented a case with sufficient evidence to shut it down. RCTV would still have the option of continuing as a cable channel, but its top executive has ruled out that option. A spokesperson for the opposition National Resistance Command and one of the organizers of the march that convened citizens from all over the country underlined the spontaneous reaction of the people in taking to the streets in support of RCTV and other independent media of the country also threatened or intimidated by the Chavez administration. "What we are seeing is the people of Caracas and other parts of the country, marching, standing up, red and blue the colors of our flag defending our heritage, our democracy and freedom of speech", said spokesperson Oscar Perez. The announced non license renewal has caused several diplomatic incidents for the Chavez administration that has accused international organizations and parliaments of intervening in Venezuela affairs. President Chavez called the Chilean Senate a "bunch of fascists" for having voted a statement in support of RCTV. Something similar happened with Organization of American States Secretary General Miguel Insulza.

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