Venezuela’s oldest television network went off the air at midnight Sunday in a move slammed by the opposition as a new push by President Hugo Chavez to tighten his grip on the nation’s media.
Police fired water cannon to disperse protesters in Caracas just before RCTV screens showed recorded images of its teary-eyed employees singing the national anthem and then the screen went black.
The channel’s successor, Chavez-backed TVes, began broadcasting about 20 minutes later. TVes president Lil Rodriguez urged Venezuelans to display “responsibility within the framework of the constitution.”
As 53-year-old RCTV faded into history, network president Marcel Granier told US-based Univision television that Chavez was driven by “a megalomaniacal desire to establish a totalitarian dictatorship.”
He told reporters that he was certain that “democracy will return to Venezuela, along with RCTV.”
Using water cannon, police dispersed thousands of stone-throwing protesters outside Venezuela’s telecom authority, which ordered the station off the air.
Chavez supporters held a huge, night-to-dawn public party outside RCTV studios to celebrate the birth of the new “socialist television” and the end of the bitterly anti-Chavez media outlet.
The closure of Venezuela’s oldest network, the latest episode in President Chavez’s socialist revolution, sparked many protests.
Chavez’s political opponents championed RCTV as an opposition voice and sharply criticized his refusal to renew its broadcast license.
Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled that RCTV must temporarily leave its equipment and broadcast infrastructure in military hands to ensure that TVes can provide quality service.
Granier called the decision “an unconstitutional seizure of our equipment.”
Some 70 to 80 percent of Venezuelans opposed the closure, according to recent polls.
Chavez announced the decision not to renew RCTV’s license soon after he was re-elected in late 2006.
During the campaign, RCTV openly called for the president’s defeat, and Chavez never forgave the network for calling for an April 2002 coup that deposed him for two days.
“The decision was mine” to close RCTV, Chavez said Saturday, calling its steamy soap operas “a danger for the country, for boys, for girls.”
RCTV, which airs “telenovelas” soap operas and variety shows, had one of the largest audiences in Venezuela and is one of the few stations with national broadcast capabilities.
The government will now control two of the four nationwide broadcasters in Venezuela, one of them state-owned VTV.
However, the government renewed the broadcast license for Venevision, RCTV’s main competitor, which expired Friday.
Venevision is owned by billionaire Gustavo Cisneros, who dropped his open opposition to Chavez in 2004.
Since 1999, Chavez has gradually tightened his grip on power and in January the National Assembly allowed him to rule on most matters by decree, without legislative debate.
Criticism of the RCTV shutdown poured in from around the world, including from Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders and the US Senate, which unanimously approved a resolution last week expressing “profound concern” over the move.
El Nacional daily in a front-page editorial said RCTV’s shutdown marked “the end of pluralism” in Venezuela and the government’s growing “information monopoly.”
The government said other media could still carry the RCTV signal. However, Granier said, “the government is pressuring cable and satellite companies not to carry us.”
RCTV filed charges Saturday with the Inter American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.