Published May 28, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela – As the clock struck 11:58 p.m., all of Caracas, Venezuela, seemed to hold its breath.
Moments later, the country's most popular television station, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) went to black … for good.
It wasn't that RCTV, after 53 years, had lost its popularity; nor was it that an economic downturn had dictated the station's fate. It was that Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, decided that RCTV — one of four privately owned television stations in the country and the only one do maintain its opposition to Chavez — was a threat to his government.
The early morning's events were the culmination of a week of battles in the Venezuela Supreme Court. On May 23, the court ruled that RCTV had to stop broadcasting by May 28, upholding Chavez' decision not to renew their license when it expired on May 27. That decision was the result of years worth of hatred and suspicion over RCTV's criticism of his regime, earning it the title of one of the "Four Horses of the Apocalypse."
Still, RCTV executives, actors and journalists called for a peaceful demonstration, as crowds began to gather earlier in the day outside the station's studios in Caracas. They spoke out against Chavez and his totalitarianist regime which, the station said, had now taken the jobs of 3,000 people and trampled on freedom of expression. Yet Marcelo Granier, RCTV's owner and director general, made it clear that while revolution was afoot, it would be made not through violence, but through peaceful action.
Apparently, not everyone got the message.
As our crew spread out before midnight with multiple cameras to cover as much activity as possible, it seemed that RCTV would have its way. More than 100 police lined up in riot gear along the street behind the throngs of supporters, but they simply kept a watchful eye as the people watched the large flat screen that RCTV staff had set up outside. They chanted, they sang … they behaved.
I was stationed inside the lobby to be ready for a possible National Guard takeover; late Friday, the Supreme Court had added insult to injury by insisting that the new television station that would take over RCTV's frequency (Tves, a government run public service station) could also take over any and all equipment it needed to make the transition as seamless as possible. There was talk that the National Guard might storm the building and start yanking cable. But at 12:15 a.m., still nothing.
I told the rest of the crew that things were quiet inside, and as our drivers were not going to pick us up for another half hour, I was going to walk up the street where a line of police had closed it off to traffic. Equipped with a handicam (that was all but useless in the dark) and a passport, I went to go shoot the officers in their riot gear.
As I got up to the line, an argument broke out between one of the RCTV supporters and the police. It turned into a tussle and the supporter was thrown to the sidewalk. It seemed like an isolated incident … until I heard glass crashing some distance behind me. I turned around to see teenagers throwing glass bottles at the officers and pressing forward, getting bolder as they got closer to us. More glass smashed around my feet and I looked up and saw people throwing bottles from open windows. I turned back to the police line to see what their response would be. Several were now holding shotguns and protective shields.
I had barely glanced back to see progressive of the advancing boys when:
A group of police fired off their weapons at the oncoming youths as they ducked behind their shields. Someone pushed me up against a wall as they ran past. I noticed that there were now about half dozen journalists near me … and I was the only one without a flak jacket.
At the risk of sounding like some kind of masochist, there is something exhilarating about being utterly defenseless. I could not run back to the safety of the RCTV station as I would be running into gunfire; nor could I run further backwards because of the now more intense arguments between police and supporters behind me. And staying put was impossible because bottles were being hurled down from the sky in a steady stream.
So with one arm I covered my head and in the other hand I held the handicam as steadily as I could and starting running with the police, figuring if I kept even with them I would stay out of the line of fire. As I ran, covered my head, and kept shooting video (and tried to keep my expletives to a minimum so the video would be airable), I managed to call our New York Assignment Desk and tell them what was going on. I didn't have to say much. The shotgun fire gave it away.
Hugging the walls of the buildings along the sidewalk, I finally reached the station, and found my colleagues Adam Housley and cameraman Keith Railey. They had been right near the action as well, but from a different vantage point, and were now shooting what had grown into a massive police presence. More supporters started fighting with the officers and the police finally beat one of them into submission, stripping him of his trousers and dragging him (literally) into a police van.
And then somewhat suddenly, things were calm again. Supporters and police retreated to their respective sides of the street. The RCTV building, which had been on lockdown since the shooting began, reopened its doors. The only differences between now and 30 minutes ago were a street covered in glass, trash and shell casings, and an uncomfortable tension that had settled over the whole neighborhood.
Later, talking with one of the witnesses, I asked him about that tension, whether this was the worst of it.
He shook his head and gave a crooked smile. The worst of it? He asked. This is just the beginning.
The question that Venezuelans are now asking themselves is, the beginning of what?
Nora Zimmett is a FOX News' producer.