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Hugo Chavez Pulls 34 Radio Stations Off the Air

Some 200 Venezuelans gathered outside a Caracas broadcaster Saturday to protest a decision by President Hugo Chavez's government to revoke the licenses of 34 radio stations.

The demonstration occurred outside CNB 102.3 FM, which cut its over-the-air transmission Saturday morning on orders from the telecommunications regulatory agency and is now transmitting only over the Internet.

Station director Zaira Belfort said CNB planned to appeal the order, but she warned that the shutdown decision is likely "only the beginning of the closures of free media in Venezuela."

"This is a government attack," she said. "We want to keep living in democracy, and once again they've silenced us."

Chavez said Saturday that he approved the telecommunications agency's decision to shut down radio stations ruled to be operating illegally.

"We're applauding Diosdado for the decision he has made to take back these stations for the people," Chavez said, referring to agency chief Diosdado Cabello.

Chavez said previously that the revoked licenses could be given to broadcasters who share his socialist vision.

International media groups and human rights activists have accused the government of trying to stifle dissent. But Cabello denies the government is trying to limit freedom of expression or punish political opponents, saying licenses are being revoked only for violating regulations.

In announcing the revocations Friday, Cabello said some of the 34 stations failed to update their registrations or let their concessions expire, while others held licenses granted to an operator who is now deceased.

Chavez's socialist government has increasingly clashed with private media as it slowly tightens its grip over the industry.

More than 200 other radio stations are under investigation, as is Globovision — the only strongly anti-Chavez television station remaining on the open airwaves. Lawmakers, meanwhile, are discussing a bill that would punish yet-to-be-defined "media crimes" with up to four years in prison.

Victor Neda, a broadcast technician at CNB, said his job is at stake, adding that the closure would be a "very disagreeable" way to leave the station after working there 15 years.

"I never imagined it would happen this way," he said.

The Caracas station is one of 10 that CNB operates around Venezuela. Four others have also been closed, CNB executives said.

The company, which employs hundreds of workers, hasn't said how its staff will be affected.