CARACAS, Venezuela – Police broke up an opposition protest using a water cannon and tear gas after hundreds took to the streets on Sunday condemning a decision by President Hugo Chavez to force Venezuela's most widely watched channel off the air.
Soaked protesters scattered while the stream of water swept the street, then sang the national anthem as they returned to face a column of riot police outside the state telecommunications commission.
Radio Caracas Television, the sole opposition-aligned TV station with nationwide reach, was due to go off the air at midnight because Chavez refused to renew its broadcast license.
Police said some of the protesters threw rocks and bottles, prompting them to respond with the water cannon. Police said at least four officers were lightly injured.
Inside the channel's studios, meanwhile, TV personalities embraced, wept and chanted "freedom!" before the cameras, mixing an emotional on-air goodbye with denunciations of Chavez's government.
"We are living an injustice," said Eyla Adrian, a 35-year-old presenter, her eyes welling with tears. "I wish that tonight would never come."
Chavez said he was democratizing the airwaves by turning RCTV's signal over to a public service channel.
"That television station became a threat to the country so I decided not to renew the license because it's my responsibility," Chavez said in a speech Saturday.
RCTV's top executive, Marcel Granier, said Sunday that Chavez's decision "marks a turn toward totalitarianism."
The socialist president and his supporters accuse RCTV of supporting a failed 2002 coup, violating broadcast laws and regularly showing programs with excessive violence and sexual content.
In 2002, RCTV and other private channels broadcast opposition calls for protests to overthrow Chavez while giving scant coverage to Chavez's return to power amid protests by his supporters.
Andres Izarra, who now heads the state-financed channel Telesur, said he quit his job as a newsroom manager at RCTV because he was disgusted with the way "everything was censored" during the coup.
"The order was 'zero Chavismo on the screen.' Nothing related to Chavez, his allies, his congressmen, members of his party," Izarra said. "When I hear the owners of RCTV talk about freedom of expression, it seems to me a great hypocrisy."
Granier insisted his channel has never sought to destabilize the government.
Hundreds of protesters gathered at the station's studios to condemn the shutdown.
"I want to live in a free country," said Elianna Castro, a 17-year-old student who said RCTV is one of the few channels that airs complaints about problems like rampant crime.
Thousands of red-clad government supporters held demonstrations elsewhere to show support for the measure.
"RCTV was exclusionist. You never saw blacks or Indians on its screens, and its programming promoted violence," said Gerardo Sanchez, 52, a student in a state cultural program. Dozens of Chavez supporters on motorcycles roared through Caracas in a caravan, waving red flags.
RCTV, founded in 1953, is Venezuela's oldest private TV station and has regularly been the top channel in viewer ratings. But Chavez calls its soap operas "pure poison" that promote capitalism.
Housewife Briceida Rivas, 28, said the new public service channel is cause for celebration, calling RCTV's programs "bad for children."
Venezuela's Supreme Court has ruled that the replacement station can use RCTV's broadcasting equipment and told the military to guard it.
"We're prepared for any attempt at sabotage," Information Minister Willian Lara said.
The government said the new channel, TVES, would be launched at midnight with a live program including musical performances, followed by a state-financed film about independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Most Venezuelan news media are in private hands, including many newspapers and radio stations that remain staunchly critical of Chavez. But the only other major opposition-sided TV channel is Globovision, which is not seen in all parts of the country.
Rafael Molina, president of the Miami-based Inter American Press Association, said he was "very worried that press freedom could perish completely" in Venezuela.
"The concession of broadcast frequencies should not serve to reward or punish media outlets for their editorial line," Molina said. He noted that less-critical stations were able to renew licenses that also expired Sunday.
Lara argued that RCTV was rejected because "it systematically violates the constitution. It is strictly a legal case."