Venezuelans March to Support TV Station Critical of Chavez

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans marched Saturday to support a TV station aligned with opponents of President Hugo Chavez, whose government plans to kick the channel off the air next week by not renewing its license.

The protesters set off from four different points of the capital, converging downtown in the biggest show of support yet for Radio Caracas de Television, or RCTV, a network that has been critical of Chavez's government.

RCTV is due to go off the air at midnight May 27, when the government says its license expires. The channel and its supporters argue Chavez is trying to silence criticism, while the government says it will be replaced by a public-service station and that freedom of expression is being respected.

"If (Chavez) shuts down the channel, he's crazy," said Rafael Velasquez, a 27-year-old construction worker who traveled 150 miles from the city of Puerto La Cruz to attend the protest. "I don't think it's fair. He has to ask the people whether they want it or not."

The march was organized by the channel and 26 opposition political parties.

In a speech to protesters, RCTV chief Marcel Granier urged the Venezuelan president to heed the words of South American independence icon and Chavez hero Simon Bolivar: "He who rules must listen; the people are speaking."

The decision not to renew RCTV's license has been criticized abroad by press freedom groups, Amnesty International, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States and the Roman Catholic Church.

Founded in 1953, RCTV is Venezuela's oldest private network and broadcasts a mix of news, talk shows, sports, soap operas and a version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

"RCTV is a stronghold of liberties, of democracy, of telling the truth," said Eladio Lares, host of RCTV's version of the popular game show.

Chavez contests that, accusing RCTV and other opposition-aligned private media of supporting a failed 2002 coup against him by broadcasting cartoons and movies instead of covering street protests that aided his return to power.

Government supporters also accuse RCTV of biased coverage that has glossed over improvements in medical care, education and other social programs introduced by the Chavez administration.

Granier has said RCTV has the right to keep broadcasting until 2022 and challenged the government's decision in court. Venezuela's Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed the first of a series of legal challenges by RCTV to remain on the air but left open the possibility for the channel to seek redress through other legal means.