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Radio Shutdowns in Venezuela Raise Controversy

The ongoing tug-of-war between Venezuela’s government and private media organizations has flared anew with the recent decision by President Hugo Chavez’s administration to revoke the licenses of dozens of radio stations.

Some observers say the move was meant to quiet voices of opposition to Chavez, but the government contends it is trying to rein in stations that have been operating outside the law.

On July 31, the government revoked the licenses of 34 radio stations, and refused to renew others. The next day, 13 had stopped transmitting frequencies, including CNB 102.3, where some 200 people gathered to protest in Caracas.

“This is a government attack,” said station director Zaira Belfort, quoted the Associated Press. “We want to keep living in democracy, and once again they’ve silenced us.”

She announced the organization’s intention to appeal the government orders.

But Diosdado Cabello, the public works minister who has overseen the shutdowns, affirmed that the seizures are legal and fair.

“The state is retaking control of concessions that were being used in an illegal manner during more than 20 or 40 years,” he said, according to the AP. “It’s an act of justice.”

The government has contested the licenses of the stations, which have expired or been passed on by previous owners without renewal. Stations had been given several weeks to renew their concessions; those who never reapplied for licenses were ordered to cease broadcasting.

“We haven’t closed any radio stations, we’ve applied the law,” Chavez said on state television. “We’ve recovered a bunch of stations that were outside the law, that now belong to the people and not the bourgeoisie.”

The government plans to turn the 34 stations over to community control, adding to the number of publicly owned television and radio stations in Venezuela, which has grown since Chavez took office in 1999.

Media and human rights groups based in Venezuela are reporting that more than 200 stations are under investigation for licensing issues. The majority of the stations were critical of the government, though not necessarily anti-Chavez, the AP reported. They provided a range of talk and musical programming.

The only strongly anti-Chavez station remaining on open airwaves, Globovision, is the subject of several such investigations. Government supporters rallied at the station this week, tossing tear gas canisters at the building. Lina Ron, a well-known leftist politician and Chavez supporter, but not a member of his political party, was identified as one of the leaders of the attack. The government reportedly denounced the violence against Globovision and issued a warrant for Ron’s arrest.

In a sign that lawmakers are wary of the polarizing debate over media controls, they decided not to take up a bill that would have placed more curbs on the private press, which was on the table when news of the latest shutdowns broke.

While the government has denied it is punishing critics, John Walsh, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the high number of polarized, opposition-minded radio stations in Venezuela was evidence of the government’s aims.

“The intent is a political power play,” he said. “It’s a show of the government’s ability to use procedure to shut down stations that by and large are oppositional.”

In Venezuela, the media has a history of being engaged in large-scale opposition efforts, such as broadcasting anti-government programming for three days prior to the removal of Chavez in 2002 by a group of military commanders. After weeks of violence and chaos, Chavez was reinstated.

“The feeling here is that the media has kind of stepped into a vacuum and is playing a role to a certain extent that political parties usually play,” said Steve Ellner, an American historian who lives in Caracas.

“The climate that has been facilitated by the media but also by the government makes it very difficult to have a debate within Venezuela about this because opinion is so polarized,” added Walsh.

“Chavez has made it clear for awhile that he mistrusts much of the media and sees it as a real drag on his own popularity,” Walsh continued. “He invests a lot of importance in the media’s role in shaping popular opinion.”

But despite questions over the media’s independence, Chavez has remained generally popular in the country, said Ellner, even with individuals who find fault with his policies.

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