Venezuela: Hundreds march for press freedom

CARACAS: Hundreds of opponents of President Hugo Chavez marched in support of press freedom in Venezuela on Wednesday, two years after his government refused to renew the concession of an opposition-aligned television station.

Many protesters also waved flags in support of Globovision — a second anti-Chavez channel now under investigation by broadcast regulators.

"In a democracy, there is at least freedom of expression," said Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, an opposition leader who's been subordinated to a Chavez-appointed official since he was elected in November.

Protesters carrying torches marched peacefully to Venezuela's National Telecommunications Commission to turn over a symbolic copy of the constitution. Hundreds of police and National Guard troops looked on.

Since Chavez refused to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, on May 28 two years ago, Globovision is Venezuela's only remaining anti-Chavez television station on the open airwaves. RCTV now only airs on cable.

Earlier this month, broadcast regulators opened an investigation into Globovision for inciting "panic and anxiety" by criticizing the government for its slow response to a moderate earthquake.

Human Rights Watch and press freedom groups have criticized the investigation, saying it aims to harass Chavez's opponents.

Some marchers worried it could also be the beginning of a larger crackdown on news media.

"I'm sure that if they close Globovision ... they're going to go after the freedom of El Nacional and other newspapers in Venezuela," said Juan Andres Benain, a 33-year-old artist.

Chavez warned private news media this month that they're "playing with fire," and specifically targeted Globovision director Alberto Federico Ravell, calling him "a crazy man with a cannon."

But some Chavez supporters including Mariela Romero, 48, said they believe the closure of Globovision would be warranted because it supported a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez.

Romero, a street vendor, also said she doesn't believe that more "respectful" media outlets will be threatened.

"They don't think there's freedom of expression — but there is," she said, gesturing toward the marchers.