Caracas. An international press freedom group is criticizing President Hugo Chavez for deciding not to renew the broadcast license of an opposition-aligned TV station instead of putting the issue to Venezuelan voters in a referendum.
In a letter sent to Chavez and released to the media on Thursday, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said Chavez's decision last month not to renew the broadcast license for Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, when it expires on May 28 would severely limit "editorial pluralism."
In a televised interview days before December's presidential election, Chavez said he would consider asking voters whether the government should block certain channels from renewing broadcast licenses.
"During the campaign that preceded your re-election, you suggested that renewing the frequencies of some broadcasters, among them RCTV, could be put to a referendum. Why then unilaterally make the decision to revoke the country's most watched broadcaster?" read the letter from Reporters Without Borders.
Without referring to the letter, Venezuelan Information Minister Willian Lara defended Chavez's decision while accusing the channel of repeatedly violating broadcasting laws.
Marcel Granier, a top RCTV executive, told a news conference Thursday that the station plans to challenge the decision in Venezuelan and international courts.
"The Venezuelan government is flagrantly violating the constitution as well as international treaties" guaranteeing the right to information and press freedoms, Granier said.
RCTV has a legal right to keep broadcasting until 2022, he said.
During a speech to supporters, Chavez said the decision is irreversible.
"The state has every right, the authority, to make this decision," he said. "They are jumping around, squealing, saying they are going to go to international courts. Let them go wherever they want to go, but the license is gone in May."
After Granier's news conference, dozens of RCTV employees protested the government's plans in a demonstration outside the station's studios in downtown Caracas. Several of the demonstrators covered their mouths with duct tape, on which they wrote "silence."
U.S. ambassador William Brownfield told local Union Radio that every country has the right to control its airwaves, but urged Venezuela to respect "agreements that oblige us to respect freedom of expression, press freedom."
Chavez, a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, says RCTV produces "poison" through "grotesque shows" that promote consumerism and violence. He has warned that the government could deny licenses to media outlets that he accuses of trying to topple his leftist administration.
The Organization of American States, the Roman Catholic Church and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists have urged Chavez to reconsider the decision not to renew RTCV's license.