CARACAS, Venezuela — A cable-television channel critical of President Hugo Chavez was yanked from the air early Sunday for defying new government regulations requiring it to televise some of the socialist leader's speeches.
Venezuelan cable and satellite TV providers stopped transmitting Radio Caracas Television, an anti-Chavez channel known as RCTV, after it did not broadcast Chavez's speech Saturday to a rally of political supporters.
"They must comply with the law, and they cannot have a single channel that violates Venezuelan laws as part of their programming," Diosdado Cabello, director of Venezuela's state-run telecommunications agency, said Saturday.
The telecommunications agency "doesn't have any authority to give the cable service providers this order," RCTV said in a statement. "The government is inappropriately pressuring them to make decisions beyond their responsibilities."
RCTV switched to cable in 2007 after the government refused to renew its license for regular airwaves. Chavez accused the station of plotting against him and supporting a failed 2002 coup.
Under the new rules, two dozen local cable channels, including RCTV, must carry government programming when officials deem it necessary, just as channels on the open airwaves already do. Chavez regularly uses that legal power to force the country's broadcast TV and radio stations to carry his marathon speeches, which can last up to seven hours.
The changes, decried by the opposition, journalism groups and viewers, come as Chavez is confronting domestic problems — including a recession, soaring inflation and electricity shortages. Though he remains Venezuela's most popular politician, Chavez has slipped in the polls and is campaigning against an emboldened opposition to keep control of the National Assembly in September elections.
In Caracas neighborhoods, Chavez opponents leaned out apartment windows early Sunday to bang on pots and pans. Others shouted epithets and drivers joined in, honking car horns.
"They want to silence RCTV's voice," said Miguel Angel Rodriguez, the channel's most popular talk show host. "But they won't be able to because RCTV is embedded in the hearts of all Venezuelans."
Roger Santodomingo, the national journalists' association secretary-general, called it a violation of human rights, freedom of speech and democratic norms. The U.S. Embassy also saw cause for concern.
"Access to information is a cornerstone of democracy and provides a foundation for global progress. By restricting yet again the Venezuelan people's access to RCTV broadcasts, the Venezuelan government continues to erode this cornerstone," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Robin Holzhauer said.
The state-run Bolivarian News Agency said the suspension involved a total of four channels, which it said could still return to the air if they decide to comply with the new regulations.
Cabello said there were other violations committed by cable channels, include failing to warn viewers of sexual and violent content and broadcasting more than two hours of soap operas during the afternoon, which should be mostly dedicated to children programming.
RCTV has asked the Supreme Court to block the new regulations.
Government figures say about 37 percent of Venezuelan homes received cable television in 2008. But some private companies say their research shows about six out of every 10 households have subscription TV service.
RCTV has a smaller audience than it did in 2007 but has remained popular. The channel claims that 90 percent of cable viewers say they watch RCTV.
"Chavez didn't think that RCTV would draw such an important market share when it was forced to switch to cable in 2007. He miscalculated," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "He is nervous about mounting problems and slipping popular support, so he is moving aggressively to tighten his grip."
In August, Chavez's government forced 32 radio stations and two small TV stations off the air, saying some owners had failed to renew their broadcast licenses, while other licenses were no longer valid because they had been granted to owners who are now dead.
Globovision — the last opposition-aligned TV channel on the open airwaves — is also the target of multiple government investigations that authorities say could lead to the revocation of its broadcast license. (AP)