updated 8/3/2009 7:21:19 PM ET 2009-08-03T23:21:19

Radio hosts hung their heads as their FM station was forced off the airwaves along with 33 other broadcasters targeted by President Hugo Chavez's government in what critics say is a campaign to muzzle his foes.

For the first time in decades, CNB 102.3 FM fell silent over the weekend after Venezuela's telecommunications regulators revoked some of the 34 stations' licenses and refused to renew others.

But CNB challenged the government action within hours by starting to transmit programming over the Internet. Sportscaster Juan Carlos Rutilo told his online listeners: "Today freedom of expression is being restricted. ... Today you have one less option."

Media groups and human-rights activists note more than 200 other stations are under investigation for allegedly not being properly licensed and accuse Venezuela's leftist leader of pursuing a widening crackdown to silence dissent.

In a similar step, one of Chavez's leftist allies, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, announced Monday that "many" radio and TV frequencies will revert to the state over what he called irregularities in their licenses. He gave no specifics.

Not overtly anti-Chavez
A majority of the stations affected in Venezuela aired criticisms of the government, though they were not overtly anti-Chavez and much of their programming ranged from American rock to salsa and traditional Venezuelan music.

In the country's polarized media landscape, CNB took a relatively balanced approach by interviewing pro-Chavez lawmakers while also having opposition politicians among its talk show hosts.

Venezuela still has many private radio stations and newspapers that take a hard line against Chavez and strongly criticize the government through both news reports and commentary. But in the last decade, the government has built a growing coalition of state-run media outlets, and some TV channels once virulently anti-Chavez have toned down their criticism.

The only stridently anti-Chavez television channel that remains on the open airwaves, Globovision, is facing multiple investigations that could force it off the air.

Tensions ran high at Globovision's studios Monday as government supporters, riding motorcycles and waving the flags of a radical pro-Chavez party, tossed tear gas canisters at the station. The channel said some assailants fired shots at the studios in Caracas, and it broadcast video showing clouds of tear gas outside the building as employees ran for cover.

Globovision's director, Alberto Federico Ravell, condemned the violence and urged Chavez to control his backers. The channel said a security guard suffered a burned hand when he tried to pick up one of the tear gas canisters.

Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami condemned "this violent action against a television channel" and said authorities were investigating.

Protesters decry crackdown
The telecommunications agency's decision to act against the 34 radio stations set off an outcry from press freedom groups and rights activists, who contend Chavez is trying to gradually push aside critical voices.

Hundreds of Venezuelan protesters gathered outside the CNB radio station over the weekend to express their outrage.

"I feel the country that I knew, where I was raised, is slipping away," said Alix Villareal, a 43-year-old maid who cried alongside other demonstrators. "I'm sad because little by little they are taking away everything, and nobody does anything."

Public Works Minister Diosdado Cabello, who heads the telecommunications agency, announced the decision to force the 34 stations off the air Friday, and denied the government is trying to punish critics.

Cabello said the stations violated regulations by failing to update their registrations or allowing their licenses to expire. Others held licenses granted to a person who is now deceased, he said.

"The state is retaking control of concessions that were being used in an illegal manner during more than 30 and 40 years," Cabello said. "It's an act of justice."

'Lies of the bourgeoisie'
Chavez has defended the decision to sideline the radio stations as part of a "struggle against the media war, against the lies of the bourgeoisie and the oligarchy" — terms he frequently uses for his opponents.

It remains unclear what will become of the radio frequencies that have been vacated. Chavez has suggested some could be handed over to create "popular radio in the hands of the people."

While some of the 34 stations are now transmitting over the Internet, most have simply shut down and are mulling their next move.

Five of the 10 stations owned by CNB president Nelson Belfort lost their licenses. The broadcaster's revenues are expected to tumble, putting the jobs of its 200 employees at risk, CNB vice president J.J. Bartolomeo said in an interview at the station's offices in Caracas.

The station "is looking at all the possible alternatives so the impact is reduced," he said.

'Attack' on freedom of expression
Belfort, who also heads the Venezuelan Broadcasters Chamber, complained that the telecommunications agency didn't allow for due process. "We didn't have a right to defense," he said.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, accused Chavez of leading "a frontal attack on freedom of expression," saying Venezuela's government is trying to stifle dissent.

Vivanco condemned a proposal now being discussed by Venezuelan lawmakers to punish yet-to-be-defined "media crimes" with up to four years in prison. In a statement last week, he called the proposal "a recipe for censorship."

More on: Hugo Chavez

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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