Image: Protesters in Caracas, Venezuela
Carlos Garcia Rawlins  /  Reuters
Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez demonstrate Monday in support of a TV station in Caracas that was removed from cable after not broadcasting the leader's speech.
updated 1/25/2010 8:47:43 PM ET 2010-01-26T01:47:43

Police fired tear gas and plastic bullets at thousands of university students Monday, breaking up a protest against President Hugo Chavez's government forcing an opposition channel off cable TV services.

At least six demonstrators and a journalist were treated for injuries.

Demonstrations erupted over the telecommunications agency ordering cable companies to drop Radio Caracas Television Internacional early Sunday. RCTV had defied new rules requiring local cable channels to carry mandatory programming, including some of Chavez's speeches.

Police fired tear gas as protesting students tried to approach the headquarters of the state telecommunications agency, where several hundred Chavez backers gathered to support the government's action. Some were seen throwing rocks and bottles at anti-Chavez protesters.

"Freedom of expression is a right that we all embrace, and it must be defended," said Alejandro Perdomo, 19, who accused Chavez of attempting to silence his critics.

The crowd chanted: "It will return, Radio Caracas will return!"

Students also staged street demonstrations in the cities of Barcelona, Maracay, Valencia and Merida.

Didn't broadcast president's speech
The government says RCTV violated recently approved regulations that require two dozen local cable and satellite channels to televise Chavez's speeches whenever he deems it necessary.

The channel, which has been fiercely critical of Chavez for years, did not transmit the president's speech Saturday to a rally of supporters.

Five other channels were also dropped from cable, but none of them were as widely watched as RCTV.

Diosdado Cabello, director of Venezuela's telecommunications agency, defended the government's actions, reiterating Monday that RCTV and the other dropped channels violated the law.

"They don't want to comply with the law, they want to do whatever they want," he said.

During an interview broadcast on state television, Cabello said one of the removed channels, TV Chile, had contacted the telecommunications agency to "correct things" and discuss its possible return to the airwaves.

RCTV was forced to move to cable in 2007 after Chavez refused to renew its license for regular airwaves, accusing the station of plotting against him and supporting a failed 2002 coup.

At least five students suffered minor injures or breathing problems from tear gas Monday, said Enrique Montbrun, director of health services in the capital's Baruta district. Caracas Police Chief Carlos Meza said a government supporter was hurt when hit in the face with a bottle or rock. A journalist working for AP Television News suffered minor head injuries from a hurled object.

Press freedom organizations and Roman Catholic leaders condemned RCTV's removal from cable, calling it part of a broader effort to mute government critics.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said the government's move is "an allergic reaction to dissident voices within the country's leading broadcast media."

'Democracy is curtailed'
Monsignor Roberto Luckert, a Catholic leader and vice president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, said the action against RCTV curbs freedom of expression.

"The more media they close, the more democracy is curtailed," Luckert told the local TV channel Globovision.

U.S. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley echoed earlier comments by the U.S. Embassy that Washington is concerned.

"Clearly, we think that a free and independent media is a vital element of any democracy. And any time the government shuts down an independent network, that is an area of concern," he said. "We have raised this issue with the Venezuelans."

OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza offered himself as a mediator in the conflict between Chavez and the media, and he urged Venezuela's government to authorize a visit from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

"We don't need a mediator," said Cabello, the telecommunications regulator.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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