Venezuelans marched on Saturday amid heavy security in the opposition's largest show of support yet for a television station targeted by President Hugo Chavez, whom they accuse of squeezing freedom of speech and democratic rights.
Thousands of people turned out on Saturday for the protest against Chavez's decision to remove Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, the country's oldest private TV station, from the airwaves, many waving Venezuelan flags and holding placards to show their support for the channel.
Hundreds of Chavez supporters in red caps and T-shirts mounted a rival gathering nearby backing the government's decision not to renew the license of RCTV, which they accuse of backing a 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chavez.
"Democracy is being lost in Venezuela," said Pablo Mosco, a 72-year-old retiree from Catia, a vast slum in western Caracas, who opposes the station's closing.
"Freedom of speech is a right, [as is] the right to be informed," he said, accusing Chavez of seeking to eliminate all but state-run media that toe the government's line.
Chavez's opponents charge that the former paratroop commander has decided not to renew RCTV's broadcast license when it expires on May 28 in an attempt to silence a fierce government critic and also as a warning to other media outlets.
Chavez and his supporters, however, say the measure is justified. They accuse RCTV and the country's opposition-aligned private media of supporting the 2002 coup against the Chavez.
"They're false, they're coup-plotters. This should have happened years ago," said Sendy Salas, 55, accusing the private media of biased coverage that has glossed over improvements in medical care and education brought by Chavez's government.
Juanamaria Hernandez, 66, a former oil worker participating in the opposition march, defended RCTV's coverage.
"[Chavez's] regime is always looking to accuse those who dissent against him," she said, arguing that many journalists were prevented from covering the turmoil during the 2002 coup because of attacks by pro-government supporters.
Hundreds of police, including some in riot gear, were deployed across downtown Caracas to prevent any potential clashes. There were no reports of violence and the protesters reached their destination without confrontations.
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