UPDATE 2-Venezuela begins shutdown of 34 radio stations

Sat Aug 1, 2009 7:45pm EDT

Related Topics

* Chavez says stations no longer belong to 'bourgeoisie'

* Calls closures part of effort to democratize airwaves

* Critics say the move attacks freedom of speech (Adds Chavez comment)

By Raymond Colitt and Ana Isabel Martinez

CARACAS, Aug 1 (Reuters) - More than a dozen of 34 radio stations ordered shut by the Venezuelan government went off the air on Saturday, part of President Hugo Chavez's drive to extend his socialist revolution to the media.

The association of radio broadcasters said 13 stations had stopped transmitting, following an announcement Friday night by government broadcasting watchdog Conatel that 34 radio outlets would be closed because they failed to comply with regulations.

Critics said the crackdown infringed on freedom of speech and that owners were not given the right to a proper defense.

"They're closing the space for dissidents in Venezuela," William Echeverria, head of the National Council of Journalists, told RCTV, a private cable TV station, which did not have its broadcasting license renewed in 2007.

Chavez defended the closures, calling them part of the government's effort to democratize the airwaves.

"We haven't closed any radio stations, we've applied the law," Chavez said on state television. "We've recovered a bunch of stations that were outside the law, that now belong to the people and not the bourgeoisie."

Chavez supporters say they are waging a "media war" against private news companies and have denounced in recent days what they say is a renewed offensive by privately owned domestic and international media to discredit Venezuela.

Diosdado Cabello, the public works minister who also oversees Conatel, said some of the radio stations were shut because they did not have their broadcasting licenses renewed and others transferred them illegally to new owners.

Conatel delivered an order to CNB radio in Caracas before dawn for its five stations to stop transmitting by 8 a.m., the station said on its website.

At CNB's headquarters in downtown Caracas, hundreds of CNB employees and government critics gathered to protest the shutdown. Some later marched to Conatel.

CNB said it would continue to broadcast on its Internet site, www.cnb.com.ve.

'MUTILATOR OF RIGHTS'

"This government has turned into a mutilator of rights," Juan Carlos Caldera, of the opposition political party Primero Justicia, said on Globovision TV.

Antonio Ledezma, the opposition mayor of Caracas, called on Venezuelans to protest the move in the streets.

One of the stations to cease operations was Radio Bonita 1520 AM in the city of Guatire, 25 miles (40 km) from Caracas.

"Fifteen years after my father died, they tell me (broadcasting) licenses can't be inherited, we're shocked," Felix Ali Obelmejia, director of Radio Bonita, told Globovision.

Another 120 radio stations were being investigated for administrative irregularities and the radio frequency of stations being shut down would be transferred to new community broadcasters, Cabello had said.

Venezuela's attorney general presented this week draft legislation that would establish prison sentences for anyone who provides false information that harms the interests of the state. Rights groups harshly criticized the proposal.

As part of his drive to remake Venezuela as a socialist country, Chavez has vastly expanded the number of publicly owned television and radio stations since he took office in 1999. Some are directly owned or financed by the government, while others are operated by cooperatives and community groups.

(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Editing by Will Dunham)

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