CARACAS Venezuelan troops have seized an anti-government television channel's broadcast equipment, the station said on Sunday, ahead of a controversial midnight EDT/0400 GMT takeover by President Hugo Chavez that will take the broadcaster off the air.
Chavez sparked international criticism with his decision to not renew RCTV's license and to replace Venezuela's most-watched channel with a state-backed network that will promote the values of his self-styled socialist revolution.
RCTV representatives said troops had taken over relay stations across the country amid a show of military force meant to deter possible violence by opposition demonstrators.
"They have taken over the transmission stations," said Edgardo Mosca, Vice President of Engineering Operations at RCTV.
Since coming to power in 1999, Chavez has taken control of the judiciary, army and crucial oil industry as part of his leftist reform campaign.
But until the closure of RCTV, he had not moved aggressively against Venezuela's media, which his critics called a safeguard against him forging a Cuban-style system in the OPEC nation.
Thousands of opposition supporters marched through Caracas to protest the closure. Several hundred gathered outside RCTV's headquarters, chanting anti-Chavez slogans and shrieking excitedly to greet the arrival of the station's beloved soap opera stars.
"People should watch the channel they want to see, and if someone does not like it they can change the channel," said industrial engineer Luis Mora, 46, standing outside the headquarters. "I do not think it is right."
CHAVEZ SUPPORTERS CHEER
Thousands of Chavez supporters dressed in their signature red T-shirts filled a Caracas avenue to celebrate the opening of the new government-run channel.
Chavez accuses RCTV of participating in a bungled 2002 coup against him. He has also criticized the station's racy soap operas, which he says verge on pornography, and what he characterized as degrading references to the nation's poor, who overwhelmingly backed his landslide re-election last year.
"I am here to celebrate the closure of RCTV, it is a coup-supporting television station; that is why its license is not being renewed," demonstrator Horacio Marquez said in an interview with state television.
Critics say the move silences the opposition's voice on the national airwaves and will intimidate other media, deterring them from criticizing Chavez's reform crusade.
Human rights organizations and the U.S. Senate have expressed their concern that Chavez is clamping down on free speech and trying to extend state control over every aspect of society.
But government supporters say RCTV has repeatedly violated basic journalistic ethics through open involvement in opposition politics. State television is openly pro-Chavez.
RCTV along with the country's other networks openly supported the coup that toppled Chavez for two days, then refused to cover supporter protests that helped bring him back to office.
But the government on Saturday renewed the license of Venevision, which took the same stance during the coup but has since softened its editorial line to favor Chavez.