* Govt says closures part of effort to democratize airwave
* Critics say move is arbitrary
By Raymond Colitt and Ana Isabel Martinez
CARACAS, Aug 1 (Reuters) - The first 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.
Government broadcasting watchdog Conatel delivered an order to CNB radio in Caracas before dawn, ordering its stations to stop transmitting by 8 a.m., an employee of the radio network told Globovision TV.
Diosdado Cabello, the public works minister who also oversees Conatel, said Friday night that 34 radio stations would be ordered closed because they failed to comply with regulations.
He said some of the stations did not have their broadcasting licenses renewed and others transferred them illegally to new owners.
But critics said the crackdown was arbitrary and the owners were not given the right to a proper defense.
“It’s sad that one doesn’t have any means to defend oneself (publicly),” Nelson Belfort, owner of the CNB radio network, told El Nacional newspaper.
Chavez and his 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.
At CNB’s headquarters in downtown Caracas, hundreds of surprised CNB employees and government critics gathered to protest the shutdown.
“This government has turned into a mutilator of rights,” Juan Carlos Caldera, of the opposition political party Primero Justicia, said on Globovision.
Cabello defended the closures, saying they were part of the government’s effort to democratize the airwaves.
“These decisions are strictly within the law,” he said.
“When the government decided to democratize the radio-electric spectrum and end the media (oligopoly) it was serious. In the streets, the nation is waiting and especially those that have been asking for years to obtain a license,” Cabello said.
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, he said.
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.
In 2007 Chavez did not renew the license for a widely watched private TV station, RCTV, that was a persistent critic of the government. (Editing by Eric Beech)