* Police fire gas as Chavez supporters clash with students
* Criticism as government suspends popular cable network
By Frank Jack Daniel
CARACAS, Jan 25 (Reuters) - Police used tear gas to disperse thousands of students who marched in Caracas on Monday to protest the government’s widely criticized suspension of a TV station opposed to President Hugo Chavez.
Venezuelan cable providers, responding to government orders, stopped showing RCTV Internacional on Sunday. The station is critical of Chavez, who pushed its free-access parent RCTV off free-access television in 2007.
The new suspension of RCTV, along with some other small stations, was criticized by media freedom groups and the Organization of American States.
Students from universities and schools in the capital marched with their hands painted white and tried to reach the offices of the government media regulator.
They were repelled by a small group of Chavez supporters and then chased off by police in riot gear who fired tear gas after a rock was thrown.
The students chanted the slogan “1,2,3, Chavez you struck out,” in reference to the president’s mounting problems in the baseball-mad nation with issues ranging from water and electricity shortages to an unpopular currency devaluation.
“We are here because of the violation of freedom of expression,” said 17-year-old medical student Yanuan Pedraza. “This is the second time they have closed RCTV.”
Students also marched in the oil-exporting nation’s second largest city Zulia.
Chavez in 2007 denied RCTV a renewal of its broadcast license, accusing the station of participating in a 2002 coup.
During the coup, the network showed nonstop footage of anti-Chavez protests leading up to his brief ouster but turned cameras off when loyalists restored him.
The 2007 move against RCTV triggered large student-led protests that snowballed throughout the year and are widely seen as a factor in Chavez’s first-ever ballot box defeat in a referendum on allowing him to run again for office. He later won another referendum on the same issue.
The station soon reappeared on cable and continued its anti-government editorial line and menu of popular soap operas.
“This move, condemned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, reveals yet again the government’s allergic reaction to dissident voices within the country’s leading broadcast media,” Reporter Without Borders said on Monday.
The Organization of American States’ Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said he “lamented the situation” regarding the removal from the air of the stations and called on the government to allow the OAS to visit the country.
Chavez faces growing criticism over the shortages of power and water and the sharp currency devaluation this month that could accelerate the country’s soaring inflation.
He has boosted pro-government broadcasting in recent years by creating several state-funded television networks including the Telesur channel, meant to be a Latin American leftist counterpart to CNN.
Editing by Philip Barbara