CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan police fired tear gas and plastic bullets Monday into a crowd of thousands protesting a decision by President Hugo Chavez that forced a television station critical of his leftist government off the air.
Police fired toward the crowd of up to 5,000 protesters from a raised highway, and protesters fled amid clouds of tear gas. They later regrouped in Caracas’ Plaza Brion chanting, “Freedom!” Some tossed rocks and bottles at police, prompting authorities to scatter demonstrators by firing more gas.
It was the largest of several protests that broke out across Caracas hours after Radio Caracas Television ceased broadcasting at midnight Sunday and was replaced with a new state-funded channel. Chavez had refused to renew RCTV’s broadcast license, accusing it of “subversive” activities and of backing a 2002 coup against him.
At least three protesters and one police officer were injured in skirmishes. Some protesters were seen in television footage hurling spent tear gas canisters back at police.
Office workers poured out of buildings to join student protesters, while organizers called for the demonstration to remain peaceful. RCTV talk show host Miguel Angel Rodriguez led the crowd in chants: “They will not silence us!”
Separately, Information Minister Willian Lara accused the private Globovision TV channel of encouraging an attempt on Chavez’s life by broadcasting the chorus of a salsa tune – “Have faith, this doesn’t end here” – along with footage of the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square.
“They incite the assassination of Venezuela’s president,” he said.
Globovision director Alberto Federico Ravell denied any wrongdoing, calling the allegations “ridiculous.”
The new public channel, TVES, launched its transmissions early Monday with artists singing pro-Chavez music, then carried an exercise program and a talk show, interspersed with government ads proclaiming, “Now Venezuela belongs to everyone.”