Venezuela's oldest private television station went off the air just before midnight on Sunday as opponents of President Hugo Chavez banged on pots and pans, protesting his decision to pull the plug on the popular channel harshly critical of the government.
The decision not to renew Radio Caracas Television's broadcast license and replace it with a public service station was celebrated in the streets by "Chavistas," who watched the new channel's first transmission on large TV screens. Others launched fireworks and danced to the classic salsa tune "Todo tiene su final" - "Everything Has Its End."
The mood inside the studios of RCTV - the sole opposition-aligned TV station with nationwide reach - was somber. Disheartened actors and comedians wept and embraced in the final minutes on the air. They bowed their heads in prayer, and a presenter declared: "Long live Venezuela! We will return soon." Then the national anthem was played and the screen turned black. Within seconds, it was replaced with the insignia of TVES, the new state-funded channel assigned to the frequency.
"We are living an injustice," said Eyla Adrian, a 35-year-old presenter, her eyes welling with tears.
Oswaldo Quintana, RCTV's legal representative, told The Associated Press that armed military personnel "took control of our station's transmitters" shortly before midnight to guarantee TVES could broadcast.
Chavez says he is democratizing the airwaves by turning a "coup-plotting" network's signal over for public use. His opponents condemned the shutdown of RCTV as an assault on free speech and a grave blow to democracy.
Founded in 1953, RCTV had broadcast a mix of talk shows, sports, soap operas and the popular comedy program "Radio Rochela," which had poked fun at a presidents - including Chavez - for decades. RCTV was regularly the top channel in viewer ratings, but Chavez accused the channel of "poisoning" Venezuelans with programming that promotes capitalism.
The new channel, TVES, began its transmission with an orchestra playing the national anthem. Actors and producers involved in launching the new station later presented upcoming programming, including cartoons, sports, and an educational program for children emphasizing socialist values.
"We've come here to start a new television with the true face of the people, the face that was hidden, the face that they didn't allow us to show," said Roman Chalbaud, a pro-Chavez filmmaker appointed by the government to TVES' board of directors. Earlier Sunday, police broke up one opposition protests using a water cannon and tear gas, and later clashed with protesters who set afire trash heaps in affluent eastern Caracas. Police said some protesters fired shots, and others threw rocks and bottles. Police said 11 officers were injured.
Chavez's decision "marks a turn toward totalitarianism," said RCTV's top executive, Marcel Granier, while hundreds of protesters chanted "No to the shutdown!" outside the station. "He's losing more than he thinks he's gaining. He's losing international recognition and he's losing the respect of his people." Chavez, who says he is steering Venezuela toward socialism, accuses RCTV of supporting a short-lived 2002 coup, violating broadcast laws and regularly showing programs with excessive violence and sexual content.
RCTV and other privately-owned networks offered scant coverage of Chavez's dramatic return to power amid street protests by his supporters. RCTV's journalists argue that violent demonstrations staged by "Chavistas" outside the station's studios prevented them from covering the news.
Aside from RCTV, the 24-hour Globovision news channel is currently the only other major opposition-sided station, and it is not seen in all parts of the country. Two other channels that were once staunchly anti-Chavez - Venevision and Televen - have recently toned down their criticism.
The National Telecommunications Commission announced last week that it was renewing Venevision's license, prompting an outcry from RCTV's employees who claim the rival channel was being rewarded for curbing its criticism of the government.
Rafael Molina, president of the Miami-based Inter American Press Association, said "the concession of broadcast frequencies should not serve to reward or punish media outlets for their editorial line."