CARACAS -- Venezuela's leftist government has revoked the concessions of 34 radio broadcasters nationwide due to various violations, a move that critics say is part of an ongoing effort to stifle dissent.
The head of Venezuela's Conatel telecommunications agency, Diosdado Cabello, said the radio broadcasters were among a group of 240 stations that recently failed to update their registrations, let their concessions expire or possessed licenses that had been granted to an individual who is now deceased.
Among the 34 stations affected by Friday's measure were five FM and AM stations operated by Nelson Belfort, president of the Venezuelan Broadcasting Chamber.
Spokespersons for Belfort's stations said Saturday they would appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, while the National College of Journalists, or CNP, said in a statement that the revocation of the licenses was a "despotic" move by President Hugo Chavez's government.
Although most critics of the shutdowns said the measures were politically motivated, the CNP statement noted that neither Belfort's stations nor the others broadcasted content that was predominantly political, saying they were "entertainment channels."
Most of the broadcasters affected were local stations with limited range.
Speaking on Friday, Cabello said the government's move to combat "media latifundism" (domination by a small elite) and promote the "democratization" of media ownership was in strict compliance with the law.
The official also said that investigations are ongoing into the 206 remaining stations that have not updated their registrations and that authorities are reviewing the information that 120 other broadcasters submitted to Conatel and which "did not comply with what was requested."
Cabello said the revocation of the broadcast rights goes into effect the moment the affected stations are notified by Conatel, adding that operators can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court if they feel they have been wronged.
Separately, Venezuela's leftist government on Friday expressed support for draft legislation that contemplates jail sentences for "media offenses," a proposal denounced by journalists' associations and media executives.
Attorney General Luisa Ortega introduced the proposed Law Against Media Crimes in the National Assembly on Thursday, telling lawmakers that this is what has to be done against "new kinds of crime that result from the abusive exercise of freedom of information and opinion."
One of the bill's articles says that "any person who divulges false news through the media that upsets public peace ... will be sentenced to between two and four years in prison."
The CNP warned that approval of the bill "will put citizens a step away from being punished for having opinions and making them public."
"The siege against radio stations that do not parrot the official slogans; the promotion of a new journalism law; the harassing of TV networks and newspapers and the criminalization of political dissidence" are all part of the "attack," the CNP said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch critic
ized the bill in the harshest of terms, saying "such legislation would be a clear violation of international norms on freedom of expression, including article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights to which Venezuela is party."
"What we are witnessing is the most comprehensive assault on free speech in Venezuela since Chavez came to power," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
"With the exception of Cuba, Venezuela is the only country in the region that shows such flagrant disregard for universal standards of freedom of expression."
The government also has been investigating alleged violations by television channel Globovision, the only TV station on the public airwaves openly critical of Chavez.
Another opposition-allied channel was shut down in 2007 while two other broadcasters toned down their criticism of the government to avoid sanctions.