Catia TV – Venezuela’s longest-running community television station – was shut down last week by Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña. Peña was one of the chief supporters of the failed April 2002 coup d’etat against democratically-elected Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Catia TV began 25 years ago as a pirate TV station, forced to broadcast “underground.” But with the passage of the Bolivarian Constitution and the expansion of democracy that came with it, Catia TV was legalized in 1999. Support to community-based TV stations, such as Catia, was bolstered when Venezuela passed what some call, the world’s most advanced telecommunications and press freedom law, in 2002.

Reports said Peña’s storm troopers confiscated Catia TV’s transmitter and equipment, “depriving poor communities of Western Caracas of their right to receive independent information.”

During the April coup, community media outlets were invaded and community journalists were arrested and tortured in the hope that the commercial TV channels, who were decisive players in the coup, could fully monopolize the airwaves. This repression, however, didn’t prevent the community media journalists from continuing, at the risk of their lives, to inform their communities and the outside world about what was really happening in Venezuela.

Angry citizens and Catia TV supporters have taken to the streets in Caracas to demand the reopening of Catia TV. Catia TV director Blanca Eekhout and fellow workers assembled outside the Attorney General’s Office to protest the infringement of press freedom. Eekhout said they were able to get back some equipment and announced that the station will introduce a “protection petition” to recover the studio and the rest of equipment, so that it can continue its normal services to the community.

President Chavez has come out in support of Catia TV calling Pena’s decision to close the TV studio “dictatorial.”

During his July 13 radio address, Chavez said he agreed with the analysis of Las Ultimas Noticias editor, Eleazar Diaz Rangel, who asks what would have been the reaction if the government had done the same against a private TV channel? And what would the reaction have been internationally, “would we have seen an Organization of American States (OAS) commission in Venezuela?”

Congratulating Catia TV staff for their work and dedication, Chavez reminded listeners that community and alternative radios have increased during his government and are protected by the new telecommunications law.