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It's perhaps the most audacious move yet by Venezuela's increasingly autocratic president, Hugo Chavez.

At midnight tonight Venezuela's oldest, largest and most popular television station will vanish from screens across the nation - by government order. Audiences won't just be losing a bit of variety, including their cherished soaps, or telenovelas.

A dash of democracy will be gone, too.

The government's decision not to renew the broadcasting license of Radio Caracas Television, known as RCTV, has nothing to do with broadcasting standards or media diversification. Chavez is simply taking revenge against opposition to his rule.

In recent years Chavez has won almost total control of every major public institution in the country, including the Supreme Court, the federal elections authority, the state oil company, as well as every seat in Congress.

The Bush administration and some members of Congress are watching Chavez's power grab with mounting concern. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, supplying about 11 percent of U.S. daily imports.

To be sure, Chavez remains popular at home, especially among the poor. His approval rating is consistently around 60 percent.

But taking over RCTV is not a popular move. Despite an anti-Chavez political bias in its news programs, the station is viewed favorably by 81 percent of Venezuelans, according to the respected local polling firm Datanalisis. That may in large part be due to its diet of locally produced soaps and variety shows, some of which were international hits. Only 16 percent of Venezuelans support closing down the station, while 69 percent oppose it.

So what, you might ask, is Chavez thinking?

It's all about political control. RCTV has the largest TV audience, with a nationwide reach. Its hostile newscasts were a constant thorn in Chavez's side.

At first the government sought to disguise its effort to muzzle RCTV by using a Social Responsibility Law. Some of RCTV's programming was deemed unsuitable for children. There were also threats to prosecute the station for allegedly backing a failed 2002 coup against Chavez.

In March 2007 the government published a 360-page file documenting its allegations against the station, including "inciting rebellion," showing "lack of respect for authorities and institutions," breaking the laws protecting minors, and failing to pay taxes.

But the government never bothered with any judicial hearing to allow RCTV to defend its license. Lately government officials have made no secret that the closing of RCTV is a political decision.

Telecommunications Minister Jesse Chacon questioned the media's role in a democracy. "Are they a counterweight to the state or do they represent the very essence of power?" he asked.

Government officials say the decision is designed to "democratize" the media by breaking up the concentration of media ownership. RCTV's signal is to be given to a new public service station, TVes, to include programming by supposedly independent national producers.

But the loss of RCTV will leave only one major TV station, Venevision, in private hands. The state already has a plethora of its own propaganda outlets. Venevision read the writing on the wall after it, too, was branded as "anti-Chavista." It has since radically softened its tone toward the government.

While RCTV may have been guilty of anti-Chavez political bias, leading media and civil rights groups have condemned Venezuela's action.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the European Parliament have also voiced concern that the move will undermine freedom of expression.

RCTV owner and director general Marcelo Granier published a letter Wednesday warning that Venezuela was headed down a totalitarian path. "Allow other opinions to be voiced in Venezuela," he begged Chavez. "Are you a leader of the new Latin American left or are you a totalitarian populist? Are you strong because your convictions are strong or are you weak and need to silence all who disagree with you?"

David Adams can be contacted at