Piqued Chilean Politicians Oust Scrappy TV Directors

CHILE'S provocative and popular television channel, Television Nacional, is being picked apart, one employee at a time.

The battle over who will control TVN has ignited debate over freedom of the press here and touched off the worst crisis of the country's governing coalition since it was formed in 1988.

The controversy began in November, when a government-approved board fired Jorge Navarrete, TVN's executive director. An award-winning news program director was next.

Sources inside TVN reveal that President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, unhappy with the station's coverage of his presidency and the ruling Christian Democratic Party, had been watching Mr. Navarrete, also a Christian Democrat, for some time.

Christian Democratic members of the channel's board joined with those from conservative parties, voting five to two to fire Navarrete. Chilean Socialist Party and Party for Democracy representatives supported him and promptly published a declaration saying they feared ``for the survival of a spirit of tolerance and the necessary defense of authentic pluralism.''

AFTER 17 years as the military government's mouthpiece, TVN had little credibility and a $25 million debt when Chile elected a democratic government in March 1990. Patricio Aylwin Azocar, then president, passed a new law defining TVN as an autonomous, publicly owned medium. Navarrete took over in 1992.

This year, TVN will turn a $7 million profit, with no help from the government's coffers. Ratings are the highest ever in the channel's 25-year history, and its news program regularly scoops the competition.

``TVN could have done more in terms of being different, but it has really made an effort to avoid being the government's microphone,'' says Ximena Abogabir, director of a lobbying group here.

After two weeks of debate, the board last week chose Carlos Hurtado - former minister in Mr. Aylwin's government, close friend of Navarrete's, and respected businessman - as executive director. Neither the board, nor Chile's embattled political parties have yet reached agreement on the news director's successor.

Meanwhile, infighting among parties in Chile's ruling coalition continues. Public posturing is giving way to private conversations as leaders attempt to rebuild confidence shaken by a September Cabinet shuffle.

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