Latin leader rebels against US-centric news
[Editor's note: The original headline mischaracterized Chavez.]Skip to next paragraph
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Television is a window on the world. But if you're sitting in Latin America, that window is more likely to be facing Baghdad than Buenos Aires. Or show Michael Jackson instead of Mexico City. Or offer a clearer view of Ukraine's Orange Revolution than the one in Ecuador last month.
Those networks that do cover regional news, like CNN Español, based in Atlanta, or Spain's TVE, are often considered US- or Eurocentric, with pundits sitting in Washington or Madrid. International news from the Latin American perspective is almost nonexistent, critics say.
"But," says journalist Aram Aharonian, "not for long."
On May 24, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will launch a 24-hour hemispheric TV news network, with Mr. Aharonian at the helm. The idea, Mr. Chávez has explained on several occasions, is to offer a "Southern" perspective, and combat what he calls "the conspiracy" by networks to ignore or "distort" information from and about this region.
But critics worry that Televisora del Sur (Telesur), or TV of the South, will be used by Chávez to drown out the free press at home and spread his populist, socialist, and anti-US message and abroad.
"We get enough of him already," says Ana Cristina Nuñez, legal counsel at Globovision, a 24-hour local news station that is critical of Chávez. Globovision, like all channels in Venezuela, functions under a so-called "chain" system, which means it is obligated by law to drop everything and cover Chávez speeches whenever instructed by the government. Those speeches are often hour-long rants about the US or afternoon chats with "the people," during which he has been known to describe President Bush as a "jerk" who wants to invade Venezuela or sing praises of Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Comparisons of the new TV venture are being made to Al Jazeera, the Arabic- language network funded by the government of Qatar that has been criticized frequently by US officials for what they call "inflammatory" or "biased" reporting.
Still, "bias" for one person can simply be a well-rounded view for another.
"I am in favor of initiatives that create additional voices in the news," says John Dinges, an associate professor of Journalism at Columbia University in New York. "Al Jazeera, for example, has made an important impact on journalism in the Middle East.... Alternative looks at the facts can be positive."
Problems do arise, he warns, when news becomes too political. "Look at Fox TV in the US," he says. "If you create a medium to fill a political need - that's politics, not journalism." If Telesur is going to be a state-sponsored vehicle for Chávez, it will be bad journalism, says Mr. Dinges. "But if it's being done in order to spread an alternative journalistic voice, it will be good journalism and a contribution," he says.
Telesur's programming, which will be available free over the airwaves, will be split between news and "Latin America interest" documentaries, reaching viewers across South and North America, with expansion planned to Western Europe and North Africa for later this year. Promos begin this month with shows starting in July.
Telesur is being described as a regional endeavor: Argentina owns 20 percent, Cuba 19 percent, and Uruguay 10 percent. But Venezuela, with 51 percent, is the main player: The government has provided $2.5 million in start-up capital. The total cost and source of the money have not been disclosed, but some funding will come from corporate sponsors, not advertising, Aharonian says.