Telesur tested by Chávez video

The news network founded by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez isn't yet the propaganda tool some expected.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In Telesur's first month of live broadcasting, the fledgling pan-Latin American television network - founded by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and majority owned by Venezuela - is seeking to demonstrate its professionalism and impartiality.

But last week the channel aired short video clips from closed-door meetings of regional leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina this month. The video was recorded under an agreement that it were meant for private use only.

But the clips were aired on Telesur just days after Mr. Chávez said they would be. These clips bolster critics who claim the network is and will be a propaganda tool for Chávez.

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Aram Aharonian, Telesur's General Manager, insists that the decision to air such footage was based on the value of the information, "made solely by Telesur, independent of the government." Some observers argue that any network given this secret video would have made the same choice.

Telesur has long been feared by the US government as pure Chávez propaganda. Before a single broadcast had aired, the House of Representatives passed legislation to transmit a counter, pro-US television channel into Venezuela, similar to Radio and TV Marti in Cuba.

Despite such fears, based on analysis of the first two weeks of live news programming and a week spent in its studios, Telesur is clearly run by professional journalists striving to provide balanced and independent coverage of Latin America to people who often learn about themselves from US or European-based media. Indeed, there are fewer questions about Telesur's ulterior motives than its ability to attract viewers in a region traditionally distrustful of state-run institutions.

An American journalist, who has written for leading US newspapers, and now works for Telesur, describes his colleagues as "absolutely serious journalists." He adds that, "I have not seen anything indicating that there is any element of propaganda here."

In an early test of ethics, a heated discussion broke out in a staff meeting over whether the same newscast that airs a story about Venezuela's state-run oil firm PDVSA, could also broadcast the firm's public service announcements. Producer Isabel Rui, quickly decided that, "It's one or the other, folks."

In Telesur's debut nightly newscast, it could have taken a pro-Chávez line on several events - but didn't. While the official Venezuelan state channel VTV led with a story on the dubious claim that in less than two years Venezuela's literacy rate has reached nearly 100 percent thanks to programs Chávez has implemented, Telesur did not air a single story about Chávez's social programs.

The same Oct. 31 newscast also treated President Bush's new Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel Alito with kid gloves. Telesur's Washington correspondent gushed that Alito was "very experienced as a judge," and "very well educated" without voicing any criticism. The US press described Alito as "more conservative than Scalia," but Telesur resisted the opportunity to pounce on Mr. Bush's nomination, merely saying the choice would be controversial.

Telesur's focus so far has neither been the US nor Venezuela but Latin America. It has already aired a seven-part series on under-reported Haiti, for instance. In one story, a Haitian says that, "the US gives us much help and is a great neighbor." Chávez has long criticized US meddling in Haiti.

The network's first morning newscast covered the election crises in Peru and Bolivia. In the editors' meeting afterwards, a post-mortem took place. The Bolivia story had primarily focused on a speech by leftist indigenous leader, and presidential frontrunner Evo Morales. Producer Marcos Salgado said, "We have to compensate. Let's get footage from the candidate on the right."

At the meeting, someone proposed a new Chávez story separate from the Summit, to which another producer responded "enough Chávez."

To be sure, Chávez sympathizers run Telsur. Andres Izarra, the channel's president, briefly served as Chávez's minister of communications. Yet Mr. Izarra and Mr. Aharonian, are veteran journalists. Izarra previously worked at CNN and then RCTV, one of the private Venezuelan networks. Aharonian's been a journalist for more than 30 years, including briefly heading United Press International in Venezuela.

But the biggest question facing Telesur now is not about pro-Chávez propaganda, but whether it can attract viewers in the region.

Telesur says that cable networks in Argentina have now picked it up, though Osvaldo Bazan, a leading Argentine journalist who writes about television for the newsweekly Veintitres, says that Argentines still perceive it as state television, and that they remain skeptical of state-run institutions due to their experience with military dictatorships and rampant government corruption. Mr. Bazan adds that, "Chávez is certainly loved here and Bush hated, but nobody is interested in Telesur."

In Brazil, Alberto Dines, with the Observatoria da Imprensa, a Brazilian media watchdog, says that Brazilians "don't believe" state media, and adds that, "I don't see any chance for Telesur."

Also, many Venezuelans still question just how independent Telesur can really be, being primarily government-owned. They cite the case of Venezuelan journalist Walter Martinez. A Chávez supporter and nine-time winner of this country's version of the Pulitzer Prize. His news program, Dossier, was the highest-rated on Venezuela's state run VTV. But after criticizing Chávez's government for corruption, his program was taken off the air in September.

It may not be easy then for Telesur's employees to keep their network from becoming a Chávez mouthpiece. But Telesur's lone yanqui says, "Journalists have a social responsibility to keep an eye on the rich and powerful, whether it is Bush or Chávez."

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