Latin leader rebels against US-centric news

[Editor's note: The original headline mischaracterized Chavez.]

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.

Latin America's Al Jazeera?

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.

Information Minister Andrés Izarra is the company's president, and headquarters are being constructed here in Caracas. Some 35 staffers are already in the cubicles of the makeshift second-floor office, beepers and cellphones clasped to their jeans. Other offices are being set up in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, Cuba, and in Washington. There is even a news anchor standing by: Ati Kiwa, an indigenous Colombian woman who wears traditional dress.

"We have been trained to see ourselves through foreign eyes," says Aharonian. "Europeans and Americans see us in black and white, and yet this is a technicolor continent."

Navigating Venezuela's media laws

For some, such talk rings hollow. "We all like the idea of a Latin American perspective of news, but not a one-sided view," replies Ms. Nuñez of Globovision. "I am very suspicious that Telesur will represent the voice only of leftist governments in Latin America - and will be an instrument of propaganda for them."

Globovision is not the only private media station in Venezuela hostile to Chávez. During the April 2002 coup that briefly ousted the president, most outlets openly sided with the opposition, providing round-the-clock coverage of anti-Chávez protests while refusing to air footage of massive demonstrations held in support of him. Since then, says Ms. Nuñez, "It has been payback time."

Globovision hired Nuñez four months ago in response to Chávez's new press laws, under which whoever "offends," or "shows disrespect for," or "defames" the president or his top officials, will face fines and punishment of six to 30 months in prison.

Nuñez spends her days now, she says, trying to interpret those terms for the journalists and editors she works with.

"There is no jurisprudence to go by, and people don't know what is allowed and what's a crime," she says. The new laws have already led to widespread self- censorship across the country's half-dozen private channels, she says. Late-night TV jokes about Chávez are out, risqué political talk shows are being canceled, and news reports are being finely combed before airing. "Telesur is introducing a super-well-funded official voice, just as free-press voices are being fined and intimidated," she says. "Coincidence?"

The French media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders and the New York-based Committee to Protect journalists are already worried. Both have expressed concerns over the increased regulation of media content. And Human Rights Watch, the international monitor, insists that governments can only restrict certain content if "there is a clear relation between the speech in question and a specific criminal act."

No plans to muzzle media

Aharonian dismisses any suggestion that Telesur is part of some bigger plan to muzzle the media or give Chávez an open microphone. The programming is not "against or instead of any other," but simply an option, he maintains. "That is what the remote control is for," he says, "so people can pick and choose between different perspectives."

Larry Birns, director of the left-leaning Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington is not quite as diplomatic. "Chávez found himself yielding an important battlefield to anti-Chavista perspective, both from within and from outside the county," he says. "Uruguay and Argentina found a similar lack of ability to communicate - and this is their combined response."

Ultimately, slanted or straight, Telesur's success will depend on whether it's watchable, says Richard Siklos, adjunct professor at New York University's department of culture and communication. "[Chávez] will learn what every media executive in New York has learned: You can put stuff out there, but if people don't watch, you are wasting your money."

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