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Is a US-Venezuela "Electronic War" Just Hype or an Emerging Reality?

From The Inter American Dialogue

For the period 7/18-7/29, 2005 | Q: Last week legislation sponsored by Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) was passed in the US House of Representatives to consider broadcasting Radio and TV Marti-type transmissions into Venezuela, aimed at offering "accurate news" to Venezuelans. Will Rep. Mack's legislation pass the full Congress? Do you think the idea of broadcasting special US content into Venezuela is a good one? Is an "electronic war" between the US and Venezuela—as it has been referred to in some media—just hype, or an emerging reality?

A: Guest Comment: John Dinges: "Putting the term 'accurate news' in the same sentence with government-sponsored broadcasts is not only an oxymoron, it is disingenuous in the extreme. Governments have political agendas; when they hire journalists to report the news you can be sure the 'news' will fit the government's agenda. That is an obvious criticism that can be directed both at Telesur and US-sponsored propaganda operations like TV Marti. Unlike Cuba—the target of Radio and TV Marti—Venezuela has an energetic, free, and combative radio, television, and newspaper establishment, most of which is fully capable of and committed to exposing the mistakes and falsehoods of the Chavez government when they occur. Overtly pro-Chavez media are in the minority, a situation Telesur aims to remedy. What is unique about Telesur, however, is the involvement of Argentina, Uruguay and (tentatively) Brazil, as well as Venezuela and Cuba. The last thing the United States needs is to pick a fight with all of those countries just because they are in a joint venture with Fidel and Chavez. Telesur is a new voice on the air, ambitious but underfunded (Director Aram Aharonian told me recently that initial capital was only $2.5 million, which he hoped would grow to $10 million.) If its offerings are poor quality or pure propaganda, it will be ignored in the crowded Latin America media marketplace. In the meantime, it is hard to imagine what anyone has to fear."

A: Board Comment: Beatrice Rangel: The government of Venezuela’s Telesur initiative brings chilly echoes of the UNESCO-sponsored New World Information Order. In those days several Third World press agencies and information outlets were created. I wonder where they have now gone. Any information outlet that aspires to be seen or read in this information age has to be presented in a sticky, entertaining and well produced fashion. Propaganda usually fails to meet these conditions. That being the case, Telesur runs the risk of falling victim to the audience's zap power. And as zapping power reduces audiences there will not be any advertisers and their ancillary revenue streams. Thus, lest the Venezuelan government enjoys an unending oil price rally, long-term survival seems elusive for Telesur. As to the US response, I think that a short programming block, produced by independents with reality show formats and embedded in existing independent media would be more effective in terms of carrying the message of democracy than launching a bureaucratic counterpart to Telesur."

A: Board Comment: Diego Arria: "Telesur is an initiative of the Chavez-Castro duo. Cuba could not do it alone, but thanks to the Chavez largess with the Venezuelan people's oil resources, it will become a third-rate tropical Al Jazeera, seeking to exalt the Cuban-Venezuelan regimes and to promote anti-Americanism. Surprisingly, the Argentinean and Uruguayan governments, as minor partners and minor players, provide a certain amount of cover—but soon those two governments will find it very uncomfortable to be part of an operation directed by Chavez and Castro for their particular joint interests. Venezuela, for now, still has access to accurate information thanks to the courage of the few media outlets that risk their existence on a daily basis."

A: Guest Comment: Sauro Gonzalez Rodriguez: "From our perspective journalists are free to report the news in Venezuela, although they do so in an extremely difficult environment, where they may face retaliation for what they write. Because of the extreme polarization and politicization in Venezuela, journalists have been targeted by both government and opposition supporters. Two laws approved last year in Venezuela with the support of pro-government legislators—one amending the Penal Code and another one establishing 'social responsibility' in radio and television— are restrictive of press freedom and could be used to silence government opponents and impose self-censorship. CPJ has protested both laws and will continue to urge the government to repeal them."

John Dinges is on the faculty of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is a former Foreign Correspondent at The Washington Post and National Public Radio.

Beatrice Rangel is a member of the Advisor board and President and CEO of AMLA Consulting.

Diego Arria is a member of the Advisor board and Venezuela's former Ambassador to the United Nations.

Sauro Gonzalez Rodriguez is Research Associate in the Americas Program at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.

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