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South America’s Mad-TV: Hugo Chávez Makes Broadcasting a Battleground

by Stephen Johnson | The Heritage Foundation

Halloween scares have come early to South America, and one knocking on the front door right now is Telesur, a new satellite TV network funded largely by Venezuela’s authoritarian president Hugo Chávez. According to its director, Aram Aharonian, the purpose is to disseminate “a truthful view of the social and cultural diversity of Latin America and the Caribbean to the world.”

But rattling Venezuela’s democratic neighbors and legitimizing the region’s leftist terror movements seems to be its real mission. Promotional broadcasts in early July featured flattering video of Colombian guerrilla commander Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda, who is trying to overthrow his country’s government. Moreover, news bulletins and documentaries have demonstrated a marked radical left bias since the channel’s official startup on July 24.

While the Bush Administration and the hemisphere’s other democrats should take care not to overreact to Chávez’s provocation, his international broadcasting effort should prompt genuine concern and measures to strengthen protections for independent, non-government media to provide a balance of diverse perspectives in a free, competitive marketplace of ideas.

Nueva Televisión del Sur (“New Television of the South”) is the joint creation of the governments of Cuba and Venezuela. Information Minister Andrés Izarra was named president and chief editor and had to resign his ministerial post to blunt criticism that the channel was a Chávez mouthpiece. Still, Telesur offices are co-located with Venezuelan state TV, and 51 percent of the new network’s money comes from Venezuela’s government, with Argentina, Cuba, and Uruguay contributing 20, 19, and 10 percent respectively.

The same consortium is backing a production company to help provide content. Known as the Latin American Content Factory or FLACO (which ironically means “thin” in Spanish), it promises to tap “unknown cultural reserves” in Latin America to co-produce and finance programs not only for Telesur, but other Latin American stations that will accept them.

For now, programming on Telesur is limited to 4 hours a day but will ramp up to 8 hours in late September. So far, newscasts have featured statements by Venezuelan officials and stories critical of the United States and Colombia. Feigning balance, one news piece showed peasant demonstrators agitating for land reform—a policy that Chávez already favors through expropriation. Another show elegized fallen guerrilla hero and Castro chum Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Telesur is not alone in government-sponsored international broadcasting. The United Kingdom has a foreign division in its British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Germany has Deutsche Welle (DW), and Qatar has its Al-Jazeera satellite channel. All have become staples on cable systems around the world.

The BBC and German DW are mature networks with balanced newscasts that often run stories critical of their governments. Although Al-Jazeera features interviews with radical mullahs and statements from terrorists, it hosts vigorous debate programs that have brought outside views and critical thinking to many closed Middle Eastern societies. The United States funds its own Voice of America and surrogate outlets like Radio Free Europe to provide alternative news to captive populations and editorials to explain U.S. policies to foreigners.

But director Aharonian told reporters that Telesur is more than an alternative news source, aiming to “recover, or bring back, the Word that has been held hostage for over three decades by dictators, corrupt politicians and holders of large amounts of capital . . . that worked together to ransack our nations, and tried to convince us that through intrigue and globalization, everything would improve.”

According to him and others at the network, Latin Americans see themselves through images controlled by “the North.” But that contradicts the fact that there are more than 1200 independent newspapers, 500 television outlets, 7,500 radio stations, and nearly 70 cable systems in Latin America, according to recent surveys. Like other Chávez supporters, Aharonian employs a doublespeak that identifies Latin American private enterprise and media with the United States, as if their activities were somehow illegitimate or traitorous.

True, Latin American television is full of steamy telenovelas (soap operas) and sappy comedies and features too few cultural or public affairs shows. Moreover, skyrocketing production costs have made homegrown programming too expensive to be viable, and so many small outlets have had to share content at the cost of local flavor and diverse points of view. News and investigative reporting is ubiquitous—but only to the point that journalists avoid stories about corrupt political leaders.

Nowhere is this more troublesome than in three of the network’s sponsor countries. In Cuba, private media are banned and independent Cuban journalists have been jailed as political prisoners. In Venezuela, draconian laws punish journalists with jail terms and media owners with closure for criticizing state officials. In Argentina, the police intimidate reporters who investigate corruption, according to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2005 report.

For their part, the United States and other moderate democracies should take care not to overreact to this new propaganda organ in ways that make it gain more of an audience than it really deserves. For now, the satellite channel only reaches households rich enough to afford cable service, and there is abundant private media to offset its bias. What the region needs is not another government voice to counter it, but stronger protections for press freedoms plus balance through more diverse content.

Toward that end, the United States and allies should work together—perhaps through the Organization of American States and Inter-American Press Association—to strengthen press freedoms, remove barriers to private media ownership, provide grants for independent production, and encourage philanthropy to support better educational and cultural broadcasting within the region.

Last month, Representative Connie Mack (R-FL) introduced a measure to fund “pro-democracy” broadcasts to Venezuela to counter Telesur. The bill was well intended, but if Washington wants to send useful signals, it should do so by revitalizing its neglected Voice of America service to the region—which has been cut back since the mid-1990s—with programming that supports U.S. goals of strengthening democratic governance, building trade capacity, and encouraging the rule of law. No need to reinvent the wheel—just use the tools already at hand.

As for Telesur, it should sink or swim on its own merits. If it broadcasts a marathon weekend of Fidel Castro’s 7-hour speeches, you can bet viewers will reach for the remote. If it calls for the overthrow of neighboring democracies, those governments would be justified in blocking its signal.

Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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