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World news from a new point of view

Venezuela is out to give Latin Americans a better picture of their world, if politics will really allow it.

June 19, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Caracas, Venezuela — Aram AHARONIAN is getting used to all the prickly questions from foreign journalists. About whether the new public Telesur satellite TV channel is "anti-American." About whether Telesur's news broadcasts will be a mere mouthpiece for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the biggest Latin boogeyman of U.S. foreign policy this side of Havana. About whether the 24-hour Spanish-language channel is styling itself as a South American Al Jazeera.

His oft-repeated answers: no, no and sort of -- but not really.

A short, stocky man with a gray ponytail and a glint in his eye, Aharonian has been fielding such queries since being named Telesur's director general. Chatty and engaging, the veteran Uruguayan journalist patiently lays out his case for why Latin America badly needs an alternative to CNN en Espanol, BBC, Fox News and other TV news purveyors based in places like Atlanta and New York.

"Today we know much more about Chechnya than what's happening on the corner, in Colombia or in Central America, because all the information that the North generates comes into focus about subjects that interest the North," says Aharonian, 59, at Telesur's temporary offices in this densely packed capital's center.

In the centuries since the Spaniards invaded the New World, Aharonian continues, Latin Americans have been "trained to see ourselves with foreign eyes.... Now, 513 years later, we are recovering the possibility of seeing ourselves with our eyes."

Telesur, which is short for Nueva Television del Sur (New Television of the South), intends to counter what Aharonian calls the "hegemonic" worldview of its U.S. and European counterparts. Much foreign reporting on Latin America, Aharonian contends, is myopic and rips information out of context.

By contrast, he says, Telesur will offer newscasts, hard-hitting documentaries on hot-button topics like infant mortality and indigenous people's rights, and other original programming from a uniquely pan-Latin perspective. About half the programming will be nonjournalistic, which might include anything from cooking and music programs to Latin films. The channel is being launched with a relatively modest $2.5 million in start-up money, 70% from the Venezuelan government and the rest from the governments of Argentina and Uruguay, with Cuba lending technical support.

It's unclear how deeply Telesur might be able to penetrate Latin America's already crowded TV landscape, particularly with its newscasts. Both CNN and CNN en Espanol are widely available throughout Latin America -- CNN en Espanol reaches about 15 million households. Fox also continues to expand there, a spokeswoman said. Precise counts of cable and satellite TV users in an area as vast and varied as Latin America -- where piracy of both services is not uncommon -- are difficult to obtain.

In Venezuela, television news sources include the government-run, pro-Chavez Canal 8, and 10-year-old Globovision, Venezuela's only all-news channel, which has been highly critical of the president. But as Chavez has consolidated his power since a 2002 coup attempt against him, some radio and television stations that once excoriated the government have either toned down their criticisms or gone off the air.

Fears about media freedom

It's a tense time for Venezuela's private media, some of whom charge that Chavez is trying to strangle dissent by backing new laws that restrict broadcasting content.

Andres Velasquez, a federal legislator and former Venezuelan presidential candidate, says that in theory a new public television channel such as Telesur would be welcome. But he fears that the new station will turn into a Chavez propaganda machine. "Taking into consideration that the Venezuelan government is the major financier, this is going to be a disaster," says Velasquez. "The media are absolutely harassed by the current regime."

Ana Cristina Nunez, attorney for Globovision, says new government regulations will require that channel to dedicate three hours daily to children's programming and an additional 5 1/2 daily prime-time hours to programming dictated by government-appointed producers. The channel also is required by law to carry live feeds of Chavez's speeches and even his birthday celebration.

Chavez supporters and others argue that guidelines such as these, and others restricting language and the portrayal of government officials, are necessary because much of Venezuela's private media has behaved irresponsibly in the past, blatantly backing the president's opponents and helping to foment the attempted coup.

All nations, Aharonian says, have media "regulations" or "regulatory frameworks for distinct activities, for the press, for business, for whatever it is."

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