By COHA Senior Research Fellow, Nikolas Kozloff, D.Phil.
- Telesur, a new network scheduled to cover news throughout South America, is the latest player in Chávez’s war against opposition media.
- Opposition TV stations resort to unprofessional behavior.
- Will Telesur be objective or doomed to be used as a government propaganda channel?
- Before knocking it, prospective critics should watch to see how Telesur’s operations unfold.
In Venezuela, the war for the hearts and minds of its citizens is now in full swing. With the imminent launching of the government-sponsored Televisora del Sur (Telesur), network control of the country’s existing media, including Univisión and CNN en Español, might sorely be put to the test. According to plans, the network will start transmitting in late June or early July and will offer news and opinion programming 24 hours a day. For journalists now being recruited by Telesur, the creation of the network is long overdue. “Telesur’s reason for being is the need to see Latin America with Latin American eyes,” said Aram Aharonian, its new director. “It’s our right to have our own vision of what happens in Latin America, and not what Europeans or Americans, or whoever, tell us about how we are, who we are.”
It is hardly surprising that this new project is being launched by the Hugo Chávez administration. The Venezuelan leader has been particularly concerned with increasing his country’s political and cultural independence from Washington. From the very start, Chávez has had a stormy relationship with his powerful northern neighbor. Chávez, who immediately upon taking office in 1998 established close-working ties with Washington’s anathema, Cuban President Fidel Castro, criticized the U.S-led plan for a free trade zone in the Americas and was strongly opposed to the war in Iraq. As a result, he has long been reviled by the Bush administration. Tensions have been particularly bristling between the two nations ever since April 2002 when the democratically-elected Chávez was briefly removed from power in a coup. Chávez accused Washington of sponsoring his attempted overthrow as well as supporting a devastating oil lockout in 2002-2003. He also bluntly referred to the United States as “an imperialist power” and accused the CIA of having plans to assassinate him. In a further barb, Chávez declared that if he were killed the United States could “forget Venezuelan oil.”
Early TV Media Hostility toward Chávez
Within Venezuela’s volatile political environment, the role of the media has often proved critical and Chávez’s relations with the established networks have been turbulent since the 1998 election. Venezuela’s main TV stations were owned by powerful billionaire businessmen such as Gustavo Cisneros. The Cisneros Group includes Univisión Communications and Venevisión. Cisneros, whose net worth in 2003 was estimated at $4 billion, personally sits on the board of Univisión. The media magnate counts among his friends former U.S. President George H.W. Bush. What is more, according to Venezuelan human rights lawyer Eva Golinger, the links between the U.S. government and Venezuelan media go far beyond mere personal friendships. She explained that the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy and US AID have provided several millions of dollars to private media outlets in Venezuela to help finance their anti-Chávez campaign.
Cisneros, a tireless proponent of hemispheric free trade and globalization, quickly fell afoul of Chávez. The Venezuelan president has tenaciously criticized Washington’s Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). In return, Cisneros denounced Chávez for “arrogant abuse of power and authority.” Chávez also has been at odds with Marcel Granier, owner of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV). When Chávez first came to power, Granier said, many privately-owned TV stations favored him. “But little by little,” he told Union Radio, “anti-democratic actions, violating the rule of law, attacks on journalists and attacks against the media have created the current situation. Venezuelan media are very concerned by the systematic and repeated violation of human rights.” In 2004, Granier and Cisneros controlled more than 60 percent of the television market in Venezuela.
Media and the Coup of 2002
During the dramatic days leading up to the April 2002 coup d’etat, Venevisión, RCTV, Globovisión and Televen substituted their regular programming with non-stop vitriolic anti-Chávez propaganda, which some of their staff later acknowledged as unprofessional behavior. This relentless barrage was interrupted by commercials sponsored by the oil industry management urging TV viewers to go into the streets. Inflammatory ads blaring, “Not one step backward. Out! Leave now!” were carried by the stations as public service announcements. Later on the day of the coup, Cisneros allowed his television station Venevision to serve as the meeting place for anti-Chávez coup plotters. Reportedly, interim coup president Pedro Carmona was present. As armed confrontations erupted in the streets of Caracas the anti-Chávez media edited video clips to give the impression that pro-Chávez forces were purportedly firing on unarmed civilians. However, according to journalist Greg Palast, who spoke to witnesses unaffiliated with either faction, “The shooting began from a roadway overpass controlled by the anti-Chávez Metropolitan Police, and the first to fall were pro-Chávez demonstrators.” After three days of anti-government protests, Venezuelan authorities interrupted the transmission of six TV stations to broadcast a message by President Chávez. In the middle of the speech, the private channels, which had broadcasted little if any coverage of pro-Chávez demonstrations, divided the screen to continue covering anti-government protests. Irritated by the media’s decision, Chávez ordered that the private channels be temporarily closed down and accused them of conspiring to overthrow the government.
TV under the Coup
By the following morning, Chávez had been deposed and the new—if short lived—regime now turned the tables on the flow of information. After Chávez’s fall, the coup leaders appeared on TV thanking the media for its assistance. For their part, the stations cheered Chávez’s “resignation.” However, after huge numbers of pro-Chávez supporters had been mobilized and were marching downtown, the media imposed a news blackout. Instead, the media broadcasted non-stop soap operas and cartoons. Meanwhile, during the brief Carmona regime, the government-sponsored Venezolana de Television was taken off the air when police forces loyal to Carmona occupied the Chávez loyalist station. Independent TV stations such as Catia TV and TV Caricuao reported that their offices were raided by pro-coup police who detained their staff, and confiscated their equipment.
The Boomerang Effect
According to authoritative Venezuela analyst Greg Wilpert, “The community media were faster and got the message out before they were all closed down. The alternative media’s broadcasting of the resistance caused it to snowball and to become increasingly active and eventually unstoppable.” Venezolana de Television later resumed broadcasting when sympathizers of the regime returned to their old positions. Far from intimidating Chávez, media attacks only served to embolden the Venezuelan president who charged that the commercial media was engaged in “psychological terrorism.” Chávez singled out Cisneros as a “coup-plotter” and a “fascist.”
After the coup government was overturned, Chávez came to recognize the importance of community media. The government soon sat down with representatives of this sector and granted permits to many new, limited-range TV broadcasters, primarily operating in the central and western region of the country. In a further controversial move, Chávez seized broadcasting equipment from the 24-hour television news station Globovision. The move did not take Globovision off the air but the network was unable to broadcast live links to its reporters. The authorities claimed that Globovision was transmitting on illegal frequencies and that the seizure was not motivated by politics, but rather by existing regulations.
In a further sign that the political wind was shifting against the established media, some reporters even quit their jobs. One well known journalist, Andrés Izarra, resigned as production manager of El Observador, a news show broadcast over Granier’s RCTV. Izarra, who had previous journalistic experience with CNN, declared “I resigned because the station imposed an editorial line from the top down which censored all information related to chavismo. It was prohibited to show anyone affiliated with chavismo on the screen.” In a dramatic shift of careers, Izarra, after handling communications for Chávez’s embassy in Washington, now works as Chávez’s minister of communications and information.
Media and the Oil Lockout
Not to be outdone, anti-Chávez forces organized a lockout in 2002-2003. Again, the role of the media was critical. According to Golinger, “The four primary [TV] stations suspended all regular programming throughout the duration [of the lockout]. They broadcast an average of 700 pro-opposition advertisements each day, paid for by the stations themselves and by the opposition umbrella group, Democratic Coordinator.” Though the lockout failed to dislodge President Chávez, it proved devastating to the economy and resulted in an estimated $14 billion loss to the nation. After the lockout, three private TV stations were ordered to pay $2 million in taxes for allegedly providing free advertising to anti-Chávez forces. RCTV’s Marcel Granier described the government’s clampdown as a “grotesque” assault on freedom of expression. Chávez meanwhile referred to the high profile businessmen who owned the TV stations as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” Despite this inflammatory rhetoric, a recent article published by the U.S. Newspapers Guild pointed out that no television station owners or managers had been prosecuted or lost their broadcasting licenses in Venezuela.
State Supported Media: Venezolana de Television
The established TV media lost journalistic credibility during the April coup. In calling for the nation to rise up in opposition to Chávez, the TV stations displayed blatant political partisanship. However, state-supported media has been just as biased. Chávez regularly – perhaps excessively— has been known to commandeer the airwaves, including the private networks, to deliver pro-government speeches at prime time. The president, for example, has made full use of Channel 8, Venezolana de Television. Though the public network boasts a broad range of cultural, children’s and musical programming, it also transmits the president’s own TV show, “Alo, Presidente.” On his Sunday program, the colorful Chávez may belt out Tango-inspired songs along with traditional Venezuelan folkloric tunes, when he is not using the time to air his political views. On one program in February 2003, Chávez warned the international community, in particular Colombia, Spain and the United States, to cease intervening in Venezuelan affairs. The next day bombs exploded at the Spanish and Colombian embassies and the U.S. embassy was shut down for 24 hours following a security alert. The opposition accused Chávez of inciting the attacks over his “Alo, Presidente” program. However, in February 2005, the anti-Chávez former National Guard General Felipe Rodriguez, known as “the Crow,” was charged with masterminding the bombings. Despite this controversy, Venezolana de Television’s audience share of the market was less than 2 percent last year. To compete with the private TV stations the government stated that it would invest $56 million in state-run TV.
State Supported Media: Vive TV
Another state sponsored station, Vive TV, which was launched in November 2003, promotes “participatory democracy, solidarity and Latin American integration.” Until January, the president of Vive TV was Blanca Eekhout who cut her teeth as a founding member and director of Catia TV, a local pro-Chavez TV station based in Catia on the outskirts of Caracas. She says that in the early days of Vive TV it became clear that “people didn’t just want to see new programming, they wanted to make it.” Accordingly, adds Eekhout, the station conducted workshops which taught camera work to community residents. “People from campesino and other movements came to make their own programs.” The station, maintains the manager, is “based on a new communications paradigm established by the political, social and economic model of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and broadcasts its cultural, educational, and informational programs for the public good. In late 2004, Vive TV beamed to 60-70 percent of the Venezuelan population, including Caracas and various other states, but not the entire countryside.
In contrast to TV stations like RCTV, which airs shows such as “Quien Quiere Ser Millionario” (“Who Wants To Be A Millionaire“), Vive TV shuns American-style consumerism. According to its website, Vive TV promotes “the common citizen, the millions of Venezuelans and Latin Americans who have been made invisible by imperialism and its cultural domination.” Through Vive’s programming, claim the station’s managers, “it is possible to acquaint oneself with the reality, lives and struggle of people of African descent, indigenous peoples, campesinos, workers, women, men, young people and children.” As Eekhout further explains, people of color previously “have appeared in the media but in a stigmatized way; they are shown as marginal people, criminals. They are not shown building, constructing, which is part of the struggle for the development of the country. That’s one thing we are trying to change.” Eekhout adds that Vive strives to act as a bridge for Latin America. Ironically, she says, many Venezuelans are more familiar with TV images of the United States than Latin America. Accordingly, Vive TV sets aside time slots for Latin American documentaries and cinema. What is more, Vive TV dedicated 4 hours of programming in one week to the Social Forum of the Americas in Ecuador. According to Eekhout, Venezuelan Indians attended the event and “The [Venezuelan] indigenous movement was excited; they could see not only movements there, but also their own Venezuelan delegates.”
Analysis of Vive TV
The question however is whether Vive TV is truly independent or simply toes the line. On Vive’s website, viewers may watch videos from “Diario de Las Misiones,” which shows how ordinary Venezuelans have benefited from a government program called Las Misiones, which encourages job creation and provides education, health, and food to underprivileged members of society. However, other programming does not overtly tout government initiatives. For example, one TV report from Noticiero de Los Trabajadores shows workers at Venepal, the principal paper company in the country, located in Carabobo state. When the owners halted production in September 2004, workers grew concerned for their economic future. In the video, there is no reportorial narration and the workers speak for themselves. One worker, who hardly seems to act as a Chávez regime mouthpiece, lists worker grievances at the plant and asks for the government to address local problems. In another video shot for Noticiero de Los Trabajadores, a resident of the municipality of Monagas speaks of the lack of public health infrastructure. Despite the fact that Monagas is located in the state of Anzoategui, site of a recent oil development, the resident claims that over the last ten years there has been a lack of government attention to the area. Though the health coverage has improved, he says, this has only come about through popular pressure.
Roll Over Al-Jazeera
Seen against the backdrop of these media developments, the emergence of Telesur hardly comes as a great surprise. Speaking on his television show, “Aló, Presidente,” Chávez remarked that Telesur will be “a hemispheric, audiovisual means of communication that shall broadcast the real vision of social and cultural diversity in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Telesur, which is scheduled to operate as an affiliate of state-sponsored Venezolana de Television, plans to showcase documentaries, movies and some entertainment programming. However, the network will place strong emphasis on informative content which shall account for 40 percent of all programming. Telesur will have correspondents in the United States, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico, Brazil and possibly Peru or Bolivia. Currently, Telesur has about 20 employees. By the time the network is fully staffed and launched, however, that number should grow to 60. In stark contrast to Univisión celebrity anchor Jorge Ramos, who wears a jacket and tie, Telesur has hired anchor woman Ati Kiwa, an indigenous Colombian woman who wears traditional dress. According to Aharonian, the governing board of the company is comprised of “journalists, communicators and people from the Latin American audiovisual world.” The international directorate is comprised of the president, Andrés Izarra; Aram Aharonian, who is the station’s general director; Ana de Escalom, of Channel 7 Buenos Aires; Beto Almeida of Brazil’s journalist guild; Ovidio Cabrera, ex-vice-president of Cuba’s Radio TV; and Jorge Enrique Botero of Colombia, the station’s director of information. Aharonian adds that none of these individuals, except for Izarra, officially represents the government’s point of view.
So far, the Venezuelan government state has contributed $2.5 million to the network. Organizers have sought out sponsors, but in sharp contrast to Cisneros’ Univisión, Telesur will offer no commercial advertising. Although, adds Aharonian, “there will be advertisements from private and public institutions, with such sponsors having nothing to do with the editorial line.” Significantly, Argentina has joined the effort and today Telesur represents a joint venture involving Venezuela and Argentina. Additionally, Telesur has concluded an agreement to share material with TV Brasil, a state run company. Uruguay, which recently elected left-leaning president Tabaré Vasquez, has agreed to cover 10 percent of the new enterprises’ initial costs. According to Izarra, Telesur is the first example of a continental-wide station owned jointly by a number of governments. For President Bush, the concern must certainly be that this new “anti-hegemonic” network, as its managers are wont to describe it, could turn into the Al Jazeera of South America. Telesur has in fact recently signed a cooperation agreement with Al Jazeera, which has been heavily subsidized by the Qatar government. Under the agreement, Al Jazeera will expand its coverage of Latin America and open a central office in Caracas. The Caracas office will in turn receive Al Jazeera reports filed from Argentina and Brazil.
The Politics of Telesur
Not surprisingly, Telesur is not without its detractors. Principal among them is Jorge Ramos, the TV anchor at Cisneros’ Univisión, who also mounts his attacks against Chávez from his personal website (www.jorgeramos.com). In his article entitled “Telesur o TeleChávez,” Ramos writes that creating continental-wide media is a legitimate goal. However, he adds, “I am very worried that Telesur will become…an international megaphone for Hugo Chávez and his interminable speeches…Chávez already controls almost everything in Venezuela: the assembly, the constitution, the supreme court and the army. And Telesur could expand, without controls, his international agenda.” Of course, his critics say that Ramos has had little to say about the extent to which Univisión and Ramos himself have become mouthpieces for Cisneros.
At the helm of the network, the 59-year-old Aharonian says it is time to wage “an ideological fight.” Incensed by the biases and shortcomings of mainstream TV coverage of foreign events, he comments that “commercial TV tells us today that there is a liberating coalition in Iraq saving the Iraqis when we know it is a genocidal invasion.” It is time he says to “wage [a] battle in the mass field of television. Telesur was born from the conviction that in these days of great saturation television, it cannot be left in the hands of the enemy. The Venezuelan government has given great importance to community and alternative radio, but has left the mass media to the enemy.” Aharonian, an Uruguayan who has resided in Venezuela for several years, is also the director of Agencia Latinoamericana de Información y Análisis-Dos (Alia2) and the Caracas monthly newspaper Questión. According to its editors, Questión “sees world reality through a pluralistic vision, independent of the so-called process of liberal globalization.”
Caracas Assures that Telesur will be Independent
In an interesting article entitled “RR: Rhetoric or Reality?” published in the October issue of Questión, Aharonian sketched out his views concerning social and political changes in Venezuela. Though he is complimentary of Chávez’s accomplishments in the fields of health and education, he writes that the regime must do more to encourage participatory democracy in order to give more power to the poor. In another recent article, published in the wake of Chávez’s November victory in regional elections, Aharonian writes that Chávez must give up his confrontational politics and start to govern. “The reality,” he writes, “is that the climate of confrontation that Venezuela experienced for years encouraged a situation in which many governors and mayors elected under the Chávez banner are really not suitable for governance, they don’t have experience in politics or public administration.” When pressed, Aharonian insists that Telesur will be completely independent. What is more, Aharonian asks why more people do not voice similar concerns about the independence of private TV media. In an echo of Vive TV, he remarked to the Mexican daily La Jornada, “We will focus on doing the opposite of commercial television. We will search out the protagonist role of social movements, people, communities, and towns.”
Aharonian is joined by Botero who has worked as head of current affairs programming for Caracol Television network. The Colombian journalist has produced two documentaries, “Como voy a Olvidarte” (How Will I Forget You) and “Bacano salir en Diciembre” about kidnapped victims of the FARC guerrillas in Colombia. He won the Premio Nuevo Periodismo (New Journalism Award) for both.
In his native Colombia, Botero fell afoul of the U.S.-supported armed forces. In 1997, FARC leader Alfonso Cano offered him a rare television interview. Later, Botero says, senior army officials labeled him as a rebel sympathizer. In 2000, when his network aired some of Botero’s footage showing captive police and soldiers held by the FARC in jungle camps, the journalist received multiple death threats. Botero’s bosses told him “it was not convenient” to air a new series of documentaries. He was relieved of his duties at the station but not dismissed. Botero later sent his family abroad and moved out of his Bogotá apartment. As an employee at Telesur, Botero must surely hope that he will be able to forget the repressive atmosphere in Colombia. Speaking with the Associated Press, Botero commented that Telesur will broadcast less U.S. focused news and more from the “voices of new social and political sectors” in Latin America that have been historically ignored. He added, “A one hour slot is already scheduled during which the communities themselves will report what they have to say.” Botero also makes the point that in addition to Telesur correspondents, he wants to develop a network of journalistic collaborators. “We want to contract independent media that have outstanding editorial lines to be the station’s base of operations in their respective countries.”
Looking to the Future
The debate over TV media and its role in Venezuela will not end any time soon. What is certain, however, is that Chávez is now in a much more stable situation politically than he was in 2002. Having consolidated power, he may now spearhead continental-wide media and promote South American unity. “For the first time in the history of Venezuela,” comments Aharonian, “the earnings of petroleum are reaching the people and the surpluses have given the opportunity to promote this Latin American project of communicational integration.” Such developments are of great concern to Washington, which appears incapable of comprehending the extraordinary transformations now occurring in the region.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Senior Research Fellow, Nikolas Kozloff, D.Phil.