Screens Telegenda?

Media outlet Telesur, owned by several Latin American governments, debuts this month, sparking fears of bias and anti-American messages

CARACAS, Venezuela - Images of protesters marching through an unnamed Latin American city flashed across the TV screen. The marchers hoisted a caricature of Uncle Sam on a banner reading, "Let's crush imperialism." Later the camera cut to a woman smiling behind the words, "Finally we see our own faces."

The excerpts were part of a May test broadcast of Telesur - Spanish for "TeleSouth" - a Latin American news and cultural channel that launched July 24. The transmission signaled that the station does not aim to be just another number on Latinos' television dials. Funded by the governments of Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay, and Venezuela, the channel calls itself a homegrown alternative to foreign and commercial media outlets such as CNN.

"The productions we get from abroad are a black-and-white vision of Latin America, usually in black when there is a disaster and nothing else," says Telesur's director, Aram Aharonian, a journalist from Uruguay. He says the channel will help integrate a region that currently knows other parts of the world better than itself. One segment of the test broadcast, titled "A trip through Latin America," reinforced the channel's multi-state identity by showing a local bus heading to destinations around the continent.

Another clip showed protesters holding an American flag branded with a swastika and torn apart by a bloody eagle. Later in the broadcast, a narrator promised to expose the involvement of U.S. soldiers in Colombian drug-trafficking. Viewers are not likely to see such images featured on CNN.

Not mentioning any specific news agency, Aharonian alleges that coverage of Latin America by U.S.-based media shows "one only image" and focuses more on "Latin-American idiosyncrasies" than the "diversity and plurality" of the region. By portraying the news so narrowly, around-the-clock news organizations have left traditional journalistic principles behind, he says.

But Chris Crommett, senior vice president of CNN en Español, the hemisphere's only 24-hour international Spanish-language news channel, says it is false to assume that his channel reflects an American point of view just because it is headquartered in Atlanta. "Anyone that watches our air and says we're not reflecting the voice of Latin America - not just institutional and presidential, but really all sectors of society - isn't really watching much," Crommett says.

All but one of CNN en Español's 15 on-air presenters in its Atlanta studios are native Latin Americans. The network can also serve regional audiences, Crommett says, because its news-gathering resources include correspondents in every Latin American country. CNN calculates that the network reaches 2.8 million U.S. homes, 37 percent of a fast-growing population of cable-watching Spanish speakers. In Latin America, the channel is seen in 12.2 million households, more than triple its viewership when it debuted in 1997.

Crommett says Telesur's format - 30 to 40 percent news and the rest cultural programming - along with its state funding puts it in a separate market than his news channel. He added that his network's reputation for credibility and unique programming made it unlikely that the advent of Telesur would affect CNN's strong presence in the Latin American and U.S. markets.

Aharonian had praise for CNN, but he says that large media outlets let political and economic pressure influence their news coverage, shutting out voices from lesser-developed regions. For instance, he argues, U.S. media coverage of recent political turbulence in Ecuador gave more air time to analysts in Washington than to the opinions of Ecuadorians.

Carlos Correa, media expert and director of the Venezuelan human-rights group Provea, adds that the strength of foreign media such as CNN has made it hard for Latin Americans to promote their own cultural products such as music and film.

Telesur, in contrast, will specialize in Latin American productions and will not broadcast commercial advertising, unlike CNN and major Spanish-language networks such as Telemundo and Univision. In addition to satellite coverage spanning the Americas, more than 60 U.S. cable providers and public stations are already interested in picking up the Telesur signal, Aharonian said.

Venezuela is funding 51 percent of the Telesur project and houses its headquarters. The government's communications minister is also Telesur's president. Telesur's critics say this means the channel will be a platform for the populist agenda of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who has tense relations with the United States.

Criticism of the channel reached a feverish point a week before its debut when the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo accused a Telesur trailer of spotlighting a Colombian guerrilla leader and of linking the country to international terrorism. Aharonian and Izarra shrugged off the claims, asking viewers to wait until Telesur hits the airwaves to assess its political leanings.

Aharonian offers assurances that Telesur's programming will not be produced exclusively at its Caracas studios. Instead, it will also draw from correspondents, independent producers, social organizations, and national and local channels, he says. Telesur plans to situate news bureaus in cities across the Americas, including Washington, Caracas, Mexico City, Havana, Bogotá, La Paz, Buenos Aires, Brasilia, and Montevideo.

Provea's Correa, who says freedom of expression is threatened in Chávez' Venezuela, sees no danger in the channel. He says that a multi-government project such as Telesur is less likely to menace press freedom than media funded by one government. "In Europe there's a channel that is paid for by the European Union," Correa says. "So what is the problem?"

Crommett says he doesn't want to prejudge Telesur, adding that critics of CNN often accuse his network of having political affiliations. He did say, however, that Telesur's decision-making would need to be in the hands of professional journalists for it to be a credible source of information. "I'm much more comfortable knowing that my bosses all the way up the line are all journalists with no agenda other than to try and present the news as best we can."

By Jens Gould

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