Kozloff: A Thorn in the Side of the US Military – Telesur in Haiti

Posted on January 26, 2010

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If you wish to watch Telesur live:  http://www.telesurtv.net/noticias/canal/senalenvivo.php

Excerpt from a Nicolas Kozloff article: “A Thorn in the Side of the US Military”

Like al-Jazeera, which receives state funding from Qatar’s government, Telesur or Television of the South also receives government support, specifically from leftist Latin American and Caribbean governments including Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. And, similarly to al-Jazeera, Telesur is a media enterprise designed to compete with traditional U.S. outlets such as CNN.

When Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez helped to found Telesur in 2005 as an affiliate of state TV Venezolana de Televisión, U.S. conservatives grew concerned. Connie Mack, a Republican Congressman from Florida, remarked that the new network was “patterned after al-Jazeera,” and threatened to spread anti-U.S. ideas across Latin America.

When Telesur announced a content-sharing agreement with al-Jazeera in 2006, Mack went ballistic and declared that the decision was designed to create a “global television network for terrorists.” Adding to conservatives’ ire, Telesur signed an agreement with al-Jazeera whereby Latin personnel would receive training at the hands of the Middle Eastern network.
If al-Jazeera’s trial by fire was Iraq, the crucial test for Telesur was Honduras in 2009. In the wake of the right wing coup d’etat which deposed democratically elected president José Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran army cut off Telesur’s local broadcasts. However, the network’s signal was still available on the internet and a local radio station occasionally picked up Telesur audio.

Adriana Sivori, Telesur’s correspondent in Tegucigalpa, was in her hotel room speaking on the telephone to her network when 10 soldiers arrived with rifles drawn. The men unplugged Telesur’s editing equipment in an effort to halt the network’s coverage of protests in support of ousted president Zelaya.

When a soldier lightly slapped Sivori’s hand so she would hang up, the journalist grew alarmed. “They’re taking us prisoner at gunpoint,” she remarked. Sivori, along with producer María José Díaz and cameraman Larry Sánchez, were taken to an immigration office in a military caravan. There, the authorities beat them and demanded to see their Honduran visas. Shortly later, the journalists were released and the authorities warned Telesur journalists to cease transmitting images in support of Zelaya or face further detention. Defiantly however, Telesur continued to throw a lot of resources at the Honduras story. Indeed, at times during the first week after the coup Telesur was the only channel with a live feed. In a media scoop, Telesur even broadcast a live telephone interview with Zelaya from his Venezuelan plane when the ousted leader attempted to return to Tegucigalpa.

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To be sure, Telesur’s visibility increased as a result of its ground breaking Honduras coverage. However, what has given Telesur most credibility is the station’s willingness to take on other controversial topics, some of which have rattled left-leaning South American governments. One of those issues is Haiti.

Like al-Jazeera, which has pursued independent journalism in the Middle East, Telesur went into Haiti and took a no-holds-barred approach. According to station manager Aram Aharonian, who I interviewed for my book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), Telesur’s Haiti coverage proved controversial with the Chilean, Argentine, and Uruguayan governments.

One of the first stories that Telesur broadcast from the island nation concerned MINUSTAH, the United Nations’ Stabilization Mission in Haiti. In the report, Haitians said that Latin American peace keeping soldiers deployed to Haiti were repressing the people. The reporting ruffled feathers and “some officials in various countries” called Aharonian to protest the coverage.

Now, in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, Telesur has joined al-Jazeera in providing critical coverage of events. Moving on from the MINUSTAH mission, Telesur has focused in laser-like on United States’ misplaced priorities in the Caribbean island nation. While most Americans watch the mainstream media and bask in a wave of self-congratulation, Telesur has painted a darker picture of the U.S. response.

In one report for example, Telesur focused on U.S. policy towards Haitian migrants. According to the story, U.S. officials have drawn up plans to house the migrants at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo instead of transferring them to the United States. Meanwhile, U.S. naval vessels including aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson are prepared to intercept Haitian boats and repatriate the desperately needy if necessary.

In another story, Telesur reported on European Union unhappiness about the U.S. relief effort in Haiti. According to the report, the EU seeks more relief coordination and less of a foreign military presence in Haiti. Reed Lindsay, Telesur’s correspondent in Haiti, remarks that it is the U.S. military which decides who goes in and out of the Port-au-Prince airport and what kinds of humanitarian aid gets through. According to Telesur reports, EU concerns are echoed by many Latin American governments who fear that the U.S. is using the crisis in Haiti to launch a military occupation.

Could the U.S. military be running out of patience with foreign media reporting, which has proven much less deferential to Washington when it comes to Haiti coverage? One recent report by Cuba’s Prensa Latina is worth noting. According to the story, U.S. marines recently barred Venezolana de Televisión journalists from entering Haitian hospitals. At Haiti’s central hospital, Haitians seeking to help their loved ones inside were reportedly mistreated. Those who tried to bring water and food to their relatives were unable to enter the hospital, as the marines stopped them from entering the facilities.

Al-Jazeera has always proven to be a thorn in the side of the U.S. military. Now, Washington must also contend with rising star Telesur. In the coming days, as the relief effort proceeds in Haiti, relations between the Pentagon and these new media outlets could prove testy.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.