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All Chavez, all the time

IT IS POSSIBLE THAT Telesur, the new satellite TV network funded by the Venezuelan government, will be a runaway success. It is also possible that C-SPAN’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of hearings of the House Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform will someday outdraw reruns of “The Simpsons.”

Possible, but not very likely. Most Latin American viewers will switch channels about 30 minutes into the usual eight-hour soliloquy on hemispheric freedom from Cuban leader Fidel Castro or Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Telesur’s best hope for success, in fact, may be for some official opposition from the United States. It is a hope the U.S. appears ready to fulfill.

The stated goal of Telesur, which also receives support from Cuba, Uruguay and Argentina, is to provide audiences in Latin America an alternative to U.S. and European networks such as CNN, Univision, Telemundo and the state-sponsored Spanish Television Network. Telesur executives say the network will broadcast news, opinion, features and investigative reports from a Latin American perspective. A more enigmatic goal of the news operation, according to its mission statement, is to promote “the political and economic integration of the region.”

Based in Caracas, the network plans to have correspondents in Bogota, Buenos Aires, Brasilia, La Paz, Havana, Mexico City, Montevideo and New York. It is an ambitious enterprise, especially given Venezuela’s meager $2.5-million investment, plus an expected $10 million from commercial sponsorships. (The other governments involved will contribute programming, equipment and staff.)

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But whether Telesur emerges as a credible news organization or becomes a propaganda outfit, it has already generated a childish reaction in Congress. Last month, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) proposed an amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 2005 to “carry out broadcasting to Venezuela for at least 30 minutes per day of balanced, objective and comprehensive television news programming.” The House passed it by a voice vote. There is still a chance the Senate could kill it.

It is true that freedom of the press is under pressure in Venezuela after the passage of two ominous laws against free speech. Journalists are concerned about a censorship law that contains 78 vague provisions to sanction TV stations for broadcasting indecent content. There’s even more worry about a new law that increases prison sentences and fines for people who offend the president or other government officials “by word or in writing.”

Yet the Venezuelan media is vibrant. There are three major daily newspapers and four TV networks in Caracas, all of which report the news and criticize government decisions as they see fit. So far, no journalist has been jailed for violating the new laws.

Congress shouldn’t respond to this latest provocation from Chavez. Instead, it should let market forces work to counter any propaganda.

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