Read or listen to the mainstream media these days and you get the impression that Sunday's coup in Honduras was all about a simple disagreement over the constitutionality of presidential term limits. But as the coup unfolds it's becoming clear that the authorities want something more: the restoration of Honduras's conservative political order and an end to President Manuel Zelaya's independent foreign policy which had reached out to leftist countries like Cuba and Venezuela.
As part of their effort to consolidate power officials have moved quickly to restrain the free flow of information, in particular by cracking down on progressive leaning media. Only TV stations sympathetic to the newly installed coup regime have been left alone while others have been shut down. The climate of repression is similar to what we have seen elsewhere in Latin America in recent years. Specifically, there are eerie parallels to the April, 2002 coup in Venezuela when the briefly installed right wing government imposed a media blackout to further its own political ends.
Perhaps somewhat tellingly, the Honduran army cut off local broadcasts of the Telesur news network which is sponsored by leftist governments including Venezuela, Uruguay, Argentina and Cuba. Adriana Sivori, Telesur's correspondent in Tegucigalpa, was in her hotel room speaking on the telephone to her network when ten 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 Manuel 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. However, the authorities have warned Telesur journalists to cease transmitting images in support of Zelaya or face further detention.
What is so important about Telesur in particular? In my latest book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008) I devote considerable attention to the rise of the new station, itself a product of South America's stormy political battles and contested media landscape. First launched in 2005, Telesur represents Venezuela's effort to counteract the power of the right wing media establishment which played a role in the short-lived April coup of 2002 against the Chávez government. Seen as South Ameica's answer to Al Jazeera and CNN, the station has been spearheaded by Andrés Izarra, up until recently the station's president. A rising star in the Chávez administration, Izarra got his start as a journalist at NBC and CNN. Disgusted by right wing media coverage of the 2002 coup, he started to work for Telesur.
Since its launch, Telesur has given CNN en Español a run for its money and now has slick production values. Station Director Aram Aharonian says the news industry has gone through a dumbing down since the Gulf War. Journalism, Aharonian remarked to me during our interview in Caracas, had become instantaneous but also devoid of any investigation, analysis or debate. Telesur, by contrast, was "rescuing" journalistic ethics by providing context and opinions about goings-on. While you can expect to see more critical coverage of the Iraq War on Telesur than most mainstream U.S. media outlets, Aharonian says Telesur is independent and doesn't have any particular political axe to grind.
Such assurances aside, the conservative establishment views Telesur as a threat. When the station announced a content-sharing agreement with Al Jazeera in 2006, Connie Mack, a right-wing Republican congressman from Florida, remarked that the decision was designed to create a "global television network for terrorists." In light of Sivori's recent detention, one may surmise that the Honduran coup regime agrees with Mack's hysterical views.
In Latin America, media has become a crucial fault line in the battle between the pro-U.S. elite and the incipient left "Pink Tide" which has been sweeping into power. In Honduras, the coup regime has not only gone after Telesur but also Channel 8, the official broadcaster of the Zelaya government. The moves prompted Venezuela's official Bolivarian News Agency as well as Cuba's Granma newspaper to issue formal letters of protest. Meanwhile a climate of fear and intimidation reigns throughout the capital, with networks providing scant coverage of political protest. Soldiers are reportedly guarding local television and radio stations.
In recent years Zelaya had been embroiled in a war with the conservative private media in the country. Now that the President is gone, these outlets have rallied in defense of the coup regime. Honduras' two leading radio networks, Radio América and Radio HRN, have urged Hondurans to resume their normal routine and not to protest. Even as hundreds of protesters rallied at the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa to demand Zelaya's reinstatement, radio and TV stations made little reference to the demonstrations. Instead of reporting on political goings-on, the Honduran media outlets played tropical music or aired soap operas and cooking shows.
It's reminiscent of the April, 2002 coup against Chávez when conservative media station Venevisión refused to cover pro-Chávez demonstrations and preempted its normal news coverage with a day-long marathon of American films such as Lorenzo's Oil, Nell, and Pretty Woman. Venevisión, which substituted nonstop vitriolic anti-Chávez propaganda for its regular programming in the days leading up to the coup, was owned by billionaire media magnate Gustavo Cisneros, himself a leading figure in the Chávez opposition who reportedly bankrolled the opposition's takeover of government.
In Venezuela, conservative coup leaders misjudged the popular mood. Amidst street protests, Chávez was reinstated in two days. In the wake of the coup Venevisión began to moderate its strident tone and the Venezuelan President went on the political offensive by spurring the creation of Telesur as well as other media outlets. If you flip the TV dial today you can still watch rabidly anti-Chávez stations like Globovisión, though the playing field has been leveled considerably. In addition to Telesur Venezuelans can also watch Venezolana de Televisión, a government channel, as well as state sponsored Vive which provides discussion on Venezuelan culture and politics. Chávez has his own TV talk show, Aló, Presidente, and there are dozens of pro-government papers including a tabloid called VEA.
The antagonistic media environment in Venezuela is echoed in other left-leaning countries in South America. Indeed, the newly elected Pink Tide regimes have taken on the private media with a vengeance: in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has proposed that the constitution disallow bankers from financing media outlets. According to him, Ecuadoran television is controlled by powerful interests and the Association of Television Channels is nothing more than a "bankers club." In Bolivia, indigenous President Evo Morales launched a weekly radio show called The People Are News. The show airs for two hours each week on the Patria Nueva (New Fatherland) state network.
If Zelaya returns to power in Honduras, which seems likely, then we could see the government take on the power of private TV, radio and the like more significantly, perhaps by emphasizing more state media. It will be merely the latest chapter in the ongoing information war between the conservative, globalizing elite and more left-leaning leaders who are coming to power throughout the region.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave, 2006) and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008). Follow his blog at http://senorchichero.blogspot.com/