Does CNN still rule the waves?

New international channels like Venezuela's Telesur claim to be a counter-hegemonic force.

Andrew Mickel

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Topics Politics

One name has dominated global news since its inception 20 years ago: CNN International. Now, however, other countries are setting up their own international news channels. Earlier this week, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez launched a pilot version of Telesur. The ‘French CNN’, a pet project of President Jacques Chirac, has been mooted for years. And Russia recently announced that ‘Russia Today’ will start broadcasting internationally in September 2005. These channels’ origins are as diverse as their chances of success, but all three represent attempts to establish regional voices in international news.

Telesur director Aram Aharonian sees his network as the ‘first counter-hegemonic media project’ (1). At the launch, Telesur broadcast an image of a swastika painted on a US flag, with a voice proclaiming: ‘Let’s recover our memory and history from the claws of the Empire.’ Telesur is led by Chavez, but has a group of Latin American countries on board, including Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Unsurprisingly, it has been quickly dismissed as a propaganda tool, with some dubbing it ‘Telechavez’. But Telesur’s president Andres Izarra insists that the channel won’t be biased: ‘This will be a window through which we will be able to know and view ourselves… but it’s not a weapon to promote political models and views.’ (2) This is slightly undermined by the fact that Andres Izarra is also Venezuela’s information minister. But for potential viewers in Latin America, Telesur could still be preferable to watching another country’s news. During the recent uprising in Bolivia, how many Latin American viewers would really rather have watched the Michael Jackson trial?

Russia Today is being set up by President Putin’s media adviser Mikhail Lesin, and his press secretary Alexei Gromov. Andrew Young of the Russian blog siberianlight.net suggests that recent moves for greater state control of the media don’t bode well for the channel’s independence. ‘I think it is quite likely that RTTV will pretty much toe the Kremlin line when it comes to news coverage. The editorial board of the channel will retain some measure of independence, but I do think that it will heavily self-censor, and that the general tone of the channel will be pro-Russian and pro-Putin.’ But he still believes that there is an audience for the channel. Vladimir Pribyloysky, head of the Russian think-tank Panorama, is less sure. ‘My feeling is that it will be an exported version of [domestic channels] Channel One or Rossia. As a result, it is quite possible that no one will watch it.’ (3) But whether it’s states falling apart in Russia’s backyard, or day-to-day Russian business updates, there is Russian news that is not covered in depth by the international networks. So what if Russia Today puts a negative spin on pro-Western forces in Central Asia? At least there would be a Russian voice on the topic.

The ‘French CNN’, meanwhile, claims to prioritise the European Union (EU) as a counterweight to America. The network has been aborted several times, but always manages a resurrection. The cost of the project has been estimated at €100million by the chair of the French parliamentary committee on information. But is there a demand for it? Euronews already broadcasts in Europe and Russia, achieving massive audiences, even outstripping CNN in many key markets. In the face of this, Chirac’s plan to take on the English-language networks in a ‘battle of footage’ (4) looks like little more than a vanity project. While Russia Today and Telesur have natural audiences that are not catered for, a francophonic network has neither.

Chirac’s attraction to the project proves the importance of ‘media wars’ for today’s governments. He first brought up the possibility of a French network after he believed that France hadn’t got its point across in the run-up to the Iraq War. But the idea that ‘hearts and minds’ can be won by a new news channel is as simplistic as it is absurd.

In particular, Chirac overestimates the importance of the current US hegemony in news. Networks like Fox News become little more than jokes for all but their hardcore viewers, regardless of which country the channel is based in. In Venezuela Telesur may indeed prove to be ‘Telechavez’, but viewers are already used to having their evening viewing cut off so their president can broadcast long tirades against the USA. People are more capable of scrutinising the media than they are given credit for. News as a propaganda tool is a potent weapon, but not as potent as governments may think when they ponder the prospects of getting their own channel.

Andrew Mickel is a student at Cardiff University, and has worked as a spiked intern.

(1) ‘El’ Jazeera, Kelly Hearn, 13 May 2005

(2) CNN Latin rival launches network , BBC News, 25 May 2005

(3) ‘Kremlin plans English-language satellite TV station’, 7 June 2005, St Petersburg Times

(4) France to launch global TV news, Peter Feuilherade, BBC News, 10 December 2004

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