Chavez-funded Telesur flourishes in Honduras coup

(For a TAKE A LOOK on Honduras, click [ID:nN28343997])

* Caracas-based station makes name with coup coverage

* Helped break news of Zelaya ouster with dramatic scoops

* Coup leaders view station as pro-Chavez

By Frank Jack Daniel

CARACAS, July 14 (Reuters) - It was a dramatic scoop, a live conversation with a coup-ousted president broadcast from the cockpit of his jet as it swooped over clashes between soldiers and his supporters in the capital below.

That nail-biting drama is one of a clutch of exclusives that made Latin America's left-wing news network Telesur vital viewing as a coup against President Manuel Zelaya unfolded in Honduras, from the first interview with the deposed leader to rolling coverage of the protests that followed.

Founded four years ago and funded by President Hugo Chavez in oil-rich Venezuela, Telesur was created as an alternative to U.S.-based networks, partly to further Chavez's goal of uniting Latin America under his vision of "21st Century Socialism."

It has been criticized as a propaganda tool for the anti-U.S leader, and its impartiality was questioned over its coverage of hostage releases by Colombian guerrillas.

During the crisis in Honduras, a Central American nation of 7 million people, Caracas-based Telesur has unequivocally favored Chavez ally Zelaya and his supporters, although it has also covered rallies by Hondurans who back his ouster.

The channel has come into its own by providing a podium for Zelaya loyalists and allies when the coup leaders censored the national press, and it has given established competitors like CNN a run for their money with up-to-the-minute reports.

"I congratulate Telesur, its journalists, its cameramen. If Telesur did not exist a good part of the world would not know the real truth of what is happening, the real truth of what is happening in Honduras," Chavez said last week.

Most of the channel's $45 million annual budget is financed by Chavez's government, partly to weaken Latin America's private media, which Chavez has not forgiven for helping a brief 2002 coup that ousted him for two days.

The interim government says Zelaya's removal was lawful, arguing he violated Honduras' constitution by seeking to lift presidential term limits. It also faults the logging magnate for becoming influenced by Chavez and moving to the left.

During the weekend the Honduran interim government sent immigration officials flanked by masked officers with automatic weapons to check foreign journalists' credentials in Tegucigalpa. They briefly detained journalists from Telesur.

"There were death threats. We were told there was nothing to report there and told we should leave," station president Andres Izarra told Reuters. Telesur withdrew several of its journalists from Honduras in response.


Telesur was conceived after the 2002 putsch that briefly drove Chavez from power. As in Honduras, that rebellion was fortified by a media blackout that excluded the ousted government and its supporters from the airwaves.

"We lived through a coup d'etat in Venezuela that had very similar characteristics to what is happening in Honduras," said Izarra. "For us it was very easy to name what was happening."

In retaliation for the 2002 coup, Chavez refused a new broadcast concession for Venezuela's most widely watched network, RCTV, forcing it into cable-only delivery. He now threatens to close the small, staunchly anti-government Globovision station.

In contrast to the pressures on private stations, Telesur has untrammeled access to the governments of Venezuela and allies such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Honduras.

It threw a lot of resources at the Honduras coup coverage, and at times in the first week Telesur was the only channel with a live feed as protesters demanding Zelaya's return clashed with police and soldiers in clouds of tear gas.

Within hours of taking control, the de facto leaders took Telesur off the air in the coffee exporting nation, along with national media supportive of the ousted leftist.

Its signal still available on the Internet and its audio occasionally picked up by radio station Globo, Telesur ran almost back-to-back interviews with Zelaya, his wife, his foreign minister and Chavez.

But the most dramatic moment was on July 5, when thousands gathered at Tegucigalpa airport hoping to welcome back Zelaya, who flew in from Washington but was prevented from landing by armed forces blocking the runway.

Telesur broadcast images from the airport accompanied by a live telephone interview with Zelaya from his Venezuelan plane minutes after soldiers cleared the protesters with tear gas and, apparently, live ammunition.

One person was killed and several seriously injured.

"Thankfully, we have channels like Telesur that have allowed us to tell the world the truth of what is going on, this is a coup d'etat and a dictatorship," said Wilmer Puerto, a Zelaya supporter at the protest.