CARACAS — A travel documentary shows off Bulgaria's tolerance of Islam with images of towering minarets, glowing mosques, and crowds of men bowing on prayer mats. A moderator chats with Latin American youth about Islamic educational methods. A program on Irán Hoy (Iran Today) flashes footage of the country's "defensive" missile tests and "peaceful" nuclear program. It's all aimed at a continent known for its raunchy, melodramatic programming and blasé coverage of current affairs.
Welcome to HispanTV. Officially unveiled on Jan. 31, the Tehran-based channel is the third to be launched by Iran's state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting wing, after the Arabic-language al-Alam and English-language Press TV. It is yet another example of Iran's cultural and economic outreach to Latin America and particularly to opponents of the United States in the region such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Cuba's Castro brothers.
"A selfish and bullying minority has attempted to impose its will on the entire world," Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared from Tehran during HispanTV's inaugural ceremony, and the new channel would "be a means for better ties between people and governments of Iran and Spanish-speaking nations." The Iranian president, who recently toured Latin America, ended his remarks on the launch with a resounding "Viva la paz!… Viva el pueblo! Viva América Latina!" ("Long live peace!… Long live the people! Long live Latin America!") -- phrases that would not sound out of place punctuating one of Chávez's marathon speeches.
One wonders, however, whether el pueblo is watching. While HispanTV is streamed live on its website, those keen on watching the channel on a television set will be flummoxed by the need for a satellite dish and modulator costing thousands of dollars. This, coupled with patchy Internet connectivity in Venezuela, makes HispanTV out of reach for most Venezuelans.
Even in Persepolis, an Iranian restaurant frequented by diplomats and Iranians in the high-end Caracas district of Las Mercedes, the huge television in the corner was turned to more popular Iranian programming on a busy Wednesday during lunchtime. There was little interest in this small oasis of Iranian culture for a homegrown channel aimed at Latin America, especially given the difficulty in accessing it. Few of the diners were familiar with HispanTV, let alone keen on watching it. At a mosque in the center of Caracas, worshippers were similarly uninterested. Perhaps in a nod to tensions between Iran and the West, neither diners nor worshippers were willing to be quoted.
What about Venezuelans themselves? Not one person was familiar with HispanTV's existence at one bustling cafe in Caracas. News of the channel's launch appeared in some Venezuelan newspapers, but there's been little follow-up since.
Beyond the logistical challenges in watching the channel and a lackluster program schedule (available for download as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet), there's another reason people may not be overly thrilled about HispanTV. The programming falls short not just of Western norms -- something that's unlikely to bother Ahmadinejad -- but also of more universal standards of fair reporting and quality.
News of Iran's recent advances in nuclear technology was delivered without any discussion of Washington's concerns about the weaponization of such technology or the sanctions on Tehran. As in Venezuela, where Chávez appears on state television for long periods, news segments aired Ahmadinejad's extended explanation of his decision to personally lower fuel rods into a nuclear reactor, with no criticism.