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'El' Jazeera: Move over Al Jazeera, Telesur is here.

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  • Frederick Noronha (FN)
    http://www.alternet.org/mediaculture/21988/ El Jazeera By Kelly Hearn, AlterNet. Posted May 13, 2005. To balance the anti-Chavez local press and pro-American
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 23, 2005
      http://www.alternet.org/mediaculture/21988/

      'El' Jazeera

      By Kelly Hearn, AlterNet. Posted May 13, 2005.


      To balance the anti-Chavez local
      press and pro-American CNN,
      Venezuela is launching a South
      American Al Jazeera. With
      journalistic heavyweights and a
      non-corporate vibe, the channel
      arrives on the scene as a number of
      Latin American nations are leaning
      politically left.

      Move over Al Jazeera, Telesur is here.

      Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, tireless polemist and Bush nemesis,
      has a new pet project: a continent-wide television network slated for
      broadcast throughout South America in the coming weeks.

      Telesur, or "Television of the South," aims to be a competitor of CNN,
      Univison and other global giants seen by southern neighbors as minions
      of American hegemony.

      Described by its new director, Aram Aharonian, as South America's "first
      counter-hegemonic media project," Telesur reportedly has 20 employees
      but hopes to work its way up to at least 60. The Chavez government has
      coughed up $2.5 million for the project thus far and is permitting
      Telesur to operate as an affiliate of Venezuelan state television.

      Telesur is painted in populist hues, befitting a World Social Forum
      keynoter. A kind of Al Jazeera of the South, the commercial-free,
      state-funded channel will beam news, documentaries and other programming
      with a uniquely Latin flavor. The network will be boosted by the
      presence of journalistic heavyweights -- among them, Jorge Enrique
      Botero, a well-known television producer known for his coverage of FARC
      rebels.

      The vibe?

      Forget coats, ties and corporate coif. Telesur's lead anchorwoman, Ati
      Kiwa, an indigenous Colombian woman, will deliver news while in native
      dress.

      Telesur will compete for hearts and minds of viewers as a number of
      Latin American nations are leaning politically left, miffed both by
      Washington's neglect of the region and U.S.-backed neoliberal economic
      policies, widely seen as the cause of the devastating recessions of the
      early 2000s.

      For Chavez, Telesur is about more than broadcasting. The continent's
      prime lobbyist for hemispheric cooperation as a counterbalance to U.S.
      power, the democratically-elected Chavez touts Telesur as a high-tech
      thread for binding regional cultures into a seamless fabric capable of
      balancing U.S. dominance.

      He's found supportive ears.

      In February, Argentina's president, Nestor Kirchner, committed his
      country, among other things, to buying up 20 percent of the company's
      initial equity stock, providing 100 hours of programming and using its
      satellites to beam Telesur across its territory. In Uruguay, one of the
      first acts of the country's new Socialist president, Tabare Vasquez, was
      to commit his nation to 10 percent of Telesur's start-up costs. And the
      Venezuelan government says Brazil and Cuba have agreed to share in
      programming and swap technical training.

      Some say South America has long needed its own cultural conduit but they
      worry Telesur could devolve into a Chavista rant machine.

      History bears warnings. Chavez, whom the Bush administration accuses of
      undemocratic behavior on several fronts, already uses Venezolana de
      Television, his country's state-run TV, to promote his agenda. The
      station gives Chavez a platform every Sunday in a one-man show called
      "Alo, Presidente."

      But a new report by The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a
      Washington-based think tank, says Venezuelan state television only has 2
      percent of market share. It's Venezuela's private media, which supported
      a 2002 coup against the former military colonel, that actually hogs
      market share. (Incidentally, the main media power in Venezuela is The
      Cisnero Group of Companies, owned by Gustavo Cisneros, one of Latin
      America's wealthiest men and a friend of George Bush, Sr.).

      To help state TV better compete with folks like Cisneros, the Chavez
      government, according to the COHO report, plans to invest $56 million in
      its state run television enterprise (which will no doubt benefit
      Telesur).

      Though Chavez needs Telesur to elbow in on private media, Nikolas
      Kozloff, the COHA analyst who authored the report, say it's not a
      forgone conclusion that Chavez will kidnap Telesur for his own ends.

      In fact, Kozloff says he has studied columns written by Telesur's
      leading journalists and they seem mindful of the need to maintain
      editorial independence. And there are hints that could happen. Kozloff
      says, for example, that Aram Aharonian, Telesur's general director, has
      been "a bit critical of Chavez in the past."

      Ties that bind?

      Instead of moving over, Al Jazeera may be moving in, with Telesur that
      is.

      As Telesur gets set to launch, the Arab-language news program Al
      Jazeera, which is funded by oil-rich Qatar, is expanding into Latin
      America, opening a bureau in Caracas and possibly creating logistical
      ties with Telesur.

      An article posted on a Venezuelan government web site refers to Al
      Jazeera's expansion into South America as "being framed within the
      Telesur-Al Jazeera project."

      A spokesperson for Al Jazeera said he could not confirm that the two
      networks have signed any deals between them but said it is possible that
      the two state-funded enterprises could be cooperating logistically.
      Kozloff says it is his understanding that Telesur has entered a deal to
      extend office space to Al Jazeera in Telesur's headquarters.

      Experts note that trouble can arise when nations control media outlets.

      "All media financed by states are susceptible to pressure and government
      orientations if regulations are not established that guarantee editorial
      autonomy," said Jaime Abello of The Foundation for New Ibero-American
      Journalism, a Colombia-based group founded by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

      Abello says it is unclear whether Telesur has established "rules of the
      game" that will ensure independence.

      Jorge Ramos, the popular broadcaster for the Spanish language, Los
      Angeles-based Univision, has his own worries.

      "Chávez already controls almost everything in Venezuela, the assembly,
      the constitution, the Supreme Court and the army," Ramos writes in an
      essay posted on his web site (www.jorgeramos.com). "Through Telesur he
      could expand, without control, his international agenda."

      Kozloff strongly cautions against jumping to conclusions, however,
      noting that BBC, which is also a state run media, has not been hijacked
      by its state funders to any obvious degree. And the involvement on
      Telesur's board of directors of representatives from center-leftist
      governments such as Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, which steer far clear
      of extreme populism and have amiable relations with the United States,
      could well counter any attempts by Chavez to use the network to promote
      his personal agenda.

      Congressman Connie Mack, R-Fla., a Chavez critic, shared his concerns in
      a telephone interview:

      "An Al Jazeera-type network in South America sounds like Chavez
      wants to poison the minds of people longing to be free," Mack
      said. "The steps he has taken over the last couple of months,
      and even before that, point to someone who is more interested in
      his own power than the welfare of his people."

      But millions of South Americans are bound to disagree. To many on this
      continent, the real "mind poison" flows through CNN and other vectors
      for spreading American cultural and political hegemony.

      Independent media like Pacificar, a newspaper distributed in several
      South American nations share this view as well, editorializing that
      Telesur: "[will] be a triumph in the extensive battle to establish a new
      informative world order to replace the existing one controlled by a
      quasi-monopoly of the United States and European Union."

      And who knows -- 30 years down the line Telesur may just be under attack
      by its government benefactors for being too critical, like another
      public broadcasting venture we're all familiar with.

      Kelly Hearn is a former UPI staff writer who lives in Washington D.C.
      and Latin America.
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