'El' Jazeera: Move over Al Jazeera, Telesur is here.
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
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
Forget coats, ties and corporate coif. Telesur's lead anchorwoman, Ati
Kiwa, an indigenous Colombian woman, will deliver news while in native
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
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
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
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
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.