Chavez Builds Non-US Alternative TV for Latin America


Richard Moore


 'El' Jazeera 
By Kelly Hearn 

Friday 13 May 2005 
To balance the anti-Chavez local press and pro-American CNN,
Venezuela is launching a South American Al Jazeera. With
journalistic heavyweights and an 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,

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

"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
( "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 DC and Latin 


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