Will Venezuela's new TV station speak for the masses?
Venezuela is about to start another Latin American revolution -- on television. Hoping to highlight the region's indigenous voices, the country is organizing Telesur, a new TV network that Latin American leaders want to have the look, feel, and function of Al Jazeera, the Middle Eastern media giant that, much to the consternation of the Bush administration, has come to symbolize Arab nationalism.
'Why do we learn about ourselves from a TV network from the North, like CNN?' asks Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, whose government recently sent a formal complaint to CNN's Spanish language division concerning the 'distorted' way his administration is covered (as a hemispheric menace, for instance, or a Castro apologist). To address this bias, Telesur plans to challenge 'U.S. control of the [Southern] Hemisphere's media,' writes Humberto Marquez in Third World Resurgence (Jan./Feb. 2005). The network will 'present a true reflection of the social and cultural diversity in Latin America and the Caribbean, and offer it to the world.'
Al Jazeera used oil revenue to pay for its start-up in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, and now the network has 35 million viewers. Telesur will be broadcast from Caracas throughout the region and, once a planned satellite purchase is made, around the globe. According to La Jornada (Feb. 27, 2005), Venezuela has already formed an alliance with Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay to broadcast the network and has secured corporate underwriting from major South American oil companies such as PetroBras and Petroamerica.
The populist Chavez government wants Telesur to be viewed as an 'alternative' media source, despite its government sponsorship and corporate backing. 'Instead of having 500 or 900 small alternative media outlets, there will be one grand conglomerate -- with capital,' says Telesur general director Aram Aharonian. 'Telesur will follow the same premises that for decades took refuge in small alternative and community media.'
Telesur also hopes to capitalize directly on the quality and uniqueness of true independents. 'We want to have a network of journalistic collaborators,' Aharonian says. 'We want to contract independent media that have outstanding editorial lines.'
While freedom of speech has been a guaranteed right in Venezuela for decades, two wealthy families with anti-Chavez leanings own the majority of the country's media outlets. What's more, Venezuela's more affluent citizens dislike Chavez's staunch populism and helped instigate a failed coup in 2002, which, some in the president's camp believe, was quietly backed by the United States. Given these political circumstances, Chavez's enthusiasm for Telesur could be seen as self-serving. Critics of the new network have already started calling it TeleChavez.
At press time, Telesur had yet to hit the airwaves, and various start dates, from midsummer to year's end, were being bandied about. So whether the network will become a true alternative media source or a propaganda machine remains to be seen. Regardless of the network's content, though, it's sure to have a closely watched premiere.