Latin America’s Al Jazeera

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

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