This article was first published in June 2005
Telesur’s creators have promised an alternative source of news and culture for Latin American viewers, made entirely in the region. But with Chavez’s government financing over half of the project, and basing its operation in Venezuela, many are asking if it will be a continental-wide platform for the Chavista agenda
Telesur, a new multi-state television channel, is expected to hit Latin American airwaves on July 24. The station does not aim to be just another number on Latin Americans’ television dials. The channel says it will provide an alternative to the image of the region currently presented by commercial media outlets, which its web site says “is not representative of reality.” Such a mission has provoked some concerns.
CNN en Español, Latin America’s number one cable news channel, begs to differ with Telesur’s claim that commercial media has kept Latin Americans out of touch with their own cultures and histories. The channel’s vice president argues that CNN en Español goes the extra mile to portray the diversity of the region.
Secondly, President Hugo Chávez’ overt support for Telesur has led critics to wonder if the channel will be a platform for his government’s agenda. In response, Telesur insists its only agenda is to assist Latin American integration.
An image problem?
Telesur broadcast a twenty-four hour test signal in late May that reached Venezuela and parts of Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. The transmission gave viewers a hint of its programming, will which range from news, to films to cultural and educational shows. Venezuela is funding 51 percent of the project, while the governments of Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay are picking up the rest of the tab. One segment of the test broadcast, titled “A trip through Latin America,” reinforced the channel’s multi-state identity by showing a local Caracas bus heading off to destinations around the continent.
Another clip showed protesters holding an American flag branded with a swastika and torn apart by a bloody eagle. Later in the broadcast, pro-Chávez demonstrators hoisted a sign showing a caricature of Uncle Sam that read “Let’s crush imperialism.” Viewers are not likely to see such images featured on CNN.
Telesur vice president Aram Aharonian, a Uruguayan journalist, says he wants his channel to portray Latin America in a distinct light because he believes that the region’s viewers currently watch themselves through foreign eyes when they turn on the television. “The productions we get from abroad are a black and white vision of Latin America, usually in black when there is a disaster and nothing else,” he said in an interview.
Not mentioning any specific news agency, Aharonian also said coverage of Latin America by U.S.-based media shows “one only image” and has more to do with “Latin American idiosyncrasies” than the “diversity and plurality” of the region. “We are tired of them showing us images of Quito…and then afterwards analyses are done from Washington without broadcasting what the Ecuadorians think,” he said, referring to coverage of the recent ousting of Ecuadorian president Lucio Gutierrez. By portraying the news in this way, around-the-clock news organizations have left traditional journalistic principles behind, he claimed.
But, CNN en Español’s vice president Chris Crommett calls those charges a “red herring” and an “unfair characterization.” Crommett believes it is inaccurate to assume that his channel reflects an American point of view just because it is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. “Anyone that watches our air and says we’re not reflecting the voice of Latin America—not just institutional and presidential, but really all sectors of society—isn’t really watching much,” Crommett said in an interview.
All but one of the channel’s 15 on-air presenters in its Atlanta studios are native Latin Americans. CNN en Español also has correspondents in every Latin American country, the majority of whom are natives of those countries. Cromett called CNN’s work in the region “pioneering,” referring to the channel’s recent exclusive interview with Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and another with five Central American presidents.
Aharaonian did praise CNN’s work and said he was pleased when a CNN representative welcomed Telesur to the news market during its test broadcast. Yet the left-leaning journalist also alleged that media outlets worldwide were pressured by groups with economic power. “(In the United States) what ever doesn’t follow the perspective given by the Pentagon doesn’t get coverage,” said Aharonian.
Telesur will not broadcast commercial advertising, unlike CNN and large Spanish-language channels such as Telemundo and Univision. As far as films and documentaries go, Telesur is more concerned with giving Latin American productions air time than giving preference to money-makers. According to Aharonian, only 21 of over 600 documentaries made in Latin America last year got public exposure. He said Telesur strives to alleviate the “frustrations" of many Latin American artists who make productions “of great quality.”
Carlos Correa, director of the Venezuelan human rights group Provea, emphasized the struggles Latin Americans undergo to promote their cultural products. “For example, it’s very difficult to circulate Argentina rock (music) in Venezuela and to circulate Venezuelan productions (in Argentina), he said. He also said that CNN “dominates” in Latin America, but that this was “old problem” that had been studied at length. So if the presence of foreign media is a problem, does Telesur have the solution?
The Venezuelan government’s heavy presence at Telesur has critics suspicious about the intent of the channel. Communications minister Andrés Izarra is Telesur’s president. He gave an inaugural speech at the test broadcast, where he denied accusations made by Human Rights Watch that Venezuela was curtailing press freedom. “Freedom of expression has tremendous support from the Venezuelan government,” he said. The test signal that followed was sprinkled with references to the Bolivarian revolution, including images of Simón Bolívar and Chávez’ social programs.
A May opinion piece published in the Uruguayan newspaper El Pais, titled “Telesur or TeleChávez?,” argued that it is a contradiction for Cuba and Venezuela, two countries accused of press freedom abuses, to sponsor a channel that aims to give Latin America a more plural voice. Globovisión director Alberto Federico Ravell didn’t cast a friendly eye on the project either, telling The New York Times that it was “a presidential order” from Chávez.
Telesur’s vice president offers rhetoric similar to the president’s. In an interview, he urged news outlets to question the United States’ notion of “good terrorism and bad terrorism” in its handling of suspected terrorist Luis Posada Carriles. This is a catch phrase often repeated by government officials.
Yet Aharonian called allegations against the channel politically-motivated and begged audiences to wait until the channel hits the airwaves to make assessments. He also assured that the internal politics of nations will not affect Telesur’s programming. Even though he has previously called Venezuelan media outlets anti-Chávez, he said that any bias in Venezuelan media pertains only to local and national media.
The vice president also pointed out that programming will not only be produced at Telesur’s Caracas-based studios, but also by correspondents, independent producers, social organizations and national and local channels. Telesur will draw from news bureaus across the continent: Caracas, Mexico City, Washington, Havana, Bogotá, La Paz, Buenos Aires, Brasilia and Montevideo.
CNN en Español’s Crommett said he didn’t want to prejudge Telesur, noting that critics of CNN often jump to the conclusion that his channel has political affiliations. Provea’s Correa said that he didn’t presently foresee “any negative impact” from the new channel. The human rights expert explained that media sponsored by multiple governments was less likely to menace press freedom than a channel funded by one government. “In Europe there’s a channel that is paid for by the European Union,” said Correa. “So, what is the problem?”
Telesur is making a concerted effort to hit as many air waves as possible. Satellite coverage will make the channel available across the Americas and Western Europe.
Telesur is also negotiating with cable companies across Latin America and doing the best it can to bring coverage to the over 50 million Latinos in the United States and Canada. As of late May, over 35 U.S. public and regional television stations, as well as cable stations, had requested to carry the Telesur signal, Aharonian said.
Telesur’s journalists also appear poised to present an image unlike anything on commercial television today. Aharonian said the channel was concerned with the type of education journalists are currently receiving around the globe. In response, Telesur will train its staff at its own workshops, hiring from a pool of Latin Americans who have an understanding of the Telesur project and the different image the channel wants to present. “We want to work with young people, that haven’t been contaminated—in parenthesis—by the commercial media, which has a different form than what we want to be,” Aharonian said.
With only a ten-minute trailer and a lot of conjecture, it is difficult to determine at this point what Telesur’s concept of “uncontaminated” is. CNN’s Crommett did give Telesur one piece of advice: he said the station’s decision-making would need to be in the hands of professional journalists for Telesur to be a credible source of information. “I’m much more comfortable knowing that my bosses all the way up the line are all journalists with no agenda other than to try and present the news as best we can,” said Crommett. We will have to wait and see.
JENS ERIK GOULD
Jens Erik Gould is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News.