'El' Jazeera

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, 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 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 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.

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