On February 2, the Latin American TV channel Telesur and the Arabic channel Al Jazeera signed an agreement to exchange information and technology, formalising a growing link that was initiated when Telesur began transmitting across Latin America in October 2005 to counter the dominance of the US corporate media. The agreement was finalised at the Second International Forum of Al Jazeera, held in Doha from January 31-February 2.
This drew an immediate broadside from Republican Congressman Connie Mack, who said the agreement would create a “global television channel for terrorists”. Mack, a fierce critic of Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez, previously alleged Telesur was “propagating the rhetoric [of Chavez] against liberty in Latin America”.
Venezuela’s communication and information ministry issued a statement on February 3 rejecting Mack’s accusation. “This declaration, more of a direct insult to the governments of Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay, which joined forces to create Telesur, represents a veiled threat of aerial attack on the main office of Telesur in Caracas, similar to the bombing which President George W. Bush proposed against the principal office of Al Jazeera on April 16, 2004, in a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who dissuaded him from this aim, according to secret documents leaked to the British press”, the statement said.
The same day, 94 Telesur journalists issued a statement announcing: “We simply aim to show the world the realities which others prefer not to show, or consciously choose to hide. As journalists from Telesur and citizens from different countries that speak Spanish and Portuguese, we are entitled to refute pronouncements that go against the most elementary democratic rules. Freedom of expression can not be restricted without proof of any charges.”
Telesur’s English-language publicity brochure notes that “By providing 24 hours of programming transmitted via satellite from Caracas, Venezuela, Telesur seeks to spread the Bolivarian ideal”. Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution, led by Chavez with the active participation of the Venezuelan people, is redistributing the country’s wealth to benefit the poor majority, and is forging greater collaboration with struggles and progressive governments in the region. “To watch us is to know us; to recognise us is to respect us; to respect is to learn to care for each other. These are the first steps towards regional integration. If integration is the end, Telesur is the means.”
‘Through our own eyes’
On January 31, Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network brigade participants visited the main Telesur offices in Los Ruices, Caracas, where they spoke to Telesur Director Aram Aharonian.
“We at Telesur believe that ‘Another television is possible’”, Aharonian told the Australian brigadistas. “Telesur is the first Latin American experience in mass television. We have always been seen through foreign eyes. From the North, they only see us in black and white. Black, because we only appear in the news when there is a big problem in our countries … We are a very diverse and plural region; we need to see ourselves in our own way.
“With our satellite transmission, we can reach from Alaska to Patagonia, from Western Europe to north-west Africa. Unfortunately, our signal does not yet reach Australia. Here in Caracas we have almost 300 people working in the office. We have people from Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Brazil, Panama and Mexico, as well as Venezuela. We now have bureau offices in nine cities — including Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Washington, Bogota, Havana and Mexico City.”
“We have a small bureau in Haiti”, Aharonian said, noting his concern about the problems facing the Haitian people. “We have collaborators in the rest of the countries of the region. We are beginning our growth plan for this year with aims to open more offices in Lima, Santiago, Managua, Santo Domingo and Quito.
“We are transmitting 24 hours a day and 60% of our program content is news. The news is all original, from Caracas and our other offices. We need to create a genuine Latin American audio-visual industry. We don’t want to transmit Walt Disney cartoons and other Hollywood mass culture all day. At present, 97% of our TV comes from the United States. We have to change that.”
As “alternative media”, Aharonian said, “we must not be marginalised. We must be a mass-based alternative. All the documentaries and programs on Telesur come from alternative sources — independent producers, universities and national radio and TV from various countries.
“At this stage, we don’t have our own documentaries or musical programs, only the news. We try to pass on what other independent and alternative producers are doing.”
Aharonian said the lack of a “real audio-visual industry in Latin America” is “a real problem, not only for us but for television in all Latin American countries. We want real communication with social organisations in Latin America. We want to have all their voices heard on our TV. We have had 513 years [of colonial domination] without hearing these voices, the voices of the majority. This must change.”
On the relations between Telesur and the Venezuelan and other governments that sponsor it, Aharonian explained: “Telesur is a company with an independent board of directors. There are no pressures on us from governments … The four owning countries don’t have a say in the programs or the news. For us, all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean must be covered. Telesur is independent, and we hope this non-interference from government will continue. Otherwise, it’s not Telesur.”
Aharonian said that the majority of Telesur broadcasts are in Spanish, with some translations in Portuguese transmitted to Brazil. There are plans for an expansion of languages to include English for the Caribbean and North America, but this will require additional satellite coverage. While Telesur is not yet working with the numerous community television stations in the region, Aharonian said it plans to in the future.
Resisting media dictators
According to Aharonian, Telesur has had “difficulties with the US authorities”. In addition to the “pre-emptive” strike by Mack, there has also been pressure from Colombian media owners.
“Previously, we in Latin America had military dictators; now they want media dictators. We also have to deal with the major cable operators. We have tried to enter by the back door, the front door or by the window, but we are determined to enter the major media market in each region by whatever means necessary — and via the internet as well.”
Speaking about the prospects for an international alternative television network, Aharonian said the agreement with Al Jazeera is “just to exchange material and experience — not to create a global TV network. In the first place, people want to preserve their own patch of national media coverage.
“The other problem is that of language and hours. It is difficult to create a TV network for the whole world. At the moment at Telesur we have two great languages that are fairly similar. It’s not easy to reach and communicate with countries like India or Malaysia. But we have no disagreement with the idea of international TV collaboration. In the first place, we need more complementarity of programs.
“Telesur is available anywhere in the world right now on the internet — but that’s not the same as on TV. We have only been broadcasting for about three months and at the moment, we only present news. We need to develop our interviews, investigative reports, analysis of ideas and debates: that is the way to form citizens who can change our countries.”
Aharonian argued that Telesur “has to be competitive with the private media. We have to have the same technology, and know how to use it … That’s why we need professionals.” Aharonian said Telesur doesn’t want to be “dumb TV”, but aims for “quality content that can attract people”.
“We need a contrast to the commercial media, which often change stories every couple of minutes. We want to show the context, with a balance of opinion on each issue. Not just [as alleged in the US recently about Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales] ‘Two mad Indians, getting elected as presidents, and having a revolution’. We need to tell the whole story, what’s happening now, and the real background. Our news programs will be longer than CNN!”
Latin American integration
Discussing the role of state television in Venezuela, Aharonian said: “Our state TV has been disorganised for 40 years. We are recovering the public space, but there is a long way to go to establish a strong national television presence. We aim for a new national TV. It is not easy, compared to Europe where national TV is quite strong. We have been privatised for 40 years, and are only now recovering the public space.”
Venezuela’s private media played a key role in the April 2002 coup that briefly forced Chavez out of power before he was reinstated through a popular uprising. According to Aharonian, “The private media have recovered some ground in terms of people watching their programs. But they have not recovered their credibility. The Latin American people are learning to read between the lines.” Aharonian suggested people “see the program, but don’t buy the contents”.
Uruguayan President Ernesto Tabare has proposed the establishment of ”Radiosur’‘ — a regional radio station. Aharonian said: “We are working on having our own radio news on the web. In one week we will establish a new website. A news service for radio would be easier for the majority of Latin American people. Let’s not forget that the real problem for most people here is to eat, not to watch TV.”
Aharonian explained that Telesur is “only a media service”, and can’t in and of itself make a revolution. “We are only a tool for interpretation, and to help integration of the continent. But the real problem in Latin America is to eat every day. It is the same thing throughout the Third World. Our goal is to open the door. We hope in 5-10 years we can have more Latin American television, a real alternative to the mainstream media.”
“We have dreams, more than plans at present”, Aharonian explained. “We are focusing on Latin America for at least another year. However, we do want to show other cultures to the people. We are transmitting two Chinese films shortly. But at this stage, the principal aim is to show our people about our own countries, to help them get to know one another and support one another.
Aharonian said Telesur aims to be “economically independent in two years’ time. Our budget is currently very modest, only US$10 million. But we hope to be able to pay our way through sponsorships in the next two years.”
“We are establishing a true, independent public media space in Latin America. We are determined to achieve our goals, and are confident we can do it”, he concluded.
[To watch Telesur visit <http://www.telesurtv.net>.]
From Green Left Weekly, February 15, 2006.
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