Telesur: A Counter-Hegemonic Project to Compete with CNN and Univisión

Telesur, the new continental South American TV channel, will be the first counter-hegemonic telecommunications project known in South America, designed to compete with CNN en Español and Univisión. An interview with two of its directors.

By La Jornada
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Paralleling the Arab Al Jazeera, Telesur will be something like Al Bolívar. Aram Aharonian, the Uruguayan journalist who will be the general director of this continental channel says it will be, "the first counter-hegemonic telecommunications project known in South America."

Telesur is intended to become a strong competitor to CNN and Univisión. Under the name Televisora del Sur (Television of the South), the Venezuelan-Argentinean-Brazilian-Uruguayan multinational will follow strict regulations regarding profit value, competitiveness and commercialization. According to plans, it will begin by broadcasting over one channel throughout South America, via satellite from its headquarters in Caracas in May.

Two veteran journalists involved in the direction of this project are touring México, in search of useful relations for a television channel that adheres to past and present values of progressive journalism: Aharonian, who fought in the struggles against the southern cone dictators, and who is now the director of the newspaper Questión of Caracas and a collaborator of the cyber-journal Red Voltaire and Jorge Enrique Botero, a Colombian television producer and author of two documentaries "Como voy a Olvidarte” (How Will I Forget You) and  "Bacano salir en Diciembre" about those kidnapped by the FARC during the Colombian war. He won the Premio Nuevo Periodismo (New Journalism Award) for both.

Telesur, explains its director, is “a strategic project that was born out of the need to give voice to Latin Americans confronted by an accumulation of thoughts and images transmitted by commercial media and out of the urgency to see ourselves through our own eyes and to discover our own solutions to our problems. If we do not start there, the dream of Latin American integration will be no more than a salute to the flag.”

La Jornada: These are not new ideas.

Aharonian: This is a dream for which many colleagues fought and fell along the road. Now it can become reality because Latin America is not the same as it was five years ago. There has been an act of grand transcendence. For the first time in the history of Venezuela the earnings of petroleum are reaching the people and the surpluses have given the opportunity to promote this Latin-American project of communicational integration.

Botero describes it as “a project of communicators, a private initiative that after four years of refinement it is beginning to take shape."

The company will be a joint venture of the Venezuelan and Argentine governments. Brazilian institutions will also support the project, but they will not have stock in the company and in March an agreement will be signed with Uruguay. That is to say the companyis multinational. Its full name is Nueva Televisión del Sur  (New Television of the South). And its slogan is: "Our North is the South."

The international directorate is made up of: the president, Andrés Izarra, who is also the Venezuela Information Minister; the station’s general director Aram Aharonian; Ana de Escalom, of Channel 7 of Buenos Aires, Argentina; Beto Almeida, of the journalist guild of Brazil; Ovidio Cabrera, ex-vice-president of Radio TV of Cuba; and Botero of Colombia, who will be the station’s director of information.

Both interviewees, searching out new talent are certain that there are plenty of "Pure journalists" on this continent. "There are,” says Botero, “thousands of creators of documentaries and television who produce very original material and who are frustrated because there are no opportunities to break into the mass media. Entire generations are in waiting. We want all these people".

Aharonian added, "nothing will work if we don’t look for new content." For this reason, along with the release of the channel, another project has been set in motion: the Factory of Latin-American Contents (FLACO). "It will not be a producer, but a small institute that compiles existing Latin American audiovisual productions of documentaries, cinema and television. We hope to produce series, not necessarily miniseries, but series of 53 weeks, not only for one channel but for many. If we accomplish this in five years we will applaud."

A new kind of beyond state TV

La Jornada: Economic factors distinguish Telesur in an important way. It has money unlike most alternative media outlets, which are poor by definition.

Aharonian: “For this reason I consider this to be an important political act. Instead of having 500 or 900 small alternative media outlets, there will be one grand conglomerate. With capital.”

Will Telesur be beyond the state?

“The seed money is from the state. It is the first time in Latin America, after many years of neoliberalism, that the State has returned to fomenting projects that serve the citizenry.”

“Telesur will follow the same premises that for decades took refuge in small alternative and community media.”

“But now we have left our marginal niche and are heading toward mass communications.”

“We will focus on doing the opposite of commercial television. We will search out theprotagonist roleof social movements, people, communities, and towns.”

Botero: “A one hour slot is already scheduled during which the communities themselves will report what they have to say."

Chavez’s critics are already calling it "Telechávez". How will it avoid being an official channel of the government?

Aharonian: “First off, it is not managed by the states. The directorate is made up of journalism professionals and none of them, except Izarra, officially represents a government. The idea is that the states will not continue funding the channel indefinitely, but a secondary source of financing will be created that allows other investments, in the form of sponsors. The Factory of Latin-American Contents, will be totally financed by contracts with sponsors.”

Are there sponsors for these types of projects?

“We already have 10 unsolicited commitments:  Corporación Latina de Fomento, Mercosur, PDVSA, PetroBras, Petroamérica, and various airlines and tourism institutions. All are responding to a new business design, in which their “commercial” interest in Telesur is a guaranteed number of viewers receiving their messages. The commercial aspect is indispensable in order for survival. Although there will not be consumer advertisements, there will be advertisements from private and public institutions. Always under one condition: the sponsors will have nothing to do with the editorial line.”

In so far as the principal sponsor will be the Venezuelan government, how will this impact the editorial line?

“The Venezuelan government has its own television station. This proposal has to do with the South American governments’ need for integration, the necessity to subsist as national projects. Independence is given through the plurality of the directorate and the possibility of finding funding that doesn’t originate from the state. We feel sufficiently free to design an informative political channel. So far we have not had any interference from the governments. Within our founding framework is the dictum: nothing against regional integration or the struggle against neoliberal globalization.”

Botero referred to an old US comic for his response. Lucky Luke, a cowboy of the far west, sells protection to a journalist that heads a small paper whose motto is “independence always, neutrality never”. He concluded, "To this axiom I subscribe”.

The jump from alternative to massive
Aharonian: “To begin with, Telesur will transmit three repeating eight-hour blocks from a 24-hour satellite channel. The majority of the production will be original. Emphasis will be on the informative: news, opinion programs, and interviews.  Also, this will be amplified by audiovisual productions from all over the continent by those who wish to participate.”

Botero: "First off, we are inventorying the quality of existing material.  Next, we will launch a varied programming schedule that reflects our enormous diversity. In addition to having our own regular staff correspondents (in the United States, Mexico, Bogota, Caracas, Havana, Lima, Buenos Aires, and two in Brazil), we want to have a network of journalistic collaborators. We want to contract independent media that have outstanding editorial lines to be the station’s base of operations in their respective countries.  In this way, every day, we will have at the news hour links with principle newspapers giving us a focus on events in Latin America.  Also, we aspire to have our own agenda, touching on themes that quickly disappear off the radar of commercial media and that subsequently stop being news.  We want to tell the stories from the beginning to the end, without disregard for the urgency of events, but not neglecting other criteria.”

“This is a dream that many progressive journalists have never ceased pursuing, but the most they have ever achieved is the creation of alternative agencies, community radios, and newspapers.  In mass media a television a project of this magnitude has never been achieved.”

Aharonian: “The decision was born from the conviction that in these days of great saturation television cannot be left in the hands of the enemy. The Venezuelan government has given great importance to community and alternative radio, but has left the mass media to the enemy. Today it is apparent that mass communication is important, since alternative media only reaches five or seven percent of the general audience.  It was Fidel Castro, of course, who, during a press conference in Havana proposed to us the development of a Latin American CNN: a CNN of the people.  This, clearly, is not a model of CNN.  The people are no longer passive in the face of what is said on television. They watch and try to read between the lines, to discover what is hidden, what is not said.

Botero: “We will distinguish ourselves from commercial television in many ways: style, tone, camera movement.  For example, our tone will be conversant; it will interact with the audience, but not in the aggressive manner of commercial television. Our presenters will give accounts in an informal style. They will be reporters, not puppets that only know how to read a teleprompter. Our idea is to vindicate journalism. We will have cameras in action, alive and in the streets, searching for angles that the rest don’t take.”

Is this a competitive concept?  If people have two options at the reach of their remote control, which will they choose, CNN or Telesur?

“Telesur, of course. We will be well informed about everything that happens, because our people will always be where things are happening.  We are going to open channels of expression for social movements that do not exist in today’s media.”

Translated by Dawn Gable

previously published by La Jornada, Feb. 27, 2005