Telesur:Latin America in Technocolor?

"Europeans and Americans see us in black and white, and yet this is a technicolor continent," said Aram Arahonian, a Uruguayan journalist based in Venezuela for the last 18 years , to the Christisn Science Monitor about the launch of Telesur, a regional public TV network envisioned as a Latin American version of the Arab world's Al Jazeera. It was officially launched on Tuesday. Telesur, or TV of the South, is being spearheaded by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to address a need for a more rounded, balanced, "southern exposed" news about Latin America than what is not usually seen on the US- and Euro-centric outlets such as CNN and Spain's TVE.

"After 513 years of looking at ourselves through foreign eyes, we Latin Americans are beginning to see ourselves through our own eyes," said Arahonian, who is also the director of the network, to IPS.

In recent years there has been growing pessimism in the region towards Western news outlets at the dearth of news from a Latin American perspective. This has only gotten worse since 9/11 as the Western media focuses more on Iraq and less on issues that affect the daily life of the average Latin American. Furthermore CNN Espanol and TVE have most of their reporters based in Washington or Madrid and there is presently no real alternative to these networks. It is reported that when former Ecuadorian president Lucio Gutiérrez was removed by Congress, Chávez admitted he found out about it on CNN.

Venezuela owns 51 percent of the shares in the Empresa Multiestatal Telesur, Compañía Anónima, as the Telesur broadcasting company is officially known, while Argentina owns 20 percent, Cuba 19 percent, and Uruguay 10 percent. Local bureaus have already been opened in Brasilia, Bogota, Caracas and La Paz, and will soon be followed by others in Buenos Aires, Havana, Mexico City, Montevideo and Washington, D.C. It is reported that the main news anchor will be Ati Kiwa, a Colombian indigenous women who wears traditional garb.

However, press freedom advocates are already crying foul, claiming that Telesur will only be a mouthpiece for Chavez's socialist rantings rather than a unbiased news source. On Tuesday the network aired a 10-minute promotional vehicle which featured news clips of socialist leaders Salvador Allende and Che Guevara who were killed by US operatives. The vehicle also emphasised the social struggles and progressive movements of Latin America, including statements from indigenous organizations, scenes of street protests against free-market economic policies and U.S. meddling, and footage of students attending schools in poor, working-class neighborhoods.

"We get enough of him already," says Ana Cristina Nuñez to the Monitor, a legal counsel at Globovision, a 24-hour local news station that is critical of Chávez. Globovision, like all channels in Venezuela, functions under a so-called "chain" system, which means it is obligated by law to drop everything and cover Chávez speeches whenever instructed by the government. Those speeches are often hour-long rants about the US or afternoon chats with "the people," during which he has been known to describe President Bush as a "jerk" who wants to invade Venezuela or sing praises of Cuban President Fidel Castro. New media laws in the country also punish those with 30 months imprisonment for defaming or "disrespecting" government officials, such as making jokes about Chavez. Organizations like Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists are already worried about this 'media muzzle.' Human Rights Watch insists that governments can only restrict certain content if it is believed to be "a clear relation between the speech in question and a specific criminal act."

Telesur "will indeed be biased, towards promoting Latin American integration, diversity and plurality, and against the uniform point of view imposed through the privately owned media's control of information," Aharonian told IPS.

What Telesur will become eventually with its programming and influence is still up in the air, but Richard Siklos, an adjunct professor at New York University's department of culture and communication, said it best to the Monitor:

"Ultimately, slanted or straight, Telesur's success will depend on whether it's watchable. [Chávez] will learn what every media executive in New York has learned: You can put stuff out there, but if people don't watch, you are wasting your money."


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