Look out Telenovelas, Telesur is in Town

  • On July 25, the much anticipated satellite television station, Telesur, inspired by Hugo Chávez and founded by the Venezuelan government with support from Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, aired across South America to an estimated two million viewers.
  • Network founders hope to counter North American cultural influence over Latin America’s media and entertainment by ultimately promoting a distinctly Latin American perspective.
  • A week before Telesur’s first broadcast, the House of Representatives “coincidentally” added an amendment to the Foreign Relations Reauthorization bill initiating American information propaganda broadcasts to Venezuela, aimed at challenging the perceived threat of a Chávez led television network.
  • Telesur’s connection to so-called anti-American governments has fueled a wave of criticism from the Fox network and other rightwing U.S. news sources.
  • On Sunday, July 25, a significant step was taken toward promoting the dissemination of free ideas and pluralistic perspectives in Latin America. Televisora del Sur or “Telesur,” a collective media effort sponsored by Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba and Brazil, launched its first broadcast from Caracas to an estimated two million viewers across the Americas. Telesur’s funding and ownership is split among its multiple sponsors, with Venezuela—the founding country—owning 51 percent of its stock. Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay have minority ownership while Brazil provides technical support in the hopes of possibly obtaining corporate stock further down the road. The channel will offer news reports, films, programs and documentaries, and in the future, the company hopes to create a revenue stream from advertising sales. The ambitious satellite channel’s mission, according to its president and former Venezuelan Minister of Communication, Andres Izarra, is to put forth “an initiative against cultural imperialism and against imperialism in any of its expressions.” Uruguayan journalist and Telesur director Aram Aharonian added in an interview with COHA that “the mission is to construct and maintain a system of audiovisual hemispheric communication of high quality that spreads a real vision of the social and cultural diversity of Latin America and the Caribbean for the world to see. In other words, [Telesur’s goal is] to help with the process of integration of the region from the perspective of diversity and plurality.” The network’s openly adversarial stance toward U.S. cultural ascendancy in the region was quick to attract criticism from the United States and its allies, as well as from Telesur’s rival media outlets.

    Timing is Everything
    A week before Telesur’s premiere, ultra-conservative Representative Connie Mack (R-FL) successfully pushed through an amendment to Congress’s Foreign Relations Reauthorization Bill “to initiate radio and television broadcasts that will provide a consistently accurate, objective, and comprehensive source of news to Venezuela.” Mack’s move on behalf of his Miami-Dade county constituents reflects the expanding political clout and fiercely anti-Chávez sentiment of the area’s rapidly growing Venezuelan exile community. The American programming will be broadcasted for at least 30 minutes a day through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The initiative is a product of the Bush administration’s unfounded conviction that Telesur is a vehicle for anti-American broadcasting and stems from its insistence that the Chávez administration has placed Venezuela’s freedom of the press under general assault. In a floor statement on July 14, Mack painted an entirely inaccurate picture of an iron-fisted Chávez exercising a firm grip over media freedom in Venezuela, stating that “in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela there is no free press—just state controlled anti-American propaganda.”

    Nevertheless, Venezuela’s reality lends no credence to the U.S. legislature’s conclusions. The unfettered freedom of Venezuela’s middle-class dominated media to pursue its own agenda is evidenced by the unrelenting degree to which it has attacked the democratically elected Chavez. Five of the major privately owned television channels and nine out of ten newspapers, including El Nacional and El Universal, are staunchly anti-Chávez. These media outlets have in many cases adopted the agendas of the country’s two major political parties who lost support and confidence after their electoral defeat to Chávez. Privately owned media companies-all of them relatively anti-Chávez-which dominate the TV and radio programming available in Caracas, played a crucial role in helping oust Chávez for two days in the coup of 2002. Chávez’s opposition laments that he is attacking the media; his supporters maintain that he is merely trying to protect his administration.

    Attacks Against the Media
    Washington justifies its adversarial stance by contending that its concern over press freedom is a rebuttal to the series of laws and restrictions that the Venezuelan Congress has passed over the last eight months. For example, it cites the Social Responsibility in T.V. and Radio Law, passed in November 2004. The intent of this measure, according to Venezuelan authorities, was to encourage higher standards in broadcasting, to democratize access to the airwaves and to protect children from inappropriate sexual content and violence on television. This past March, an amendment was added to Venezuela’s criminal code that broadens laws punishing public disrespect for government authorities. Such regulations, Washington maintains, are reminiscent of the coercive tactics employed by Latin America’s infamous dictators of the twentieth century. Francis Gibbs, an aide to Mack, observes that “whatever you want to call it, journalists feel intimidated.” Gibbs adds that the measure that was passed by the House affects broadcast news programming from the U.S. to Venezuela, and is a safeguard against a process he cites as “a gradual movement; intimidation today, censorship tomorrow, and finally a snuffing out of an oppositional voice.”

    Attack or Counter-Attack?
    Gibbs maintains that American broadcasts to Venezuela are intended, like Telesur, to “add another voice to the mix, to ensure fair and balanced media like we have here in the United States.” Gibbs’ unwitting irony is striking considering that U.S. media is no less polarized than the Venezuelan media claims to be (“Fair and balanced,” is after all, the very tag line used by some of the notorious spin doctors at the Fox News agency). Mack is concerned about Telesur because it may completely fall into the hands of Chávez and Castro supporters. There is no guarantee that Venezuela will have greater say over what is broadcast simply because it is the primary funder or that Cuba will wield disproportionate influence because of its close ties to Venezuela. To the contrary, Telesur’s founders stress that the goal of the TV station is to ensure regional plurality and unity and not to establish a new hierarchy of power within the media conglomerate.

    Another Misguided Reaction by the U.S.

    The U.S’ venomous reactions to Telesur and the notion of broadcasting “balanced” and “objective” information hearken back to earlier U.S. propaganda efforts targeted at Chávez’s close ally and longtime U.S. antagonist, Fidel Castro. For more than five decades the United States has devised and funded numerous projects ranging from invasions and assassination attempts, to subversive television and radio broadcasts, to undermine the Castro regime. The U.S.-sponsored and Cuban exile-run Radio and TV Marti represent but two of these attempts. Resorting to euphemisms a report released by the State Department office of the Inspector General in 1999 noted that Radio Marti lacked “credibility and professionalism.” Despite the U.S.’ best efforts, Castro has remained in power and maintained relative popularity and support throughout the region.

    U.S. efforts at broadcasting to Venezuela will likely be perceived in South America as just another intrusion into the region’s sovereignty. Chávez has made clear that he perceives it as such, declaring that, like Cuba, Venezuela will block any broadcasts from the United States. He characterized Congress’ initiative as an act of aggression through “electronic warfare,” advising that fighting such a battle is not in the U.S.’ best interest. Pouring money into media projects to alter the U.S.’ image in the southern hemisphere is likely to only reinforce its negative stereotypes and provide Chávez with further justification for his criticisms. As Aharonian has suggested concerning numerous negative critiques of Telesur, the only thing that the U.S. broadcasting effort will achieve is to give Telesur free publicity.

    Telesur Strikes Back

    When asked about Mack’s heavy-handed accusations and House approval of his legislation, Aharonian observed that “…what this demonstrates is an excess of ignorance toward the reality of Venezuela and Latin America. The United States has every right to produce any kind of channel they want: we see dozens of these channels in Venezuela already. But we also have the right to produce a channel viewed through Latin American eyes. We believe in democracy, freedom of expression, information, and the news.” According to Telesur President Izarra, Latin American media is dominated by Western European and United States chains that broadcast more about U.S. issues than Latin American news and hot topics. The dominance of Western media has also fortified negative ethnic and cultural stereotypes. For example, in Brazil, over half of the population is Afro-Brazilian, yet television news and entertainment shows rarely portray their images. Instead, viewers are presented with white European faces. Telesur hopes to rectify such inconsistencies by creating new television paradigms that are not limited to Western-influenced news and entertainment.

    Opposition from Elsewhere

    North America has not been the only source of Telesur criticism; the network’s programming has also particularly irked Venezuela’s conservative pro-U.S. neighbor, Colombia, whose government is frustrated with Venezuela’s lack of cooperation in Bogotá’s guerrilla war. Colombian Deputy Foreign Minister Camilo Reyes lambasted the network earlier in July for showing positive images of Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda, the veteran leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in the network’s promotional trailer. Chávez’s critics in Colombia are having an increasingly hard time believing in the bona fides of the Telesur project.

    Where does this leave the Venezuelan public? According to Gregory Wilpert of Venezuelanalysis.com, “Venezuelans have grown skeptical of public and private television networks.” As previously described, a vast majority of the local media is anti-Chávez. Venezuelans recognize this fact. On the other hand, public media is overtly pro-Chávez. With this in mind, many Venezuelans see publicly funded Telesur as no different. However, if Telesur offers the original quality programming that its promoters claim it will, then it will be able to cast away its widely-acknowledged reputation for being a vehicle for Chávez-funded propaganda and will enjoy the positive reputation its programmers seek. Wilpert goes on to state: “even people on the opposition of the Chávez administration have remained generally supportive of Telesur because most people realize that Venezuelans and Latin Americans need their own voices on a continental scale.”

    Telesur: The Future of Latin American Media
    On July 27, fears that Telesur would become just another propellant of Venezuelan propaganda were somewhat assuaged when Telesur’s Izarra resigned from his post as Venezuela’s Minister of Communication. Will Telesur be able to offset the 500 years of influence the West has had in Latin America? For many Latin Americans, this will be the first time they are able to see themselves reflected in the television they watch. Telesur’s founders assure that the network will promote cultural and social diversity and plurality in Latin America. The network should be a welcome voice of plurality in the Americas, if it is able to flourish and find its independent voice.