When South Americans turned on their TVs in November last year, they suddenly found one more channel. Televisora del Sur – more commonly known as teleSUR – is one of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s latest projects. With the aim of providing a Latin news perspective on events in South America, it’s a pioneering media experiment that is already causing consternation in the US Congress.
TeleSUR is jointly owned by the governments of Venezuela (51 per cent), Argentina (20 per cent), Cuba (19 per cent) and Uruguay (10 per cent). Another 35 countries around the world are contributing content.
‘It is the first time that we have public television that produces a Latin American view of Latin American affairs,’ says Aram Aharonian, the 54-year-old veteran Uruguayan journalist who heads the board. ‘It is the first time we can look at ourselves with our own eyes and say: “We are this kind of people”; we are not like how the people of the North see us.’
Apart from the international news services such as CNN en Español and the Fox network, local cable services across Latin America are still dominated by dubbed or subtitled programmes from the US, with a handful from Spain and France. Now teleSUR presents a wholly Latin American alternative. Programming covers ‘all themes that have something to do with life in Latin America. Economics, politics, social affairs, culture, history, sports – it is much broader than just news.’ So as the Latin American continent ambles towards a rosier democratic future, the channel should unearth questions of identity alongside those of history, political representation and financial security.
And while Brazil has also recently launched its own news channel that aims to reinforce that country’s standing as regional leader, Aharonian denies that the two stations are in competition: ‘Absolutely not! We exchange content, programming and we are totally in agreement that there should be many Latin American TV stations. We have some kinship to the public television in the US, and we have some similarities with the BBC, but we are not a copy of any other television station.’
Several Republican politicians in the United States – unnerved by President Chávez’s independence and forthrightness – have already labelled teleSUR a mouthpiece for government propaganda no different to those of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century. To prove their point, they draw attention to the installment of Chávez’s minister of information, Andres Izarra, as President of the Board of Directors.
However, the five directors of the station are all seasoned journalists from member countries, claiming a commitment to editorial independence. The advisory board includes Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, writer Tariq Ali, Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman and actor Danny Glover. Aharonian predicts that the channel’s multinational backing will be reflected in its direction, which will make it impossible for one interest to dominate. This, he adds, is not the other news network US politicians love to hate – Al Jazeera: ‘We are very different. Al Jazeera is a private business, and we are a state entity of Latin America – a television channel that presents news from several points of view rather than one single perspective, so people can really be informed as to what is happening.’
Although made for local consumption, Aharonian is keen to export teleSUR’s news perspective to the rest of the world. Through satellite coverage the channel can now be seen in North and Central America, the Caribbean, Western Europe and the western tip of North Africa. Indeed, with slogans like ‘Our North is the South’, teleSUR is beaming directly into the White House.
‘There are in reality few opportunities for people in the US to see what is actually happening here [in Latin America],’ says Aharonian. ‘We are transmitting now by internet, but there are many parts of the world that we want to transmit to directly. This is a long way off – we are moving along little by little.’
Despite a late start the station received positive feedback after its first month of broadcasting. At the time Aharonian and I are talking, no audience figures for teleSUR are yet available. Nevertheless, he describes the response from viewers in Latin America, the United States and Europe as very good.
‘We are on the way to making very good television [that is] very different to the only message that comes from the North.’
The US Congress isn’t taking this news lying down. Before teleSUR even made it to air, a Republican-sponsored amendment was passed to initiate broadcasts that will provide ‘accurate, objective and comprehensive’ news to Venezuela. Chávez hit right back with the promise of electronic warfare to block what he labelled a preposterous imperialistic idea. ‘It should not surprise us because we know what the US Government is capable of,’ said Chávez. ‘There is nothing more dangerous than a desperate giant.’
Watch TeleSur streaming live through the website http://www.arcoiris.tv>.
Aram Aharonian talked with Sholto Macpherson