Latin America’s Telesur

The “Al Jazeera” of the South

President of Telesur, Andres Izarra (left)

Venezuelan communications minister and president of Telesur, Andres Izarra (left), talks with his Argentinean counterpart, Gabriel Meriotto, during a press conference in May. (Photo: Andrew Alvarez / AFP-Getty Images)

On Sunday, July 24, Telesur went on air. Telesur, whose slogan is “Our North is the South,” is a Latin America-wide TV network aimed at competing with U.S. and European international news stations, such as the Spanish language CNN En Español, Univisión, or BBC World.

With Venezuela as a majority shareholder, it is financed jointly by the governments of Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba, with some support from Brazil, which plans to launch its own Latin America-wide initiative, TV Brasil Internacional (Brazil TV International).

“Based in Caracas, and with news desks throughout the continent,” says Italian journalist Gennaro Carotenuto, “Telesur will cover an area from Tierra del Fuego to Canada, reaching 370 million Hispano-Americans, 180 million Brazilians, over 50 million Latinos in the U.S. and 100 million Spanish-speaking viewers in Europe and North Africa.”

As reported by Rome’s Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS), even before its programming content was clear, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment sponsored by Representative Connie Mack (R-Florida) on Wednesday, July 20, granting funding for the creation of a television station that would “provide consistently accurate, objective, and comprehensive source of news.” Mack described Telesur as a threat to the United States that would undermine the balance of power in the western hemisphere and spread Chávez’s “anti-American, anti-freedom rhetoric.” He also likened it to the hugely popular Pan-Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera.

Venezuela’s embassy in Washington promptly responded that all continent-wide cable and satellite television stations operate freely in Venezuela, and that the majority of news outlets in that country are privately owned and belong in their majority to the opposition.

To Italian journalist and Latin American history professor at Italy’s Università degli Studi in Macerata, Gennaro Carotenuto, Telesur represents a chess-like check in two moves against single-mindedness.

“The U.S. government has already issued a preventive fatwa against Telesur.,” he writes in Venezuela’s “With an amendment, it has authorized that actions be carried out against the lies — or discomfiting truths — that will issue from the new station.

“It is a preventive censure,” he adds, “that gives witness to how much Washington appreciates the TV station’s threat, a TV station financed by governments that during the last few years have turned away from the Washington consensus — that of neoliberalism and the I.M.F. — toward a less glamorous but more coherent consensus of the electorates.

“The brainchild of Uruguayan journalist Aram Aharonian, its director, in short order, it can bring about the end of U.S. control over the Latin American media system in two key, chess-like moves: by opening the way toward information pluralism in a Latin America held hostage to the media monopoly of the north, and by offering an integrational space in which Latin Americans may daily gather,” the professor stated. Telesur offers an alternative view and a means of cultural integration.”

Anyone who has ever tuned-in on Latin American television or radio cannot help but notice the undisputable dominance of foreign programming, particularly from the United States, but also from Europe, on these countries’ airwaves. Whether it is CNN En Español or Univisión, re-runs of Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Starsky and Hutch, Dynasty, The Dukes of Hazard, or HBO, the History Channel or National Geographic, it is clear to many on all sides of the debate that this concentration has to change.

To cite only a European example, long ago, France, assailed as it has been by the same overpowering content monopoly, has promulgated laws allowing for a certain percentage of programming on TV and radio to be local in origin, and aside from the renaming of fried potatoes and toast, the U.S. Congress has not sponsored any retaliatory programming against France.

Connie Mack’s comparison of Telesur with Al Jazeera is not a casual one, IPS reports, nor is the United States’ fear baseless. Qatar-based Al Jazeera and Dubai-based Al Arabiya both rapidly overtook CNN, the BBC, and other Western stations as the main sources of news programming in the region.

Lamis Andoni, Al Jazeera’s international affairs analyst told IPS “The United States would not like to see a repeat of that phenomenon in Latin America, which is exactly what could happen.” And she added, “If Telesur and TV Brasil Internacional succeed in focusing more world attention to the developments, the discourse and the problems of their region, they will become the main source of [Latin American] news for all world media.”