Telesur, formally known as La Nueva Televisora del Sur, is a 24-hour Latin America-wide television network based in Caracas which was originally proposed by Hugo Chavez and is jointly owned by the governments of Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. The majority of the station’s financing comes from the oil revenues of the Venezuelan government, with other governments contributing mostly logistical and in-country support.
Since its launch in 2005, Telesur has grown to include 160 employees with bureaus in nine Latin American cities and Washington and plans to add three to four more bureaus before the end of 2007. According to Telesur President Andrés Izarra, its broadcasts are available in 17 countries via satellite including all of Latin America, and parts of the United States, Europe, and Northern Africa. Additionally, it is carried by about 500 cable companies, roughly 60 terrestrial channels, and on the internet through Telesur’s official website. However, Telesur’s availability is often patchy with more consistent service being offered in the countries where governments are sponsoring the station (1). Its broadcasts consist of approximately 45% news as well as a mix of hard hitting documentaries and cultural programs. No independent audience figures are yet available, partly because piracy of both satellite and cable television is so common in the region.
The channel’s main goal is to counter the privately run stations in Latin America like CNN en Español, Univisión, and BBC World which are headquartered in the North and are owned by powerful media conglomerates. Supporters of the project have pointed to the fact that before Telesur was launched, seventy percent of Latin American television programming was being imported and sixty two percent was coming directly from the United States (2). As a result, the international news being reported was not reflecting Latin American viewpoints or covering the Latin American region in a comprehensive manner. Aram Aharonian, a Uruguayan journalist who now serves as Telesur’s Director General, was one of the individuals who expressed frustration about this situation. In a July 27, 2005 Chicago Tribune article, Aharonian claimed that American “cameras show up only to cover disasters and beam images across the region and the world that display ignorance of the continent’s complex realities.” It was time, he asserted, that Latin Americans determine the content of the news, asking, “Why do we have to continue seeing ourselves through the eyes of others?” (3). Thus, Telesur adopted the slogan “Our North is the South,” and the network became the region’s first attempt to create a pan-Latin American television news channel which both originates from and speaks to a predominantly Latin American audience.
Additionally, Telesur attempts to serve as a tool for Latin American regional integration. Although the station is based in Caracas, its correspondents include Columbians, Argentines, Uruguayans, Mexicans, and Cubans as well as Venezuelans. Many of these reporters do not imitate Western reporters in style and dress. Instead, they look like the representatives of the communities they cover, with one correspondent always appearing on camera in her Arahuaco Indian tribe’s traditional white robes. Aharonian notes that this diversity is part of Telesur’s effort to “aid in the process of the integration of Latin America toward diversity and pluralism, in every sense—the cultural diversity, the ethnic diversity, the diversity of opinions.” (4). Telesur’s concept statement incorporates these ideas by stating that the network’s talent and advanced technology is at the service of the integration of the nations and cities of Latin America and the Caribbean (5).
Telesur also tries to cover the news in Latin America with significantly more context and depth—something that the station’s supporters claim is not being done by networks like CNN. In a recent interview with author Nikolas Kozloff, Aharonian asserted, “We actually provide context so that people know what the news is about. In general since the Gulf War, journalism has become instantaneous…There’s no analysis, no debate. So we’re rescuing journalistic ethics.” (6). A recent content analysis of Telesur conducted by BBC World Service editor James Painter indicates that the network might actually be succeeding in this realm. He found that the November 5, 2006 broadcasts of CNN and Telesur handled the Nicaraguan elections very differently, with CNN devoting 100% of its coverage to voting and Telesur portraying a more nuanced picture by devoting significant time to candidate profiles and socio-economic context (7). In this way, Telesur is not only attempting to challenge the direction of the news flow but also the sensationalist style that networks like CNN and Fox have adopted in recent years.
Although Telesur was initially promoted by Chavez and continues to receive most of its funding from Venezuela, both Aharonian and Izarra vehemently deny all charges of bias in the channel’s reporting. They note that Telesur is governed by an independent board of directors and is run by professional journalists who are striving to provide balanced and accurate news. The network is also in the process of identifying secondary sources of financing for spots from sponsors like those run on PBS so that they will not be dependent on either government financing or the “economic interests of the powerful multinational corporations that dominate Western big media.” (8). They also point out that compared with the Venezuelan government’s state-sponsored network, Venezolana de Televisión, Telesur’s coverage is actually very moderate.
Comparisons to Al-Jazeera
When Telesur was launched, the international community immediately noted the characteristics it shared with Al-Jazeera. A June 28, 2005 BBC article, for example, claimed that some had already nicknamed the channel “Al-Bolivar—a combination of the Arabic news channel, Al-Jazeera, and [Venezuelan] President Hugo Chavez’s favourite [sic] independent hero.” (9). This comparison intensified when the two networks announced they had signed an agreement to exchange information and technology.
It is true that Telesur and Al-Jazeera have the same overarching goals of fostering regional integration and countering the dominance of Western news media. Increasingly hostile attitudes towards the United States in each region have provided strong catalysts for the desire to pursue such goals and they continue to provide a solid foundation for the existence of the channels. More broadly, both Venezuela and Qatar are using the networks to expand the profiles of their countries beyond that which has been historically afforded to them, as well as to change the power relations of their societies—thereby serving as part of what Norman Pattiz calls “quasi-political movements.” Indeed, Telesur has actively constructed its identity around regional integration and a championing of the Latin American masses, and Chavez has worked tirelessly to cast himself as the spokesman for a Latin America which is united against the United States. Telesur is one way in which he has given Venezuela an elevated influence and status in order to do this.
However, these comparisons fail to consider several significant differences. Most crucially, Al-Jazeera is perceived to have a level of credibility with the Arab world which seems to be lacking for Telesur in Latin America. Because it positioned itself as the voice of the people and was critical of Arab leaders upon its inception, Al-Jazeera now possesses enormous political and cultural capital. As Painter notes, it does not matter too much that “its funder, the Qatari government, [is] seldom criticized or scrutinized, as Qatar seldom [generates] news of regional, let alone international, importance.” (10). Unfortunately, Telesur has not been able to imitate this model because the network was from the beginning perceived as being too close to Chavez and the Venezuelan government—a country that does have at least some regional and international importance. In fact, Chavez’s image was so closely intertwined with the station that its critics began calling it “Telechavez” before it even went on the air (11). As a result, many Latin Americans have dismissed the network as a government propaganda outlet designed to propagate Chavez’ view of the world—an enormous obstacle for Telesur in a region which historically does not trust state-funded channels.
Moreover, the media markets of Latin American and the Middle East are quite different. During the mid-1990s, the Arab world was dominated by government-controlled networks which allowed little criticism of official policies and tolerated virtually no public debate on culturally sensitive topics. Thus, when Al-Jazeera began broadcasting in 1996, it was able to break the mold and offer a platform from which other voices could suddenly be heard. In Latin America, the situation is reversed. In Venezuela, for example, more than 40 private television stations and 128 cable channels were in operation as of 2005, only two of which were considered to be public channels (12). This high level of established private competition has significantly limited the station’s impact.
Also important is the fact that it was only after Al-Jazeera’s groundbreaking coverage of the U.S. war against Afghanistan that the station was able to gain worldwide prominence. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the network was “seen mainly as a curiosity,” but the Global War on Terror focused the world’s attention on the Middle East, and Al-Jazeera was ready and equipped with the ability to present the news of this troubled region from a distinctly Arab perspective (13). By comparison, no such event has worked to focus the world’s attention on Latin America or Telesur. On the contrary, Washington effectively lost interest in Latin America after 9/11 and has since chosen to focus its priorities elsewhere. In the absence of a crisis or U.S.-led war with Latin America, many believe it is unlikely that Telesur will ever gain a very high international profile.
Criticism of Telesur
Telesur has engendered strong disapproval from many officials in the U.S. government as a result of the network’s counter hegemonic and at times anti-American stance. In fact, when Telesur announced its partnership with Al-Jazeera back in 2006, U.S. Representative Connie Mack (R-Florida) accused Telesur of being a threat to the United States and condemned Chavez for “creating a global television network for terrorists.” (14).
In an attempt to evaluate these criticisms, BBC reporter James Painter conducted a preliminary content analysis of Telesur to test the level of bias in its reporting. He concluded that although Telesur does not falsify the news and is pluralistic in its coverage of some countries, it also “follows a pro-Chavez and anti-Bush agenda, and as such is in effect paying homage to its financial and political master.” (15). He also found fault with the fact that Telesur’s President is Chavez’s former Minister of Communication and that the station’s headquarters operates on the same grounds as Venezuela’s pro-Chavez state-run station.
Others disagree with these claims by arguing that simply because Telesur might report from a certain political point of view does not mean that the station is journalistically inferior or propagandistic. Moreover, Christian Science Monitor contributor Vinod Sreeharsha notes that “based on analysis of the first two weeks of live news programming and a week spent in its studios, Telesur is clearly run by professional journalists striving to provide balanced and independent coverage of Latin America….[T]he biggest question facing Telesur now is not about pro-Chavez propaganda, but whether it can attract viewers in the region.” (16). English novelist and filmmaker Tarik Ali, who is on Telesur’s board of directors, has echoed this sentiment by publicly stating that the station needs to be entirely independent in order to be truly effective. Aharonian has also at times endorsed this view. “If the programming is bad and full of propaganda, then no one is going to watch it,” he once stated. “[Viewers] can just click and change the channel.” (17).
(1) Painter, James. “The Boom in Counter-Hegemonic News Channels: A Case Study of Telesur.” Oxford University, 2007. p. 28-29.
(2) United Nations Development Program. Human Development Report 1999 (UNDP: New York), 1999.
(3) Marx, Gary. “Will Truth Go South on Telesur News?” Chicago Tribune. 7/17/2005.
(4) Johnson, Reed. “World News From a New Point of View.” The Los Angeles Times. 6/19/2005.
(5) Telesur TV website: http://web.archive.org/web/20061210093925/http://www.telesurtv.net/secciones/concepto/index.php
(6) Kozloff, Nikolas. “Venezuela Launches Hemispheric ‘Anti-Hegemonic’ Media.” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 4/28/2005.
(7) Painter, James. “The Boom in Counter-Hegemonic News Channels: A Case Study of Telesur.” Oxford University, 2007. pp. 34.
(8) Johnson, Reed. “World News From a New Point of View.” The Los Angeles Times. 6/19/2005.
(9) Bruce, Iain. “Venezuela Sets Up ‘CNN Rival.’” BBC News, 6/28/2005.
(10) Painter, James. “The Boom in Counter-Hegemonic News Channels: A Case Study of Telesur.” Oxford University, 2007. pp. 25.
(11) Najjar, Orayb. “New Trends in Global Broadcasting: Nuestro Notre es el Sur.” Global Media Journal (Spring 2007).
(12) Najjar, Orayb. “New Trends in Global Broadcasting: Nuestro Notre es el Sur.” Global Media Journal (Spring 2007).
(13) Seib, Philip. Beyond the Front Lines. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. pp. 106-107.
(14) Mack, Rep. Connie, R-Fla (14th CD). “New Alliance Between Chavez’s Telesur, Al-Jazeera Creates Global Terror TV Network.” US Federal News Service, 2/1/2006.
(15) Painter, James. “The Boom in Counter-Hegemonic News Channels: A Case Study of Telesur.” Oxford University, 2007. pp. 52.
(16) Sreeharsha, Vinod. “Telesur tested by Chavez Video.” Christian Science Monitor, 11/22/2005.
(17) Marx, Gary. “Will Truth Go South on Telesur News?” Chicago Tribune. 7/17/2005.