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A channel of resistance

Print edition : Aug 26, 2005 T+T-
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.-AFP

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.-AFP

Challenging the monopoly of the Western electronic media, Venezuela, Uruguay, Argentina and Cuba join hands to launch their own television station, Telesur.

VENEZUELA, Uruguay, Argentina and Cuba have joined hands to challenge the monopoly of the Western electronic media in Latin America by launching their own television station - Telesur (Telesouth). Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez launched the channel in the last week of July. Chavez said that Latin America and the world needed such a channel to counter the cultural imperialism emanating from the American and European media. He said that the launch of Telesur was vital to the "Bolivarian" vision of achieving Latin American and Caribbean integration. The launch of the network, according to him, is a blow to those urging "electronic warfare" against the Venezuelan government.

The United States House of Representatives had adopted a Bill with an amendment that authorises the U.S. government to beam propaganda to Venezuela. If approved by the U.S. Senate, the American TV and Radio broadcasts into Venezuela will be on the lines of the notorious Radio and TV Marti beamed into Cuba. Despite millions of dollars being spent by successive U.S. administrations on "Radio Marti", it has been a resounding failure. "The United States has threatened us with broadcasts to neutralise Telesur. We have scored the first goal," said Chavez. The Venezuelan President described the American move as "a preposterous imperialist idea". He has, however, warned that there "is nothing more dangerous than a desperate giant".

The Bush administration may have more reasons to be alarmed by the reported plans of Telesur to go in for a "strategic alliance" with the Arabic language broadcaster - Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera has plans to launch an English language news channel in the near future. If there is a strategic alliance between Telesur and Al Jazeera, then together they could reach a global audience. Many Latin American watchers have, however, downplayed the possibility of Washington immediately launching an "electronic war" against Venezuela. Experts have pointed out that Telesur is a pan-Latin American channel, not exclusively a Venezuelan one. The U.S. Congress has already earmarked $18 million for the years 2006 and 2007 to support pro-American political parties and civil groups in Venezuela. Venezuela is due to hold a presidential election next year. Chavez's popularity as shown by the opinion polls is now well over 70 per cent. This has been the case since he emerged triumphant in the referendum, held in September last year.

Telesur, which will be a 24-hour news channel, will compete with networks like the CNN (Cable News Network). Its objective is to give a fillip to regional integration by including programmes consisting of newscasts, films, documentaries and music by Latin American and Caribbean producers. The Spanish language service of the CNN, along with Spain's TVE, has a wide viewership in Latin America.

The Uruguayan director of Telesur, Aram Aharonian, said that the guiding principle of the Caracas-based network was "to see Latin America with Latin American eyes, not foreign eyes". He emphasised that Telesur would have a news agenda totally different from that of "transnational" networks. As an illustration, Telesur would never describe the invasion of Iraq "as an alliance to liberate Iraq. We know that it is a genocidal invasion", said Aharonian. He said that big economic powers were using the media and "are saying who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist".

In Venezuela itself, anti-Chavez TV channels, which still dominate the airwaves, carry Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts. The right-wing Fox News and CNN are transmitted on all Venezuelan cable and satellite carriers.

The station has been started with an initial capital of $2.5 million: 51 per cent of the shares are held by the Venezuelan government, 20 per cent by the Argentinean government, and 19 per cent by the Cuban government and 10 per cent by Uruguay. Brazil will also be participating in the Telesur project though it is focussing more on its own TV-Brazil, which will also target Latin America and the Caribbean. TV-Brazil will have a lot of Spanish content in its programming.

Telesur will start 24 hour broadcasting by mid-September. Its test signals are already on the air. A promotional advertisement for the channel promises in-depth investigative stories on issues such as the $3 billion American-funded "Plan Colombia". The Andean Community Summit welcomed the creation of Telesur at its recent meeting. The four member countries - Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru - have expressed their willingness to exchange their television programmes with Telesur.

Aharonian said that Telesur would be "an instrument in the war of ideas" between the West and the developing world. The Telesur advisory board includes personalities such as the Hollywood actor Danny Glover, the Le Monde Diplomatique Editor Ignacio Ramonet, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the British political activist Tariq Ali, the Nicaraguan poet and activist, Ernesto Cardenal, and the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galleano. Chavez has pledged that Telesur will never turn into a propaganda organ of either the Venezuelan or the Cuban government. "I am sure that Telesur will maintain its independence. Telesur will not depend on any government ... .. it will be free to navigate in the waters of truth and contribute to the success of a new world," Chavez told the media.

Telesur's president, Andrez Izarra, who recently resigned as Venezuela's Minister of Information, said at the launch of the channel that the venture "is an initiative against cultural imperialism and against imperialism in any of its expressions. But this should not be interpreted as an initiative against the people of the U.S." He highlighted the deep bonds that exist between the peoples of Venezuela and the U.S.

Another important development in the media world has been the launch of Independent World Television (IWT) on June 15. Sections of the Western media have already dubbed it a "Left wing CNN". The man behind the venture is the noted Canadian documentary filmmaker Paul Jay. Jay, the maker of films like Return to Kandahar has denied that the new channel will have a Left-wing bias but has stressed that it will be truly independent. "No corporate ownership. No corporate underwriting. No government funding. No commercial advertising" are the principles on which the channel will function. Jay plans to raise $25 million for his project by raising $50 million in donations from half a million people worldwide. He will not raise money from the business, advertisers and government, as a matter of principle. The 98-member IWT advisory committee consists of eminent personalities from all over the world. Gore Vidal, Amy Goodman, Naomi Klein and Tony Benn are part of the advisory board.

"We think that as long as you are dependent on commercials, or if you are corporately owned and you have to be concerned about the broader corporate interest, or if you have to take the money from a government that appoints your president and your chair and can cut your budget at any time, you can't really have independent journalism," Jay recently told Toronto Star. Jay is confident that there is a market for independent television news coverage. He said that he got the idea to launch IWT on February 15, 2003, when 20 million people around the world protested against the American invasion of Iraq. Jay will visit India soon to drum up support for his visionary venture. He has already managed to hook up with public interest groups in the U.S. In the U.S., satellite operators are to set aside bandwidth for publicly mandated channels. Jay expects the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to issue a licence to IWT as a "must carry" digital channel.