Spanish-language TV both in the US and in many Latin American countries is perhaps best known for its sensational, sex- and drama-soaked telenovelas (soap operas) and variety shows, soccer games and news segments heavy on the blood and gore of accidents or street crime.
But now, there is a new and controversial alternative available throughout the region, which eschews melodramatic telenovelas and glitzy entertainment for hard reporting on the destruction of rain forests, the effects of globalization and poverty issues, along with promoting Latin American traditional and contemporary arts and culture. TeleSur, short for Television of the South, was launched in July, broadcast by satellite from Caracas, Venezuela, where it shares space with the government-run Channel 8 station. It is partially funded by Cuba, and has bureaus in eight Latin American countries and Washington D.C., along with freelance contributors throughout Latin America and the US.
TeleSur’s proponents are billing it as nothing less than a major step in community empowerment on the local level and Latin American solidarity and progress on the regional level. TeleSur president Aram Aharonian, a native of Uruguay, said the channel “is born out of an evident Latin American need, to rely on a source that allows all of the inhabitants of this vast region to express their own values, to broadcast their own image, to debate their own ideas and transmit their own content freely and equally.”
Aharonian calls information “an inalienable right,” that Latin Americans and others are denied because media is controlled by major corporations.
“From the north we are bombarded with a great quantity of information-trash that serves only to misinform us and make us dependent,” he said. “Now we will start to see ourselves with our own eyes, tired of them explaining who we are, how we are, what we should be. From the north they see us in black and white — mostly in black since we only appear on the news when we are in disgrace. In reality we are a continent in technicolor.”
The channel is broadcast 24 hours a day, with bureaus in Bogota (Colombia), Brasilia (Brazil), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Caracas (Venezuela), Mexico City, Havana, Montevideo (Uruguay), La Paz (Bolivia) and Washington DC. It features news programs with reporting by representatives of local communities, for example a Colombian indigenous anchorwoman who reports wearing native dress. Along with news it features arts, dance, theater, sports, science and technology, tourism and other subjects. One program, “Nojolivud” or “No Hollywood,” showcases non-Hollywood movies.
TeleSur is meant to emphasize democratic production as much as possible; Aharonian says, “TeleSur doesn’t look only for spectators, we need collaborators ready to build a new model of television.”
But opponents of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez charge that the channel will be an outlet for state propaganda. Aside from the state-run channel in Venezuela, anti-Chavez forces control much of the country’s private media, and they have often charged the popular president with censoring the press. Chavez supporters counter that media controls instituted within the past year by the president, who won a recall vote by 59 percent last summer, are aimed at containing sex and violence on television and slander, not at stifling political debate. During the 2002 coup against Chavez, the country’s four major TV stations, which Chavez likes to call “the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” ran a deluge of anti-Chavez ads for free. The stations – Venevision, RCTV, Globovision and Televen – stopped broadcasting news entirely, resorting to Hollywood movie reruns and cartoons, when Chavez returned to power after the coup.
“The media in Venezuela presents a very strong, specific point of view that is very right wing,” said Victoria Cervantes, a Chicago-based independent journalist who has visited Venezuela several times. “It’s absolutely anti-Chavez on domestic issues and pro-US on international issues. And the rest of the programming is junky telenovelas. Also in other Latin American countries – Mexico, Colombia, Honduras – the content is similar, it’s very mainstream and represents the dominant power groups very blatantly. You definitely don’t see people’s struggles and people’s real daily lives [in most Latin American media].”
Cervantes points out that the private media in Venezuela is known for having strong ties to the militant Cuban right-wing. Venezuelan media tycoon and Venevision head Gustavo Cisneros, for example, is of anti-Castro Cuban heritage and a friend of the Bush administration.
US officials, worried by Chavez’s leftist stances and alliance with Cuba, have expressed doubts about TeleSur’s objectivity and implied it will be an instrument for anti-US propaganda. In response to its launch, in late July Congress approved a measure to transmit radio and television broadcasts of their own to Venezuela. US Ambassador William Brownfield said the broadcasts would be used to respond “only if the messages of TeleSur are anti-American.”
Actor Danny Glover, an advisory board member of TeleSur, has publicly refuted these concerns.
“Certainly the television station itself is not a tool that would be used to demonize the north,” Glover told the Associated Press. “It is a tool to be used to celebrate the extraordinary diversity of this hemisphere.”
Telesur’s debut comes during a relatively sunny time for Venezuela. So far this year the Venezuelan economy has been prospering, as the state-owned oil sector continues to recover from the work stoppage and coup against Chavez three years ago and as the country strives to diversify its economy beyond oil revenues. The administration sees TeleSur and other regional and local media projects as part of the Bolivarian program of using state resources to fund locally-controlled businesses and enterprises, including health and education programs, agricultural cooperatives, micro-enterprises and local media outlets.
US supporters of Chavez expressed excitement about TeleSur’s debut during a rally in Chicago during the AFL-CIO convention July 24, where activists demanded the AFL-CIO cut ties with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a US government-funded organization which played a major role in funding the failed coup against Chavez and has a record of intervening in other Latin American countries. The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, which carries out joint programs with unions in Latin America, is largely funded by NED. Critics say the center often works with pro-business, government-aligned unions at the expense of unions genuinely representing workers. The Solidarity Center backed the anti-Chavez CTV and FEDECAMARAS organizations during the coup and work stoppage carried out against Chavez in 2002. The CTV labor union is anti-Chavez and widely considered to be pro-business, and FEDECAMARAS is the country’s largest business organization.
“The Solidarity Center never mentions its paymaster,” said Fred Hirsch, vice president of the Plumbers and Fitters Local 393 in San Jose, California. “The AFL-CIO cooperating with (NED and the US government) has left a swath of destruction across Latin America in terms of progressive governments overthrown and thousands murdered.”
Participants in the Chicago rally said independent, Latin America-focused media outlets like TeleSur are needed to spread news about things like NED’s involvement in Venezuela, which isn’t widely publicized in the mainstream media.
“We need more media sources so people can make reasonable conclusions on their own,” said Richard McKnight, a New Yorker who traveled to Chicago for the conference. “People are definitely craving more information about what’s going on in Colombia and Venezuela, about the war, about the struggles of workers.”
As of now TeleSur isn’t available in the US, but it is possible it would be picked up by a satellite TV provider like Direct TV.
“It presents a deeper challenge to the US, the idea that programming should reflect the culture, struggles and diversity of life here,” said Cervantes, who produces documentaries for cable TV. “If only we had even the possibility of seeing that kind of programming!”
Kari Lydersen, Infoshop News