- Aram Aharonian
The comparison may not be perfect, but officials of two new television networks, slated to start broadcasting across South America sometime this year, say they have the same underlying goal as the 24-hour Arabic-language news channel: more local control of the images and words that define their region on the small screen, and less dependence on foreign-based satellite TV giants.
Reporter Luciana Rodrigues, holding microphone, interviews a rap musician in January during TV Brasil’s first test broadcast. In other words: more coverage of elections in Montevideo or bullfighting in Bogota, and less focus on distant happenings such as the Michael Jackson trial.
"We need to see a point of view that comes from South America, not from Europe or the United States," said Aram Aharonian, director of Telesur, a network based in Venezuela that hopes to launch in May. "Why can’t we have our own point of view?"
Both Telesur and TV Brasil, based here in the Brazilian capital, are government-funded projects. They are products of a philosophy that is spreading throughout South America, fueled by governments that seek more economic and cultural independence from Europe and the United States.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is helping guide the creation of Telesur, has long pressed for alternative sources of information that can compete with such networks as CNN and the BBC. In recent months, the project has received pledges of financial and technical support from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and other neighbors.
The leaders of those countries might not speak with the fiery flair of Chavez — a populist politician who is Latin America’s most vocal critic of the United States — but each has indicated reluctance to surrender to the ebbs and flows of free market forces generated in wealthy, first-world countries.
The idea of a united bloc of South American nations has long been imagined but never attained. One of the hopes driving both networks, organizers said, is that they might help achieve more unity among the region’s nations, with an eye to developing the same kind of collective clout wielded by members of the European Union.
"We are at the beginning of something very new," said Eugenio Bucci, president of Radiobras, a public media company in Brazil that is helping coordinate the project. "But what is new is not just this television project, but an overall process of integration among the countries of South America."
At TV Brasil, executives hope to form partnerships with existing channels in the region, and they will travel to neighboring countries this spring to work out the details. Both they and Telesur executives say they will not be rivals, but rather partners with a common goal of showing the world through Latin American eyes.
In a boardroom here last week, a group of media executives watched videotape from TV Brasil’s first test broadcast, transmitted via satellite in January from the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. The tape provided what they called a good preview of what the station might be like — a mix of newscasts and public television-style cultural programming and documentaries.
The test broadcast also helped convince the Brazilians that they can overcome one of the project’s biggest challenges: to be accepted abroad as a viable information exchange, not merely a vehicle for Brazilian propaganda. Bucci said the broadcast was well received by viewers in Argentina, Mexico and the United States.
"A project like this cannot be seen in South America as interference from a country that wants to have hegemony over other countries," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said in a speech last month. Instead, he said, TV Brasil should be "an instrument that contributes to the unified integration we want to develop" in Latin America.
As with al-Jazeera — which is funded by the government of Qatar and has been criticized frequently by U.S. officials for what they call inflammatory or biased reporting — some analysts are raising questions about whether the new Latin American networks will be capable of providing independent and evenhanded news coverage. They wonder, for example, if Chavez’s fervent rhetoric will inevitably find its way onto the 24-hour network he is backing.
"Of course I have a fear of bias, because there’s a kind of activism involved" in the creation of Telesur, said Jaime Abello, director of the Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism, an organization created by novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Cartagena, Colombia. "We will have to wait to see if it will be independent and objective and not just pro-Chavez journalism."
But Abello said the fact that well-regarded journalists are already involved in Telesur suggests that it is aiming for international legitimacy. Aharonian, a Uruguayan print journalist who has lived and worked in Venezuela for years, said bureaus and correspondents have been established in six major Latin American nations plus the United States.
To start, the network’s only permanent studio will be in Caracas. Last month, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner met with Chavez and pledged to provide and subsidize 20 percent of the network’s content. Tabare Vazquez, who was inaugurated as Uruguay’s president last week, has already agreed to provide 10 percent of the content, Aharonian said.
Whether these new channels succeed or flounder commercially, they are clearly a sign of the times. Abello and others said that during the trend toward privatization and free-market policies that characterized Latin American administrations in the 1990s, such state-backed TV projects would probably never have been proposed.
"The role of the state has grown, and so has its interest in the media," said Gabriel Mariotto, an Argentine communications official involved in the Telesur negotiations. "I don’t think it would have happened 10 years ago. We have the political network to create it now, and of course the technology has improved."
But when Vazquez took power recently in Uruguay, most viewers in neighboring countries could catch only glimpses of the inauguration on channels that are owned by companies outside South America — and that are far more interested in events outside it, too.
"In South America, we know a lot about places like Chechnya," said Aharonian, "but we don’t know our own neighbors."
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