- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

BUENOS AIRES — A Venezuelan-backed TV network modeled after Al Jazeera is set to begin broadcasts throughout South America.

Critics fear it could become a pulpit for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Telesur, short for “Television of the South,” is billed as a commercial-free, hemispherewide counterbalance to North American media. It is slated to begin broadcasts within a few weeks.

“Soon we will have Telesur, a channel with information for South American countries, because is not possible that Venezuela and the other southern countries depend only on information from CNN,” Mr. Chavez said during a March press conference in Paris, according to a report on a Venezuelan government Web site.

Mr. Chavez has aggressively promoted the network in recent months and landed varying degrees of support from left-leaning governments in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, as well as Cuba.

Telesur’s arrival comes amid claims by a ranking Venezuelan official that Al Jazeera is expanding its news coverage from Latin America and planning to establish a regional bureau in Caracas.

Like Al Jazeera, which receives state funding from Qatar’s oil revenues, Telesur will rely in large part on government largess from Venezuela, a major global oil supplier.

Al Jazeera “has determined that Venezuela is a strategic place that is going to permit it to cover to all the region,” said Andres Izarra, Venezuela’s minister of communication and information.

The government document describes Al Jazeera’s expansion as being “framed in the Al Jazeera-Telesur project.”

“It is my understanding is that there is an agreement to extend office space, and that Caracas will serve as the central hub for Al Jazeera’s South American coverage,” said Nikolas Kozloff, an analyst for the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).

Jihad Ballout, an Al Jazeera spokesman reached by telephone in Qatar, confirmed that Al Jazeera is looking to open bureaus in Venezuela and in Brazil.

When asked if working agreements existed between Telesur and Al Jazeera, Mr. Ballout said, “I am not aware of any definite plans. It is possible, but I cannot confirm any.”

A COHA report on Telesur, authored by Mr. Kozloff, said the Chavez government has already contributed $2.5 million to Telesur and that it plans to invest $56 million in Venezuelan state-run television.

Mr. Chavez has also convinced other governments to join Telesur. On March 1, Tabare Vasquez, Uruguay’s first socialist president, pledged to support Telesur, which plans news feeds from correspondents in the United States and throughout Latin America.

Uruguay will fund 10 percent of the venture in exchange for the right to name a member to the network’s board of directors.

Argentina on Feb. 1 pledged its support through a bilateral accord with Venezuela. Argentina will, among other things, acquire up to 20 percent of Telesur’s initial equity stock, share human resources, provide satellite signals and 100 hours of Argentine content per month.

Venezuela state news reports also say Cuba and Brazil have agreed to share programming and trade expertise.

The network has already lined up several respected journalists. Aram Aharonian, the news director, is a well-known Uruguay-born journalist, and Jorge Enrique Botero, is a famed Colombian television producer.

The Venezuelan Ministry of Communications, Telesur’s news director and its Argentina-based correspondent all failed to respond to multiple interview requests.

Telesur, observers say, could help Mr. Chavez compete with private media companies in Venezuela that sided against him during a failed coup in 2002.

Mr. Chavez already uses state-funded television to promote his political agenda. He has his own Sunday show, “Alo, Presidente,” which is broadcast by Venezolana de Television, prompting questions about Telesur’s future independence.

“It should be Telesur, not TeleChavez,” wrote Jorge Ramos of Univision, the Spanish-language media giant.

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