BOGOTA -- When news spread last week week that Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban leader Raúl Castro, was on a doomed Air Algérie flight in Mali, she called Venezuela-based Telesur television to declare that she was “alive and kicking.”
Over the past nine years, Telesur has become Latin America’s largest news channel, with 24-hour programming and more than 800 reporters. And as Castro’s call suggests, it has unprecedented access to administrations, officials and personalities that often shun the mainstream media.
Last week, Telesur began sharing its worldview in English at www.Telesurtv.net/english. Like its Spanish counterpart, the English Telesur will offer a mix of news, documentaries and commentary that largely reflect the left-leaning views of its state backers: Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Telesur President Patricia Villegas admits that the channel has a distinct perspective, but she insists that it is balanced, fair and much-needed in a world dominated by corporate media.
As an example, she points out that the English-language website inaugurated its coverage this week with reports about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Gaza.
“During events that impact the globe, having cameras that show other things put you in different places and offer different voices and images. . . . That’s part of the democratization of information,” she told the Miami Herald. “And that’s one of the great objectives of Telesur.”
The new channel is only online, and Villegas said there are no immediate plans for broadcast, since English-language viewers are more likely to be watching the content on portable devices or on their computers. Most of the programming will be produced by Telesur’s existing team, but the station has opened an office in Quito, Ecuador, with 36 English-language speakers to create multimedia content and work with social networks, she said.
Telesur — the brainchild of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez — was designed in part to counter the narrative of regional outlets such as CNN en Español. Since it went live in 2005, it has won praise for its high production values and its intensive reporting about Latin America for Latin Americans. In a world of shrinking media budgets, Telesur was given an additional $17.6 million to cover the start-up costs of its English venture, according to budget documents.
But its reputation within Venezuela is less solid.
“The idea of Telesur is very interesting — a channel that has a multi-state platform,” said Carlos Correa, head of the Caracas-based Espacio Público free-speech organization. “But increasingly, it is seen as a channel of the Venezuelan government . . . a way to project soft power.”
That is most evident during election campaigns. During the 2013 Venezuelan presidential election, the station would often broadcast rallies of President Nicolás Maduro from beginning to end, while providing cursory coverage of his opposition challenger. The station also is at the vanguard of promoting Chávez’s legacy, paying Oliver Stone $3 million to produce a documentary called My Friend Hugo.
Tarik Ali, a Pakistani author and columnist, has been with Telesur since its inception. He will host an English-language interview show called The World Today, which will be broadcast four times a week.
He said that referring to Telesur as a mouthpiece of the Latin American left is hypocritical.
“The global corporate media is the mouthpiece for the system of the market — its political aims, its wars . . . [but] no one ever refers to American networks as mouthpieces of official propaganda, which they are,” he said. “At English-language Telesur, we come with a different philosophy and have a different worldview . . . but we will not make up things, we will not make up lies, we will not show documentaries with certain things cut out, all of which have happened on Western television at one time or another.”
Villegas also defended the station’s editorial independence, saying that during her nine years at the station, she has never received any government pressure.
“Quit thinking that there’s a big hand that guides us or censors us or approves or doesn’t approve,” she said. “That’s not true; it’s a fantasy designed to damage our credibility.”
Telesur’s expansion comes as private media in the region are under pressure.
In Ecuador — the website’s new hub — a 2013 media law has led to multimillion-dollar lawsuits against outlets that have been critical of President Rafael Correa’s administration. In recent months, Vanguardia magazine and El Hoy newspaper have dropped their print editions, citing government pressure that chased away advertisers.
The Correa administration maintains that both collapsed because of the changing media landscape and mismanagement. But Correa has been openly hostile to the press, calling the media his No. 1 “enemy” and ordering his cabinet to stop giving interviews to private outlets.
The Media in Venezuela have been under more subtle pressure. In recent months, opposition outlets such as Globovisión television, Ultimas Noticias and El Universal newspapers have been sold only to see their editorial lines shift — sometimes dramatically, said Carlos Correa with Espacio Público.
Globovisión, which was the last television station to be openly hostile to the Venezuelan government, has let go of dozens of reporters and rarely gives room to opposition voices anymore, Correa said.
This month, the National Union of Newspaper Workers accused Ultimas Noticias of censoring at least three stories, including one about the lack of medicine at a cancer ward. The article, which talked about the scarcity of medicine, was changed to say that cancer drugs were being guaranteed, the union said.
“What we’ve seen is a process of media concentration that has been very strong,” Correa said.
But Telesur is about building the plurality and diversity that media watchdog groups are calling for, Villegas said.
“This is about more journalists telling more stories that others aren’t telling,” she said.