News to Latin America: is anyone watching?

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, front, visits Russia Today TV Channel in Moscow. Photo credit: AP / RIA Novosti

CNN and its international channel pioneered global, 24-hour news in the 1980s, followed by BBC World News (1991), Al Jazeera (1996) and – since the turn of the century – a growing number of round-the-clock news channels broadcast to world audiences.

Among the most ambitious newcomers are state-funded channels from two countries with restrictive media regimes: China’s CCTV and Russia’s RT (formerly known as Russia Today). Both the Chinese and Russian services have global, government-financed English-language channels and a growing roster of more targeted programming – like CCTV’s latest additions, CCTV Africa and CCTV America.

In this proliferation of programming are two somewhat puzzling entries – one from RT, one from CCTV, both targeted at Latin America. It’s hard to call them head-to-head competitors – they take completely different approaches (RT’s three-year-old effort offers 24 hours of news in Spanish each day, while CCTV just launched a one-hour, weekly program on Latin America – in English). And even those working for the programs say they are uncertain who is watching them.

Global Newsroom reporters tuned in for a look.

RT: the channel that wasn’t there

On December 28, 2009 – the Day of the Holy Innocents (Latin America’s equivalent of April Fools’ Day) – a new television channel came to life. There was no big bang announcement, and no incessant advertising on other networks – just a small press release: “RT has begun to transmit 24-hour programming in Spanish.”

The press release also boasted that RT (the global, state-funded channel formerly known as Russia Today) had 200 people working on Spanish-language content, 35 of them from Spain and Latin America. RT did not respond to several email requests asking for the current number of employees and other details about the channel.

Almost none of the Spanish-speaking media worldwide reported on the press release. The only website that wrote more than a couple of paragraphs about it was the Spanish-language version of Ria Novosti, a state-owned Russian news agency. Outside of Russia, few seemed to pay attention.

The press release for the channel – named simply “RT,” like its sister network in English – offered little in the way of explanation for the Russian government’s decision to start a Spanish-language channel. It did stress that the content provided by RT was “different” from that of other major broadcast outlets.

If RT’s objective wasn’t really clear, it was equally unclear who might watch a Spanish-language channel based out of Russia.

“Russia was closed for a long time,” said Pablo Mura, a former reporter for RT’s Spanish channel who now works for CNN Chile. According to Mura, the idea behind the channel was to promote Russia in the Spanish-speaking world.

“Now that the windows are open, it was a very good idea to create a channel that could tell the thousands of stories that come out of the country,” he said.

Indeed, much of the programming is about Russia – documentaries that showcase Russian achievements, such as launching the world’s first man into space, or travelogues aimed at tourists. These are dubbed into Spanish and make up the bulk of what is seen on the channel. The rest is produced specifically for RT in Spanish, focusing on news events in Spain, the U.S. and Latin America.

Covering the news

RT in Spanish runs headlines every hour, read by anchors in Moscow. The channel also broadcasts a one-hour news show at 7 a.m. (Moscow time) and half hour shows throughout the evening.

The rest of the content produced specifically for the channel includes “Behind the News,” the channel’s flagship weekly talk show (which is rerun several times), and “A solas” (“Alone with,” a culture-focused interview show).

Most of the half-hour newscasts feature one central piece, a five-minute, in-depth report followed by commentary from an analyst. The story may focus on an event or issue in Russia, the United States or Latin America, and the topic may relate to current news – or not. Recent newscasts have had features on the American criminal justice system, including a long piece on how the U.S. tries minors as adults.

Some of these stories are produced by Latin American and Spanish reporters, while others are taken from one of RT’s other networks and dubbed into Spanish.

Though the reporting is generally straightforward, an undercurrent of bias is fairly common. An April 18 story on controversy over photos of U.S. Marines posing with dead bodies in Afghanistan was described this way on RT’s website: “smiling next to a corpse is not impossible for American soldiers.” The commentator brought in to speak about the controversy, Susana Khalil, called the American soldiers “psychos,” among other things. Khalil, whose Twitter bio has a message proclaiming “the end of zionism,” seemed chosen in part to maximize an anti-American message.

Although the newscasts focus on Latin America and the U.S., sports news coverage is mostly about events in Russia. Thus, the Latin American audience is treated to details on Russian cycling and volleyball, while Spanish football league results –of far greater interest to the target audience– are mentioned only in passing.

Behind the News

Once a week, the bland news programming gives way to a show introduced in 2011 that is now the flagship of RT in Spanish: “Detrás de la noticia,” or “Behind the News.”
It’s hosted by Eva Golinger, an American who speaks Spanish with a very heavy accent and describes herself as “a soldier for the [Venezuelan] revolution.”

In a 2011 profile, The New York Times called Golinger “one of the most prominent fixtures of Venezuela’s expanding state propaganda complex.” She is a vocal critic of the United States and last year accompanied Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on a diplomatic tour that included an official visit to Iran. Politically, she seems a good fit for RT; Russia has warm relations with Chavez and has supplied weapons, military equipment and loans to his government.

Before each episode, RT airs a disclosure, saying that the channel does not endorse the views expressed on “Behind the News.” But it is the channel’s most heavily promoted show. In one of several online video promotions, the words “threat” and “power” are superimposed on the U.S. flag, followed by an image of crosses in a cemetery and tanks. Another image, of the Statue of Liberty, is splashed with oil; perhaps suggesting that oil trumps liberty on the American agenda.

“The show gives me the feeling of old Soviet, Cuban and East German television,” said Gabriela Warkentin, a prominent media critic in Latin America.

The first episode of “Behind the News” was devoted to state-sponsored “terrorism” by the United States. Recent episodes have focused on the Ecuadorean press and its conflicts with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa. Golinger, whose format typically features one guest for a half-hour chat on a current issue, sides openly with Correa, dismissing press criticism of him as an “abuse of freedom of expression.”

Some of her most lavish praise is reserved for Chavez. “The phrase ‘Hugo Chávez is very popular’ is repeated over and over, almost like a mantra,” said Warkentin. “This turns it openly into propaganda.”

Warkentin, who hosts a media analysis show on Foro TV, a national channel in Mexico, had never heard of RT until she was asked to watch an episode of “Behind the News” for this story.

“Who watches this? It’s an honest question,” she said.

The staff

RT in Spanish’s anchors hail from Russia, Latin America and Spain. None appear older than 40, and some have experience in local television. But others, like Erick Fonseca – who hosts “La lista de Erick,” or “Erick’s list” – come from the world of theater, not journalism. “La lista de Erick” is a program that shows Erick, a Mexican man, as he makes his way through Russia and tries to learn about the country – an attempt to show that Russian culture can be accessible to Latin Americans.

A current on-air staff member of RT –who requested anonymity because he’s not authorized to discuss the internal workings of the channel– said that he was hired through a talent agency in Latin America. He said that when the channel launched in 2009, he “only had a vague idea of what RT in English was” but he took the job because it allowed him to focus on international journalism from “a different angle,” and to participate in the creation of a new project.

RT also works with local freelancers in Latin America. Pablo Mura, the CNN Chile reporter, for example, still produces clips for RT, even though he’s no longer a full-time reporter for them.

Who’s watching?

RT is delivered by satellite and it live-streams a 24-hour feed online. It doesn’t give out specific audience figures, but several press releases claim that its three channels (RT in English, Spanish and Arabic) are watched by “millions” of people globally. RT in Spanish’s Facebook page, has been “liked” by 119,000 people, and its Twitter account has approximately 25,000 followers.

The Facebook page encourages people to vote on different issues. A recent survey, for example, asked who the biggest threat to the world was. The top answer was “United States,” followed by “USA.” “Israel” came third. “Narnia” was also part of the Top Ten. Russia was a distant 20th, behind “the Galactic Empire.”

Commenters on the Facebook page come from all over Latin America. Most praise RT’s coverage, and many express anti-U.S. views. For example, on a story in which Iran’s president criticized the U.S. And Israel, and demanded “worldwide change,” many commenters lauded his words and called the U.S. a “decadent empire.”

Although RT claims that the channel is available throughout most of Latin America – Panama, Paraguay and Cuba are the exceptions– in reality it is very difficult to find it, except online. RT’s website has a detailed list of all the satellite and cable companies that carry the channel. In countries like Uruguay, it’s only available through small cable providers with limited reach. In Mexico, for example, only a small company in the coastal town of Minatitlán (whose population is the size of Wichita) carries the channel.

Mura and current employees are hesitant to discuss the reason behind RT’s entrance into the Latin American market, or why RT seems to do so little to promote it. Yet, according to Mura, RT in Spanish is growing. “They are opening bureaus in Latin America, the U.S. and Spain,” he said. “They’re one step ahead of the Chinese, the Germans and the Iranians because they started earlier.”

But, with a still unclear path and identity, and a lack of promotion, it’s hard to see the point in expanding the network of bureaus. RT in Spanish seems to be one of the best-kept secrets in the world of broadcasting in Latin America.

Esteban Illades is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He can be reached on Twitter (@Mexteban).

CCTV’s “Americas Now”: a chance for China to shine

News anchor Elaine Reyes stood behind a sleek podium in the middle of a brand new set. The cameras began to roll, and she announced to her viewers that they were about travel south.

“This week we begin a journey, exploring the Americas,” she said. “As the world gets smaller, “Americas Now” hopes to make these global connections through our reporting in interesting and engaging ways.”

This was the world’s introduction to “Americas Now,” produced by one of the newest branches of the state-funded global China Network Television—CCTV America. Launched just two and a half months ago, on February 12, “Americas Now” is a weekly broadcast news magazine focused on Central and South America. In its first nine episodes, the show discussed topics ranging from Cuban healthcare, to potato research in Peru, to the rise of women’s wrestling in Mexico.

It’s a perplexing combination: a half-hour show, all in English, dealing with Latin America, broadcast on China state television in China and the United States. According to Jim Laurie, CCTV America’s executive consultant, distribution in Latin America is limited, because CCTV America is in English.

Because the state controls all media in China and actively prevents reporting on some sensitive issues, publications like PBS Newshour and Voice of America have questioned whether CCTV America’s programming is propaganda, not journalism. CCTV’s new global operations do raise some obvious questions, given the state of journalism in China: Is CCTV America subject to the same controls as CCTV in China? Or, are journalists free but cautious? “Americas Now,” at least, seems to fall into the latter category. Thus far, the show is providing mostly neutral coverage of a region that is under-covered by much of the world’s media.

In fact, that is how “Americas Now” producer Barbara Dury explains the program she was hired to run for CCTV. “They saw an opportunity to take an area that has been under-covered and do it justice,” said Dury, who formerly worked as a producer for “60 Minutes.”

Outside the Chinese government’s global network, though, there are other theories about CCTV’s motives. Philip Cunningham, a visiting scholar at Cornell University’s East Asia Program and a journalist based in China for many years, said that China’s efforts are aimed at creating a global channel on a par with well established, western outlets. “I think we can assume some attempt to imitate, if not counter, global reach of CNN and BBC,” he wrote in an email interview.

Nan Wu, a Chinese journalist who is currently a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, said that CCTV is attempting to show the world that Chinese media can practice real, unbiased journalism. “They think it’s a good time to reshape the image of China to the world,” she said. “China also now wants to be part of the game and show some of the stories that are not told in American media.”

In other words, coverage of Latin America—given short shrift in much of the western media—may give China a chance to shine in the crowded market of international news coverage.

But it’s not all about keeping up with the Jones’. CCTV’s focus on Latin America also reflects the aggressive growth of Chinese economic investment in the region. In the decade starting with 2000, Chinese trade with Latin America grew from $10 billion to $130 billion, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

“In the long run, China wants to manage information to protect and promote its trade interests in Latin America,” said Cunningham.


The Programming

“Americas Now” is produced at CCTV’s new Washington, D.C. bureau and features stories by CCTV correspondents based in Brazil, Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico. Each half-hour episode is usually broken into three segments. The program debuted in February with a 10-minute story about the Colombian government’s attempt to rehabilitate former members of the Revolutionary Armed Rebels of Colombia (FARC).

A later episode was devoted entirely to Cuba, with stories about Raul Castro’s legalization of small businesses, Cuban doctors helping earthquake victims in Haiti, and an annual cigar festival in Havana. Commentaries are featured in some episodes under the rubric, “A View From the Americas,” and some feature anchor Reyes in conversation with CCTV’s Latin America correspondents. In what may be a sign that the show is still marshalling enough resources, two of the first nine episodes included repeat segments from previous weeks. And some shows have ended with segments that had nothing to do with Latin America – a feature on pandas in the Washington, D.C. zoo, for example, and coverage of a conference in Silicon Valley for women working in technology. Still in its infancy, “Americas Now” seems to be testing out different formats and storytelling tools, trying to find its identity.

But often the show does deliver what was promised in a press release: long-form pieces across Latin America. Dury said that her correspondents pitch their own story ideas, and she approves them based upon the same criteria she used when she worked for CBS: she evaluates whether it’s a good story, and whether it can be told visually. No one in Beijing, Dury added, is involved with pitch approvals.

Dury said that she and the colleagues hired in recent months by CCTV America are not mouthpieces for the Chinese government. “I’m sure they could have found plenty of people who would have been happy to do that,” she said. Though the Chinese government is the funder, “Until and when someone tells me how to do something,” she said, “I’m going on good faith that [censorship] is not happening. It’s certainly not happening for me here. I know it when I see it.”

It may not be censored, but the coverage on “Americas Now” isn’t particularly hard-hitting, either. The show largely focuses on noncontroversial features, like the comeback of an ancient alcoholic beverage in Mexico, an annual cigar festival in Cuba, and the Mayans’ interpretation of the 2012 prophecy in Guatemala. Whether the program’s story choices are a result of censorship or just a small sample size is hard to say. “Americas Now” only has ten episodes under its belt, and it’s too early to tell how just free its reporting really is.

The Staff

“Americas Now” is one of four shows founded as part of CCTV America, which was launched in February, 2012. According to Voice of America, within five months, CCTV America had hired 65 people, in some cases offering salaries 20 percent higher than other television networks. Laurie said that as of April 1, “Americas Now” had nine contributing correspondents based in Latin America and one based in Miami. Many, like Michael Voss, Stephen Gibbs, and Morgan Neill, came to CCTV from the likes of the BBC, CNN, and the Guardian.

Voss joined CCTV after almost 20 years as a foreign correspondent for the BBC, most recently based in Cuba. In an interview, Voss said he decided to move to CCTV after watching its coverage of the fall of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, which he called “exemplary.”

“They are serious about what they are doing,” said Voss. “It’s not ideologically driven, they are trying to be a major international news player. To do that you have to be balanced and impartial, and they are.”

Who’s Watching?

All episodes of “Americas Now” can be found online and are broadcast in China on CCTV’s English channel, according to Dury. In the U.S., the show is broadcast on Sundays at 9:30 pm EST, and it is carried on several cable and satellite platforms in Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles, said Laurie. Voss said the show is in English, not Spanish, because China was looking for areas where there are gaps in the market, and a program that covers Latin America has been lacking in English-language television.

Although Laurie said that “Americas Now” has a reach of approximately 40 million in North and South America, it doesn’t appear to be widely viewed. Most people approached as sources for this article—Latin America-China experts and journalists who study censorship issues— had not seen the show, and some had not even heard of it. Laurie said the program targets English speakers who are interested in Latin America, but it’s unclear how many viewers fit into this category. And even if the market does exist, it remains to be seen how many English speakers will turn to Chinese television for news on Latin America.

Emily Judem is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter (@ejudem).