As teleSUR prepares to launch an English-language satellite station in July 2015 (its 10th anniversary), there is unrest in the Caracas and Quito headquarters. Several high-level employees have been mistreated and/or expelled by the inner circle in Caracas, and disparities in wages, shift schedules and workloads are causing disillusionment in the ranks.
Caracas Chronicles has received a lengthy leaked email by an Argentine former employee, “G”, who was allegedly paid extravagant sums to work tirelessly in a toxic environment, then forced out unceremoniously. Other foreigners have apparently suffered similar situations. Venezuelans on low wages are described as working excessive overtime, even having to beg and borrow to pay for transport home.
Our source of the leaked email, “X”, has given us more information. He tells us that overworked teleSUR employees blame endemic management incompetence in planning media content, infrastructure and responsibilities. He talks of persistent dismal results, poor quality control across the board, and a consistent disregard for employee complaints.
Just months after the launch of the teleSUR English (TSE) website, it is currently undergoing a much-needed redesign. Flagship programs costing millions annually struggle to attract three-figure views on the TSE YouTube channel. An expensive publicity campaign in major media outlets was spectacularly squandered by an amateur PR agency.
This is the story … of how we got the story.
The leak came out of the blue from an alias, X. It was a long private email by G to select employees, which inevitably got spread around quickly. As I began to delve into the contents, I began corresponding with X, trying to find out what goes on at teleSUR, and why Caracas Chronicles was his point of contact.
G was clearly bitter about his experience. He complained about working conditions in the organization, and about his unfair dismissal. The local staff is paid miserably -– around $90 per month at the time of writing — while foreigners earn lavish wages in dollars, prompting “unbearable” intrigue. Foreigners are then asked to speak with local employees, requesting them to double their efforts in anticipation of deadlines.
As for the launch of the TSE website last July, it was apparently a disaster-in-the-making. The website support was allegedly plagued by incompetency, with the page displaying incorrectly on portable screens for months. The international launch PR campaign, online and in print, flopped. For many weeks, published news articles were ridden with typos.
The problems with foreign journalists came to a head when they were accused by the inner circle of exchanging dollars in the black market.
This wasn’t an angle I was expecting –- obviously, an international news organization based in Caracas is going to require at least a few professionals from abroad, preferably with experience in multimedia broadcasting. Those folks are not going to leave their positions in London, New York or Buenos Aires and move to Caracas to earn bolívares.
The downside for foreigners is that their work contracts are drawn up… in Colombia!
G claims that “while they brandish the values of 21st century socialism, they draw up garbage contracts, flexible and revocable, in the most neoliberal country in South America: Colombia. It’s really the first revolution I’ve known that employs such a practice.”
The headmaster of the new English-language operation is none other than our old nemesis, Venezuelanalysis.com founder Greg Wilpert. X describes Wilpert as a hard worker and a easy-going person, but a “weak” leader of people.
Pretty soon, I began prodding X about the letter and about why he was reaching out … to Caracas Chronicles of all places.
I must confess I don’t watch teleSUR. I don’t even have cable TV. I do follow them on Twitter, and I sarcastically retweet them from time to time. In other words, I am not impartial in this.
I ask X about this. Did it not make him uncomfortable to write to me?
“I am a communist, but so is the person who wrote the email,” he says. “The difference is that he wanted this to remain internal, but I’m not respecting his wishes. I want to let the world know about the poor standards in teleSUR, and hopefully encourage some changes… this has nothing to do with favors for Caracas Chronicles.”
I began interviewing X. What is it about teleSUR that makes it so shoddy?
“They value quantity over quality, and don’t understand what it takes to build a successful media organization in the 21st century. TSE will launch on satellite in HD on July 24th 2015, just when the world is moving towards on-demand, online content. The youth of today are not watching broadcast transmissions or reading broadcast schedules.”
“There is a vocal group in TSE who could make it a success if they were given the freedom to do so. But Caracas won’t reconsider the direction. My only hope is that this vocal group will exert their influence in terms of content, quality and strategy, forcing Caracas to gradually accept change. Young people don’t want to watch 20/30-minute shows of old academics lecturing them, or interviewing other academics.”
“No TSE staff are allowed to communicate directly with any TSE correspondent — they must go through a desk in Caracas. In Quito, secure voice communication boxes are installed on each workspace, so that Caracas can open a line to anyone within seconds. Caracas is always emailing the coordinators and editors with editorial instructions and poorly-translated content.”
A few days go by. I’m torn as to what to do with this information. Was I being played? Sure, teleSUR is a propaganda outfit with so-so quality, but this is dog-bites-man territory. The interesting angle is teleSUR violating revolutionary labor rights, and employees coming to Caracas Chronicles with the story.
X writes back, sending me a screenshot of a ex-colleague’s Facebook post. In it, she complains about how teleSUR violated her labor rights, firing her without compensation. “Perhaps naively,” she says, “I considered myself to be left-wing until I stepped in Venezuela. Some friends later reminded me that the French Revolution was chopping off people’s heads a few days after being installed. Naively, I thought that working for a ‘progressive’ channel would be preferable to a right-wing channel, which is why I moved to Venezuela. Now I have my doubts.”
I prod X again – does he realize the implications of coming to CC with this?
“Many at teleSUR would see it as traitorous, but for me it’s about spotlighting the inadequate management. I don’t care what URL it appears on first. It will be shared around, and hopefully go on to shake things up.”
I ask him about the labor contracts teleSUR draws up in Colombia.
“There are those who feel that flexible Colombian contracts are the best way to keep foreigners under control within the organization. This opens the door to mistreatment and spontaneous firing. But even Venezuelan employees in Caracas are paid miserably, and instead of rotating shifts, there are many who work nights, and only nights. This is terrible for both mental and physical health.”
I begin questioning him about freedom of expression. He seems like a principled person, and in trying to find some common ground, I ask him if he ever felt uncomfortable working for a clear propaganda outlet such as teleSUR.
His answer reminds me of Salvador Allende’s old dictum about left-wing journalists being in the service of the revolution.
“In a world dominated by corporate propaganda outlets,” he says, “state involvement in the media is highly necessary. The ideal media would be entirely communal or cooperative, not funded by powerful interests of any kind. But until grassroots media can dominate a diverse informational panorama, popular state media is an essential antidote to corporate media.”
“We rely on Russian, Iranian, and Cuban media to expose the atrocities of Western imperialism and Zionism. We depend on socialist state media to give voice to the working class and social movements, and against the dictatorship of capital. I support independent media more than state media, but realistically socialist public media has a role to play as long as the revolution is ongoing and the state exists in its present form.”
X gets me thinking. Even though I disagree with his vision of the role of the media, I empathize with his worldview. No matter your perspective, too many times we consumers feel like corporate media is playing us. That doesn’t make it right to use state funds for propaganda purposes, but it provides some comfort to know there are people within who care about quality, about putting out a sustainable product.
The last few days, teleSUR has been tweeting a lot about the hypocrisy of the USA. By sanctioning Venezuela for human rights violations at the same time that the CIA Torture report has come out, Uncle Sam has left a flank open for teleSUR to exploit.
However, teleSUR’s own hypocrisy must equally be called into question. By exploiting local workers and mistreating foreigners via “neoliberal” labor contracts, are they not also guilty of hypocrisy?
I contacted teleSUR to ask them about all of this. I received no response.