Whose Free Press?


Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva drafted a media bill a few months before he left office, intended to regulate content and reduce the concentration of media ownership — 14 families own 90% of the Brazilian communications market. Private media companies protested and described the bill as “authoritarian” and likely to lead to “political control” over information. The bill was shelved in 2011, but the president had raised an issue that has troubled governments in the region in recent years: can there be freedom of expression without a regulatory framework and political guarantees?

“Democracy, the press and free enterprise are inextricably bound up,” says Roberto Civita, director of the Brazilian magazine Veja, the most widely read in Latin America: defending free speech would entail protecting the freedom of businesses, starting with the press. But what happens when a political leader is elected on a programme that includes challenging the interests of the private sector and media bosses? Ever since leaders determined to end (or try to end) neoliberalism came to power in Latin America, and parties defending the traditional elite became weaker, the media has had a mission. As Judith Brito, editor of the conservative Brazilian daily Folha de São Paulo, puts it: “Since the opposition has been weakened so much, it is the media that effectively fulfils this role” (O Globo, 18 March 2010) — sometimes very inventively.

Emilio Palacio, editorial writer at the conservative Ecuadorian daily El Universo, described President Rafael Correa in 2011 as a “dictator”, accusing him of ordering troops to fire without warning on a hospital full of civilians: the story was incorrect. An investigation this year by The Guardian revealed that Televisa, Mexico’s biggest television channel, with an audience share of around 70%, had sold its services to the centre-right PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) to “raise the national profile” of its presidential candidate Peña Nieto, after working to “torpedo” his leftwing rival Andrès Manuel López Obrador (1). This is not new — back in 2002 the Venezuelan vice-admiral Victor Ramírez Pérez attempted a brief putsch against President Hugo Chávez with the direct collaboration of the big newspapers. He declared live on Venevisión (owned by the richest man in the country, Gustavo Cisneros): “We had a deadly weapon: the media” (2).

“When the advancing of their business interests overshadows the public interest, and when the expectations of the powerful are deemed more important than the needs of citizens, the media are hardly a paragon of democratic virtue,” wrote Elizabeth Fox and Silvio Waisbord (3). A similar conclusion has led some Latin American governments to try to regulate the sector, but many such bills have been languishing in ministerial in-trays for years.

Gagging order

In 1966, when Carlos Andrés Pérez was leader of the Venezuelan parliament’s Interior Policy Committee (and not yet president), he suggested reforming the 1940 telecommunication law, passed before the country had television. His reform was immediately described as a “gagging order” and rejected, as were all similar bills that followed. Attempts in the 1980s and 1990s to update Argentina’s media laws, dating back to 1980 and the dictatorship, were stifled by the big media companies.

It is not just ideology that feeds the desire to regulate the industry despite such resistance. Researcher Erica Guevara says demand comes also “from the different media sectors, because of strong international pressure linked to the boom in new information and communication technologies and new players entering the market.” The new arrivals do not want the big players to benefit from a legal vacuum. The current legislation, mostly vague and authoritarian, has not in effect applied since the 1990s, leaving the field open to a few of those who court the powerful, the same few who reaped the benefits of privatisation and deregulation.

In Brazil, where media bosses occupy one in 10 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and one in three in the Senate, the Globo group in 2006 had 61.5% of television channels and 40.7% of newspaper circulation. The late Roberto Marinho’s network of more than 120 television channels reached more than 120 million people globally each day. (President “Lula” announced three days of national mourning when he died in 2003.)

Chile’s national newspapers are owned either by the businessman Agustín Edwards, head of the El Mercurio group, or the banker Álvaro Saieh who runs the media consortium Copesa.

Gustavo Cisneros’s conglomerate in Venezuela, with around 60 businesses in 40 countries and nearly 30,000 employees, reaches more than 500 million people globally. His channel Venevisión has a 67% audience share in Venezuela, but Cisneros also has interests in Caracol TV in Colombia and the digital channel DirecTV, which covers the whole continent.

In Argentina the mammoth Clarín group holds around 60% of the media sector. It is the biggest cable operator, publishes 14 newspapers and controls dozens of national radio stations, in all almost 250 media outlets. These situations are the norm in the region, rather than the exception.

Opting for state control

Although Latin America’s progressive leaders initially tried to appease the media sector (Chávez and Cisneros met informally in 1999), they later opted for state control. On 8 December2004 Chávez signed the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television (extended to the internet in 2010), to regulate content. It imposed a minimum quota of national programmes, and brought Venezuela into line with the American Convention on Human Rights, banning images of sex and violence between 7am and 11pm, and all tobacco and alcohol advertising. But it went further, and punished material that “promotes hatred and intolerance based on religious, political and gender difference, racism or xenophobia,” or that “promotes distress or disturbs public order” as well as “false” information. In 2010 Bolivia adopted a similar law but confined it to the “fight against racism and all forms of discrimination”, while the 2008 Ecuadorian constitution condemned false information likely to lead to “social unrest”.

Some, like the director of Human Rights Watch Americas division, José Miguel Vivanco, argue that the right to information includes all kinds of information, including what may turn out to be wrong, false or incomplete (4). But it was the “false” information that Chavez supporters had fired on a crowd, broadcast deliberately by Venezuelan private television channels in 2002, led to the (failed) coup against Chávez. Arguments about content may not be the best way to transform the media sector.

“The worst thing,” says Aram Aharonian, editor of the Venezuelan monthly magazine Question, “would be for us to pay the political price for measures denounced as authoritarian and limiting freedom of speech without those measures bringing any significant advances.” He believes they should focus not on content, but on press ownership. “Otherwise 80% of the audience will remain in the hands of the private media monopolies.”

This is the direction Argentina chose in 2009, when it adopted a law reducing the number of licences that any conglomerate could hold to 10, and reducing their length from 20 to 10 years. The law raised the media to the status of a public service and divided the airwaves (radio and television) between the commercial, state and non-profit sectors. Ignoring protests from press owners, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, described it as an important step in the fight against the concentration of media ownership. Ecuador seems to have heard his invitation to use the Argentine law as a model, and has been debating a bill along the same lines since 2009.

The majority of countries in the region have tried to loosen the private sector’s grip by creating outlets that are public and non-profit making, or by reinforcing those that already exist, but their efforts have not always been successful. They do not always resist the temptation to compensate for the excesses of private media by making the same mistakes, as the US analyst Ken Knabb described: “Leftists often imply that a lot of simplification, exaggeration and repetition is necessary in order to counteract all the ruling propaganda in the other direction.”

They do not always succeed in terms of audience either. A recent study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research shows that between 2000 and 2010, the audience for Venezuelan public channels went from 2.04% to 5.4%. The audacious reform of the banks in 2010, banning shareholders of financial institutions from owning media companies (copying a similar arrangement in the 2008 Ecuadorian constitution) will probably not be enough to address this problem.

Aharonian asks, if Venezuela is meant to be advancing towards socialism, should it not stop giving radio frequencies and television licences to private interests? “Shouldn’t we create instead one big public space, regulated in a way that will guarantee it is used democratically?” Once freedom of expression is no longer confused with the freedom of media companies, there will no longer be any need to control it.

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