The Argentinian supreme court recently ruled to uphold the country’s controversial media law. The decision represents a big victory for President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who argued that the law helps break up the power concentrated in the hands of Argentina’s biggest media conglomerate Grupo Clarín. Opponents, however, says it stifles freedom of expression and press as it would force media companies to sell off some of their outlets. Concerns have also been raised about the law being a way of punishing Clarín, which fell out with the government after negative coverage during tax protests in 2008.
This is only the latest chapter in the ongoing story of the media business in some Latin American countries, with left wing governments and private companies locked in a decade-long fight for control of what will be shown on TV, heard on the radio, printed in newspapers, and posted on websites. New communications laws, persecution of journalists and closure of television networks, however, shows who is really in charge.
Governments like Venezuela and Argentina are waging war against big media companies, while more moderate ones, like Brazil, are using milder means to try and balance the power of communication in their countries. But far from being presented as a straightforward issue of freedom of expression, most of these cases have two opposing and radical interpretations.
On one side, there is the pro-government camp. They believe the governments are democratising the media, which has traditionally been in the hands of the few. In Brazil, for example, eight families control almost 80% of all traditional media companies. The aforementioned Grupo Clarín owns national and regional newspapers, radios, TV channels and more.
Those opposing these measures, however, say they amount to censorship. Again, a good example comes from Argentina: there are some rumours that Kirchner’s administration is trying to suffocate Grupo Clarín by not allowing big chain stores to advertise in their papers. There is also the infamous case of the the closure of Venezuela TV channel RCTVI in 2010.
Both sides talk of freedom of expression, arguing they want to show what is better for the public. But the public – those with the most to benefit from a good and transparent media – are not being allowed to decide for themselves. This is not happening just in Argentina and Venezuela, but across the continent – in Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia, and, albeit in a much gentler way, in Brazil.
Professor Mirta Varela, specialist in history of the media at the University of Buenos Aires, is among those who believe governments are not repressing the big companies or trying to dominate the industry. “The measures taken have shown the political and economic power of the main companies, the spurious origin of their economic growth and their relationship with the dictatorship”, she explains, referencing Grupo Clarín and the military regimes that held power in almost all the Latin American countries from 1960 to 1980. But she also sees some problems with this polarisation: “There is a little room to set a new agenda; to make independent criticism, not overtly for or against the government.”
Cecilia Sanz works for Argentinian TV show “Bajada de línea”, which roughly translates to “Under the Line”. The show is hosted by Uruguayan Victor Hugo Morales, a well-known journalist connected to what Sanz calls “the progressive governments” in Latin America. Here she groups together a number of different left-leaning governments from across the continent – from moderates Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, to the more radical Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.
The show comments on the state of the media in Latin America, mainly arguing against the big private companies. “Our main goal is to put in context and show how the media owners have the intention, above all else, to accomplish their economic objectives,” she says. “The are using ‘freedom of expression’ as an excuse for this”. She mentions the case of powerful Mexican TV Azteca, which according to her, supports all the candidates from the hegemonic party PRI, and Chilean paper “El Mercurio”, which used to attack Chilean ex-president Salvador Allende in the 1970s – again putting very different cases in the same group.
The more radical of these “progressive governments” accuse the media industry of trying to destabilise the authorities or to encourage coups d’état. Venezuela’s putsch in 2002 is always mentioned. In this case factions of the media was directly fighting against Hugo Chávez – so Chávez took them off the air.
“This is an insult to the audience because in all of cases it is about the most popular media channels”, counters Claudio Paolillo, president of the freedom of press and expression commission of SIP, Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa (the Inter-American Press Society). “No one has put a gun to the audience’s head to force them to choose what to read, listen or watch, and on what channel.”
Paolillo says the government engages in “Goebbels’ style” propaganda, sustained by public resources, to oppress independent or critic media and journalists. He adds that, ironically, these radical “progressive governments” act like the conservative military regimes of the past. “It is an ideological posture. They want to nationalise communications media as if it was a regular business that offers services or products.”
Paolillo says SIP is against Latin Americas state-controlled monopolies or oligopolies, but reaffirms it is the audience that has the real power to decide what to watch, and where. If they want to watch the same news program, the government shall not interfere. “Unfortunately in Argentina as in Venezuela (and we must add here Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia), governments have created their own media companies, expropriated and bought private ones – in some cases even working through a figurehead”, he complains.
Brazilian political scientist Mauricio Santoro brings up another common problem in the region – organised crime targeting reporters in Mexico and Colombia. But he says this is not a new situation. In his opinion, what is new, is “progressive governments” using the power of the state to control its opponents.
“The alternative proposed by these leftist governments is not based on the construction of an alternative model that privileges pluralism and gives a voice to social and community movements. It is about breaking business groups and giving power to a state press that acts like a government representative and not a public one.”
Worried about the poor quality of the media across Latin America, Santoro suggests the continent needs a more dynamic media, more capable of listening and understanding the true necessities of the people of a region going through “profound change”.
“Looking at the local scene”, he asks, “are we able to find any country where the traditional media meets this expectation?”