Media regulation in Latin America: Whose free press?

Latin American presidents have attempted to regulate by law the content of media owned and controlled by a very few private individuals, and to reduce the concentration of that ownership. The task is not an easy one – Published on Le Monde Diplomatique/english Edition, by Renaud Lambert, February 2013.

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 … //

… 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: … //

(full text).

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