Media Battles in Latin America Not About “Free Speech”

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Mark Weisbrot
The Guardian Unlimited, January 8, 2010

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For at least a month now in Ecuador there has been a battle over regulation of the media. It has been in the front pages of the newspapers most of the time, and a leading daily, El Comercio, referred to the fight as one for “defense of human rights and the free practice of journalism.” This was in response to the government’s closing down of a major TV station, Teleamazonas, for three days beginning December 22.

International organizations such as the Washington-based Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists joined the Ecuadorian media in denouncing the government’s actions, with the latter calling it “nothing but an attempt to intimidate the media into silence.”

But as is generally the case when private media monopolies are challenged by progressive governments, the view presented by these powerful corporations and their allies in the United States is one-sided and over-simplified. Ecuador, with a democratic left government, is facing the same challenge faced by all of the left-of-center governments in the region: the private media is dominated by heavily monopolized, often politically partisan, right-wing forces opposed to the progressive economic and social reforms that the electorate voted for. All of these governments have responded to that challenge.

In Argentina, a new media law seeks to break up the media monopoly held by the Clarín Group, which according to press reports controls 60 percent of the media. The Brazilian government created, for the first time in 2007, a federally-launched  public TV station. The Bolivian government, which faces perhaps the most hostile media in the hemisphere, has also expanded public media. What all of these governments are doing – although they would not put it that way – is trying to move their media more in the direction of what we have in the United States. That is, a media which is heavily biased toward the interests of the wealthy and the upper classes, but nonetheless adheres to certain journalistic norms that limit the degree to which the media is a direct, partisan, political actor.

In the case of Ecuador, it is worth looking at the details of why Teleamazonas’ broadcasting was suspended for three days. The government found that it had, for the second time in a year, violated a rule that prohibits the broadcast of false information that can lead to social disturbances. In the first offense of this type, for which the station was fined $40, it had broadcast a false report indicating that the government’s electoral commission had a “clandestine center” where voting results were manipulated. The second offense, committed in May, was a false report stating that, as a result of proposed exploration for natural gas on the island of Puná, the people there would not be able to fish for six months. Since most of the labor force on the island makes their living from fishing, the false report actually did lead to social disturbances. Both of these reports were found to have no basis in fact. It is also worth noting that social disturbances in Ecuador are often more serious than in the United States: eight of the last ten presidents did not serve out their terms of office.

That said, reasonable people may differ on what is the proper role of government in the regulation of media, or what limits – if any – should be placed on freedom of expression. Some civil libertarians object to laws allowing individuals to file civil lawsuits for libel or defamation, and certainly a case can be made that in the UK, for example – where the law allows a much broader range of action against media than in the US – that this unduly inhibits the press.

But international organizations or editorialists who take an absolutist or anarchist position with regard to countries such as Ecuador should apply the same standards to the United States and other rich countries.  
For example, about two weeks before the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, the Sinclair Broadcast Group of Maryland, which owns the largest chain of TV stations in the U.S., decided to broadcast a film that was highly critical of candidate John Kerry. Nineteen Democratic senators sent a letter to the US Federal Communications Commission calling for an investigation, and some made public statements that Sinclair's broadcast license could be in jeopardy. Sinclair backed down and did not broadcast the film.
The reason that such actions are rare in the United States is that the media rarely breaks certain rules or even comes close. This is true even of Fox News, which is considered to be the most partisan of major U.S. media outlets. And it is difficult to think of any cases of U.S. media doing what Teleamazonas did – broadcasting false reports that appear to be intended to destabilize the government. It simply would not be tolerated in the United States.

Of course the standards of the U.S. media are a low bar for comparison. After all, this is a country where the major media – by simply repeating official statements without challenge – helped lead us into the Iraq war by convincing a majority of Americans that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. On the home front, our media has also convinced most Americans under 50 that they will never see their social security benefits – something that is about as likely as the end of all federal government authority in the United States. On the great issues of the day, the major U.S. media more often than not fail in their duty to inform the public.

But the comparison is still relevant. Some commentators in Ecuador have argued that the government’s proposed telecommunications law will lead not to actual censorship but to self-censorship. But watching the TV news and talk shows in Ecuador, there is far less self-censorship than in the United States. (Again, a low bar: for the most part, over the past eight years, you had to go outside the U.S. to see images of U.S. military or Afghan/Iraqi casualties in these foreign wars). Government officials, for example, are grilled more aggressively by host journalists than they are in the U.S.

My own view is that the best solutions will be found in the area of introducing more competition in the media. The proposed media law in Argentina provides for the broadcast spectrum to be divided equally among private, public, and community media outlets. It is possible that Ecuador will move in a similar direction. These changes are especially important in a region where internet coverage reaches perhaps a third of the population, and the vast majority of citizens get their news from broadcast media. As Michael J. Copps, a commissioner on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has emphasized, “"Using the public airwaves is a privilege -- a lucrative one -- not a right.” He has argued, in the New York Times and elsewhere, that the U.S. government should use its legal authority to deny the renewal of broadcast licenses to media outlets that do not honor their pledge to serve the public interest.

Until there is a more democratic media structure in Latin America, there will inevitably be conflicts between progressive governments and right-wing media outlets.  It is of course possible that governments will abuse their regulatory authority with respect to the media. So far, however, it has been overwhelmingly the other way around: major media outlets have abused their power and control over the means of communication in ways that undermine democracy.


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and has written numerous research papers on economic policy. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.