By John Dinges
Establishment news media and government are on a collision course in a number of Latin American countries. At the heart of the conflict is government rejection of the classic role of an ideologically diverse press as a check on government power and as a forum of citizen deliberation. The media, in response, charge that government actions constitute violations of international free press guarantees. But that defense has been ineffective and has not resonated at the popular level. All of the governments involved are democratically elected, and most espouse left-of-center programs of progressive reform aimed to benefit the poorest sectors and address other forms of inequality.
The most severe conflicts are in Venezuela and Ecuador, where aggressive government use of laws and lawsuits has dramatically diminished the influence of independent television and newspaper organizations. The once strident news media, not unfairly characterized as the de-facto opposition, have been cowed, and are cowering. At the same time, governments are embarking on the redistribution of the broadcast spectrum to favor community and state-owned (“public”) channels. The Morales government in Bolivia has achieved the upper hand over the media as it builds its own media network. The Kirchner government of Argentina is fighting a legal battle –with mixed success – to cripple the media empire of Grupo Clarín, the owner of the largest newspaper in Latin America and the largest cable network. The conservative governments of Honduras and Panama are also on the freedom of expression watch list, indicating that the phenomenon is not purely a matter of ideology.
The polarization and growing government dominance represents a serious problem for democracy in these countries. For all the harsh rhetoric on both sides, however, the overall threat to freedom of expression (measured in censorship, direct control of media and imprisonment of journalists) is far less than was the case during the rightist military governments of previous decades. Still, it would be a mistake to limit our promotion of healthy democracy to the defense of the traditional “legacy” media institutions in these countries. Government leaders, especially Presidents Correa of Ecuador and Kirchner of Argentina, have used (some would say misused) democratic arguments in criticizing the traditional media. They charge that the concentration of media in the hands of the private sector (with ownership participation of banks in the case of Ecuador) is itself a violation of democracy, and that they are trying to “democratize” the media by delivering increased access to citizens in the form of public and community media. Not surprisingly, these new media creations are beholden to the government and lack political independence. But they are not going away. In an effort to defuse the tension, institutions such as the Carter Center and others have developed an alternative conflict resolution approach that is quietly garnering support. The idea is to promote an honest dialogue between governments and wide sectors of the media. It would create a process to explore the substance of government positions as well as investigate alleged abuses. To this end, the Carter Center organized meetings earlier this year in Ecuador and Bolivia, and a conference was held at Columbia University’s School of Journalism this month bringing together leaders of government, media institutions and international organizations to debate media regulation and press standards as a platform to reconstitute consensus about media in democratic societies.