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Government control over Media in Latin America December 1, 2008

Posted by emmanuelneisa in Uncategorized.
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By Emmanuel Neisa

In September, Alvaro Vargas Llosa, the son of the well known Peruvian writer, released Consecuencias, a four parts documentary about Latin America today. Through its four episodes – Autoritarismo, Populismo, Indigenismo, Dictadura-, the documentary explores the key events that marked Latin American history and that still influence it nowadays. The broadcasting rights were bought by National Geographic for Latin America but Venezuela’s government banned the part dealing with Chavez and Populism. This is not really surprising of a country where in 2004 the controversial RESORTE law (Law for the Social Responsibility of Radio & Television) was voted and where the broadcast license of Radio Caracas TV  -that was operating for 20 years- was denied a renewal, because it was accused of plotting against the Government.

Venezuela seems to be the only part in Latin America where the medias are controlled in such a strict way. In fact, since the end of dictatorships in the 80’s and with the democratization of the subcontinent, the media gained in autonomy and in some countries became extremely critical against governments, specially on issues related to corruption.

However, it would be ingenious to think that governments throughout Latin America have stopped controlling the media. A recent study realized by the Argentinian Association for Civil Rights and the Open Society-Justice Initiative explains what are the new mechanisms by which they continue to interfere. This not only raises the issue of the freedom of expression in Latin America, but also questions the real state of its democratization process, and opens the debate on how the continent will deal with these new threats. Even if this study focus on Latin America, its conclusions can be true for many realities.


Government advertising as a way to award favorable newspapers

With a stronger public opinion and civil society, Latin American governments began to use more sophisticated ways to control the information transmitted by the media. It is well known that one of the limits of media’s freedom of expression is when they hurt the sensibility of the advertising announcers that are financing them. In several countries throughout the subcontinent, government advertising is essential for the financial sustainability of the media industry, especially local radios and newspapers. It is then very easy for government officials to use the carrot-and-stick method to reward the medias that are in tune with their politics, and penalize the critical ones. For example, in 1997, La Nación, the most-read daily Costa Rican newspaper was “punished” with the withdrawal of government advertising for its editorials against the free trade agreement that was being negotiated with the United States. Similar practices took place in Argentina’s Neuquén province with the Rio Negro newspaper, and in other countries of the region as Colombia and Peru.

Local newspapers and underpaid journalists are easy preys

Local and regional newspapers are usually more dependent on government advertising, and are easier preys for governments. In fact, the media concentration that has been taking place on the last years is weakening small medias, mostly newspapers. Large media corporations are less dependent on advertising than small radios or newspapers and are on that way more independent from governments, even if  it  is clear that large companies can  (and do!) also exercise a pressure on them.

On another hand, the precarious economic situation of most of the journalists in Latin America also turns them into easy preys for governments. In fact, many of them do not even have contracts and live as freelancers, selling their work to whoever pays for it. In this context, journalists are being corrupted by government agents in exchange of favorable coverage of governments activities or in some times, to avoid reporting about a certain issue. The study pointed that in countries like Honduras and Costa Rica, journalists even have long-terms contracts with government officials. It is also true that the context is not favorable for the journalists´ economic stability as Internet is challenging newspaper’s business model worldwide, obliging a cut of their running costs and directly affecting them.

Governmental communication as a propaganda tool

All the money spent in government communications comes obviously from the taxpayers. But it doesn’t seem problematic for some public officers to use that money to promote themselves and their achievements, or to keep a good image in crisis times. In many other countries, government officers buy advertising space in newspapers to promote their achievements, sometimes even showing their picture; a typical populist practice. When there are elections coming, politicians also use public money to campaign. This propaganda sometimes took incredible dimensions like in Honduras, where in 2005 -an election year- the president’s office advertising budget was 30 times higher tan in 2006.

But other countries -even developped ones- are facing similar situations. In fact, in July 2008, the French Government announced an enormous increase of 290% of its communication budget, from 5,7 millions of euros in 2007/08 to more than 22 million in 2008/09. With the impact of the financial crisis that is expected to last at least for the next year and the consequent impossibility of Sarkozy’s government to solve the purchasing power problem of French people -that is the main issue in the country-, communicating seems to be the solution to calm down the growing pressure and maintain the government’s image. In fact, one of the most-costly campaigns ever made by a French government was released on the purchasing power issue and many more will come on the next months.

Need for regulation and transparency

It is a fact that governments have to communicate with their citizens and that campaigns about public issues like health, driver safety and such as are necessary. On another hand, in many countries, laws oblige governments to communicate about public biddings on different medias to allow fair competition and avoid corruption. Then, the question is how to regulate the government’s communication expenses?

Many solutions limiting the interference of governments on the press freedom have to be taken: Defining what is exactly the role of government advertising and what can governments communicate on are, without any doubt, the first steps to tackle this soft censorship. Other solutions have been taken in other countries and can improve transparency on government advertising expeditures are to forbid government officials from appearing in advertising payed with public funds, to create agencies that control government advertising outlays and force governments to explain why is one media chosen over another to communicate.

The democratic process that has been taking place in Latin America has empowered sectors of the society that were neglected before and media’s have -more or less depending on the countries- channelled new opinions and challenged instaured governments. In fact, the media capacity of raising the right issues and criticize the authorities is one of the principal attributes of a mature democracy.

We many times take for granted the democratic process that has been taking place in Latin America -and in other places-, forgetting that it might be more fragile than what we think. In fact, democracy has to be built on day after day and freedom of expression is for example far from being a reality. Today, the control mechanisms are much more sophisticated and difficult to target than before and a constant monitoring of civil society organizations as well as effective regulations are needed to preserve what has been built until now. This is not only true for Latin America; in countries like France these issues are still being debated and with more intensity on the last years with the president’s close relationships with media leaders.




1. David Diaz Bejarano - March 16, 2009

L’Amérique du Sud particulièrement souffre d’un malaise dans sa presse: il est difficile de trouver dans les pays en question des positions critiques des politiques en place dans les médias de masse. (Télevision, radio, même internet)

Ainsi pour s’informer de la situation humanitaire en Colombie, vaut mieux aller chercher des infos dans des médias américains (http://www.cipcol.org ) ou européens qui vont accorder une analyse plus neutre et riche des événements.

Le même phénomene se produit en Amérique Centrale ou les médias sont pratiquement acquis aux groupes économiques qui d’emblée voient avec un certain dédain tous les partis politiques issus des guerres civiles à l’aune du FMLN au Salvador.

2. Erick Monterrosas - June 17, 2009

tambièn hay que hablar del control extrajudicial del gobierno sobre los medios…te mando la pàg de un proyecto para Mèxico y Centroamèrica sobre la violencia hacia periodistas donde muchas veces estàn involucrados actores estatales.


3. Quincy - March 22, 2013

Hello! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone 3gs! Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the superb work!

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