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Diversity of voices and the right to information in Latin America
Damián Loreti and Luis Lozano
A regional challenge is to set regulatory standards to enhance public debate.
The majority of Latin American countries are faced with profound inequality in terms of access to the media. This situation means some sectors of society may not have their voices heard in an equitable manner and calls for measures to counter the concentration of media sources, prevent the solidification of new dominant positions and foster the emergence of new actors in mass communications.
This does not in any way imply a complete departure from the traditional agenda of monitoring and denouncing any form of direct or indirect restriction that the powers of the state may impose —and in fact still do in many of the region’s countries— to limit the exercise of one’s right to information.
In many cases, it is necessary to revise legislation that is of an authoritarian nature and in opposition to the principles of human rights, a “relic” of military dictatorships of the 1970s and ’80s. It is worth examining the situation in some of the countries where new developments have recently taken place.
In Argentina, the National Congress passed the Audiovisual Communication Services Act in October 2009 to replace the guidelines enacted by the country’s late military dictatorship in 1980. This new regulation is founded on international human rights standards and promotes pluralism and diversity. Features of the Act include the allocation of one third of the frequency spectrum to non-commercial radio stations and restrictions on the concentration of ownership. In the same year, Congress also decriminalized expression on topics of public interest. Both reforms constitute an unprecedented advance in the area of freedom of expression in the country’s history. Nevertheless, the successful implementation of the new guidelines on audiovisual communications will require politicians to overcome hurdles and resist pressure from multimedia groups to make effective democratization possible.
In Bolivia, the national constitution —which came into force in 2009— prohibits the formation of media monopolies and oligopolies. It further stipulates that the media must help disseminate the range of views inherent in a pluricultural state, and includes a “conscience clause” pertaining to journalists and communications workers. Looking ahead, the next challenge will be to develop specific standards that render these constitutional requirements operational.
In Brazil, the constitution also prohibits monopolies and oligopolies as well as the entry of foreign capital into the media market. Added to these stipulations are more specific regulations such as the General Telecommunications Act, the community radio regulation and the “Lei do Cabo” (for pay TV). Nonetheless, non-commercial radio stations face discrimination, and more than 7,000 individuals are currently involved in court cases for crimes related to exercising their freedom of expression. The government has announced changes to the regulation. It is also hoped that the November 2010 judgment in the Gomes Lund case —in which the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered that those responsible for crimes against humanity be tried and that effective measures be taken to guarantee the right to the truth concerning past events— will help accelerate the process of sanctioning a law governing access to public information.
In Chile, the Radio Broadcasting Act was passed in 1989 under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. While the entry of foreign capital may be banned, the Spanish media conglomerate PRISA owns more than 10 major radio stations nationwide. In addition, recent regulations are reinforcing the historic discrimination faced by community radio stations, which are prosecuted and obligated to hand over their equipment. Non-commercial radio stations may only transmit on the FM band, at extreme ends of the spectrum and using a weak signal. Meanwhile, the country’s predominant media outlet, Televisión Nacional, obtains funding through advertisement revenue, thus making its modus operandi similar to that of commercial radio stations. Another important public media source, the newspaper La Nación, was closed upon orders from the executive branch in 2010.
In Ecuador, private media companies have been voicing their opposition to all democracy-oriented initiatives since President Rafael Correa took office. This dispute was evident at the end of September 2010 when the national police led an attempted coup that was supported by the major print and audiovisual media actors. Currently, Ecuador’s Congress is debating a new communications bill that would also include community radio stations, strengthen the public media system and limit concentration. It is hoped that this debate will lead to the creation of a legal framework that would widen the diversity of voices and the pluralism of information, given a context that still presents significant inequalities in access to public debate.
In Uruguay, the Radio Broadcasting Act of 1967 includes provisions that are incompatible with international human rights standards. Throughout 2010, a fruitful public debate resulted in the drafting of a new bill; however, President José Mujica rejected the proposition, thereby passing up an opportunity to make progress in democratic regulations. Notwithstanding, in 2007 Parliament passed a law that recognizes the rights of community radio stations and guarantees non-discrimination, and in 2008 non-compliance and libel figures were released.
In Venezuela, the constitution recognizes the right of all individuals to receive and disseminate information and opinions, and the right to correction of inaccurate information. The Social Responsibility in Radio and Television Act of 2004 and its December 2010 amendment incorporating electronic media are founded on these provisions; it sets out harsh penalties based on assumptions that can be considered ambiguous. The Act also establishes administrative censorship mechanisms within the framework of sanctioning processes that are in opposition to those set out by the American Convention of Human Rights.
The goal of the Inter-American Human Rights System is to ensure the right of citizens to access the greatest diversity of information possible under protection both from government intervention and from economic interests that influence companies in the sector. From this perspective, Latin American countries face the common challenge of setting regulatory standards to enhance public debate and thereby consolidate democratic systems.
Damián Loreti (email@example.com), lawyer and doctor of information sciences, is a professor and researcher at several universities in Argentina and was the former Vice-dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires. Luis Lozano (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor and researcher at the University of Buenos Aires and is Director of Communications at the Center for Legal and Social Studies.