Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the OAS hears NGO’s concerns about media concentration

25 November 2015 / By Silvia Higuera, Journalism in the Americas Blog

At a conference in Bogotá, Colombia, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Edison Lanza, talked with representatives of various international organizations concerned with media concentration in the Americas.

The discussion, held during the international conference “Free and independent media in plural and diverse media systems,”was organized by the Special Rapporteur of the IACHR and UNESCO. The talk concentrated on the Special Rapporteur’s draft report on diversity, pluralism and media concentration in the hemisphere. As part of the report, the entity consulted civil society and members states of the OAS.

The presence of monopolies or oligopolies in the media has been a concern for the Special Rapporteur since its inception due to the negative impact on democracy, Lanza said during his presentation in Bogota.

n this regard, in addition to analyzing the current situation of each country in the hemisphere, the Rapporteur aims to create a series of Inter-American standards to enable both States and civil society to identify good regulations in this area.

“Regulation is not bad, per se, but if done with other interests, it is prohibited because it generates discrimination for political reasons,” Lanza said, recalling the recent decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights concerning RCTV in Venezuela.

Lanza said that in this decision the Court did not condemn the existence of a regulatory framework to ensure pluralism, but rather the fact it was used by a government to close a media outlet because it didn’t agree with its editorial line. He said it is for this reason that regulations to prevent media concentration can not become mechanisms of indirect censorship or discrimination.

So far, the Special Rapporteur has found two trends in Latin America and the Caribbean regarding media concentration: the existence of a few private groups in countries defined as large and diverse, and a preponderance of government-owned media in other countries that have hegemonized communication. In the latter countries, the media must choose between continuing with a mission of being critical of the governments or renounce it to ensure their existence.

In turn, Gustavo Gomez, of the NGO Observacom in Uruguay, stressed that it is important that the report refers to the concentration of media regardless of the technology used. For Gomez, discussions about media concentration focus on broadcast spectrum, but forget, for example, the concentration of print media, a problem that, according to him (*perfect), seems to exist in many countries in the region.

He also notes the discussion should include concentration in the digital environment, and should not forget the issue of conglomerates: those who own radio stations, television channels and print at the same time.

He added that they should address the issue of internal pluralism, meaning the obligations of the media to reflect a pluralistic and diverse society in their programs.

Finally, for Gomez, it is important to look at the relationship of the media with other powers. For example, with politicians like presidents and senators (those who define the laws), as well as banks, among others.

“We are considering the question of how to decentralize, that is the main problem of the region. We’re not talking about ideals, and which aspects a law should have, but, what are the political decisions that must be taken to avoid the processes of concentration that already exist in our countries. It’s not only the power of media, it is the economic power and political power which will resist any initiative that seeks to ensure plurality and diversity,” Gomez concluded.

Meanwhile, Darío Ramírez of Article 19’s office for Mexico and Central America, said the biggest concern of the issue is that the responsibility of promoting diversity and pluralism is in the hands of States, which, on my occasions, are the least interested in seeing it happen.

For Ramírez, the problem lies with a required, but nonexistent, political will, and the ability of governments to ‘buy’ the spaces they create.

He recalled the case of Mexico, where a third network has been requested for a long time. Now, when it finally exists, it maintains “the same editorial cut” of the other two, he said.

“And then they go to the Commission and say ‘we are opening, giving spaces, we have so many media,’ but in the end, the editorial line is purchased through government advertising,” Ramirez said. “I think that giving that ability and obligation to the State, to generate a reality of more voices, is a problem we have to try to solve because it is not working.”

According to Ramirez, the fact that the report realizes that the region has a tendency for concentration is a sign that something is being done wrong.

The Reporters Without Borders representative for the region, Emmanuel Colombié noted the lack of transparency due to the lack of public information about media owners throughout the hemisphere.

For Colombia, this was seen in Fecolper’s study about media concentration in Colombia where 57% of the audience for the radio, internet and press sectors are consulting media owned by just three business groups.

He added that the region is seeing a “more dangerous” concentration,” that of government-owned media According to RSF representative, in countries like Cuba, Honduras, Venezuela and Ecuador, governments own most of the media

“These countries also are the worst in Latin America for the freedom of expression and the most dangerous for journalists,” said Colombié. “Any kind of independent press is prohibited there and journalists are restricted to be vulgar social transmitters of their messages. To be a journalist outside of the official system is to be a hero. Trying to report news objectively is an obstacle course, you put your life in danger. ”

For his part, the representative of the International Association of Broadcasting (IAB), José Luis Sacá – who was the voice of the private media – said that they are against monopolies, but said media owners don’t believe in the existence of exclusive laws for media concentration regulation.

“When they closed RCTV, the excuse of the government was that this would allow democratization of radio and television media outlets, and the plurality of messages,” Saca said. “We see the dangers when they try to enact specific laws for the media.”

He referred to Inter-American Court on Human Right’s judgement on the need to ensure that this kind of regulation is not done to punish or reward an editorial line, for which it is necessary to have a regulator independent of the government.

For Sacá, countries should follow the example of other countries where general laws of market regulation have been used to prevent media concentration, like in the United States where an alliance between two large communication companies was dissolved following the laws of competition.

Undoubtedly, this was precisely the point of greatest debate among conference attendees: whether or not it is necessary to have exclusive laws to regulate the media.

Principle 12 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the IACHR states that these regulations should not be exclusive to the media.

However, not everyone shares that idea. For some people, the media can not be treated like any other sector of the market precisely because they have in their hands a human right guaranteeing other human rights such as freedom of expression. However, those opposing this idea argue that since States could use these laws to attack critical media.

The debate is far from over, but at least it is occurring.

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