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Media, Freedom and Poverty: A Latin American Perspective by Alfonso Gumucio

When did we in Latin America lose our trust in mass media?

I cannot even remember, but it was at least two decades ago, when my generation started to work in a thousand and one projects of alternative media to combat the hegemonic state-owned or private mass media. We were known as radical activists who opposed the increasing power of mainstream newspapers, television and radio stations. Many looked at us with scepticism, either because we were underdeveloped Quixotes fighting against the powerful windmills of media conglomerates, or because our language was black and white: We were convinced that economic and political interests dominated media houses and everything that was printed.

Well, it seems we were not that far from the truth. Now everyone seems to agree that mainstream media is far from representing the genuine voices of people. They increasingly represent the power of money. Media conglomerates grow bigger by the day, while alternative options are crushed with legal arguments. It has taken many years for emblematic intellectuals, such as Ignacio Ramonet, to acknowledge that the so-called "fourth power" is colluding with economic and political interests and to suggest that we need to build from scratch a "fifth power" that will genuinely represent people.

Landscape of the Media in Latin America

Much has changed in Latin American mass media in the past 25 years. These changes are parallel to political and social changes that brought back democracy to most of our countries, after two decades of military dictatorships and authoritarian governments.
During the "60s and "70s, the public media was used by governments to propagandise their policies and political views. Although independent radio and daily journals existed, they were often punished with censorship and political pressures. In most countries, independent television came to life only after 1980, in a process similar to that of European television. Hundreds of television channels were created in countries where the size of the audience didn't justify the explosion.

With a couple of decades of retrospective, it is not very certain that the privatisation of mass media has resulted in any positive changes for society. Globalisation has created more dependency, and it has contributed to the annihilation of independent media that existed even under the difficult circumstances of military dictatorships.

My own country, Bolivia, is a good example. This is the country that witnessed the birth of the first network of miners' radio stations, famous because of their three decades of struggle for democracy and freedom of expression. It is also the country that allowed the creation of university television channels aimed at the general population, at a time where the only authorised television station was state-owned. With the liberalisation of the economy and the distribution of private licences for new television stations, the university TV channels declined and disappeared.

The miners' radio stations lost political influence when liberal economic policies forced the government to shut down the state-owned mining sector. It took many years to pass legislation that would protect community-based participatory media, and globalisation destroyed such efforts in a few months: The privatisation of airwaves has deprived our citizens of a natural collective patrimony, now enjoyed exclusively by a small number of rich owners of media conglomerates.

In countries such as Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, media conglomerates have grown so powerful that they now extend their tentacles across geographic borders. Televisa owns networks in the United States, and its influence is enormous in Latin America.

In spite of language constraints, Brazilian multimedia conglomerate O Globo is also one of the most influential, with more than 100 television channels, journals and radio stations. Grupo Clarin in Argentina, Grupo Cisneros in Venezuela and Corporacin Caracol in Colombia are all conglomerates of journals, television and radio stations and they also own supermarkets, hotels, construction businesses and other investments with strong influence in shaping the politics of each country. The popular monopoly of the 1970s has swept the continent. The only difference is that instead of hotels, the concentration of economic power is focused on media, because media, the former "fourth power," truly serves both political and economic ambitions.

There was a time when the region fought to have its own voice. In 1980, support came from UNESCO's famous Many Voices, One World: The MacBride Report, which denounced the lack of balance in media between the so-called "first" world and media from the "third" world. The unbalanced equation was so clearly affecting development and social change in developing nations that the report became a strong political statement against neo-colonialism. Latin America created its own news agency, ALASEI, which was only short-lived after funding dried up as accusations of being an instrument of "communist" governments increased. With the exception of the International Press Service and a few national agencies, such as Notimex and Prensa Latina, the region is back to old times, in which the Associated Press dominates nearly 70 percent of all news in circulation.

The higher concentration of media houses in fewer hands has resulted in a loss of diversity and quality of programming. Television, in particular, has become the most standardised media in the region. The same soap operas, the same news and the same entertainment are found in country after country. It is almost impossible to find a thread of Latin American identity in Latin American television, or, ironically, in soap operas. The choice of programming might slightly more diverse in two or three countries in the region, but the general pattern is depressing: We are all looking at the same screen, and it is not our own screen.

Latin American reality is either absent or seen through the eyes of the Spanish version of CNN. Cable television is everywhere in the cities, and it is accessible to those who can pay for it, not for the majority of people who live on only $2 a day. The choice is far from being the variety of "500 stations" that were promised to everyone a couple of decades ago. Today, only an average of 50 channels are offered in a regular cable package, and these are the same channels available from the south of Argentina to the north of Mexico.

Given this lack of diversity and the excess of misrepresentation, one tends to regret the absence of the much-maligned privatised old state media, which at least had a sense of mission and a vision of national interests. Local programming on social issues has disappeared from private television, leaving room for all kinds of low level programs and bad taste entertainment that sells well. Our region's mass media is only a poor reflection of the worst commercial media in the United States.

We cannot even establish how "national" is national media in most countries of the region, because the privatisation process has brought bigger commercial interests, even from other regions, as key players. A Mexican living in Miami owns four out of five television channels in Guatemala. Political interests have been weighing heavily on editorial policies of major printed and electronic media. We now know for certain that El Mercurio, the major Chilean newspaper, received funds from the CIA to support Pinochet's military coup against Allende. That was long time ago, but the information has been recently declassified. The plot of Venezuelan private television channels and daily journals against President Chavez has been also openly acknowledged; actually even The New York Times published an editorial in celebration of the coup, which failed after a few hours.

Media corporations have lost credibility because of their direct intervention in politics. People are tired of seeing the mass media's self-appointment as the supreme judge of society. Political and commercial power walk hand-in-hand in Latin America, as they do in any other region. The very few independent voices"mainly through printed media and community radio"struggle to keep a few paths open, but they often succumb to pressures and even violent attacks from those with economic and political power. For example, the assassination of well-known journalist Carlos Guadamuz in Nicaragua is emblematic of many other journalists who risk their lives every day. In Guatemala, 80 community radio stations, mostly located in poor Mayan villages, have been declared "illegal." The pressure is not as strong from the government as it is from the private radio owners, who have been running, several times a day, ads urging the government to take action against "pirate" radio stations.

Mass Media Content Deficit

Mainstream media fail to represent the social, economic and cultural challenges of Latin America. Devoted to entertainment and manipulation of political information, mass media are not promoting dialogue, understanding, peace or any other attitude that helps society cope with the issues of rising poverty and marginalisation. The logic of profit prevents any commitment of mainstream media to society. When issues of freedom of expression are debated, corporate freedom is promoted, not the freedom of expression of people or of journalists.

Journalists in the mainstream media have never before faced such an environment. Many end up playing the game of corporate interests and manage their profession as any other business. Those who want to act according to professional ethics have a hard time, unable to research and write on topics that may not please their bosses. For young reporters, the challenges facing them and their readers or listeners are enormous: Having personal integrity has become a synonym for being a "troublemaker."

In terms of content, mainstream media are urban-centred and have turned their back on people living in rural areas, where still half of most Latin Americans live. Development issues rank far behind all the other best-selling topics: sports, crime, sex scandals and politics. That is why in rural and marginalised urban areas communities struggle to create the means to make their own voices heard.

The classic checklist for a beginner journalist is irrelevant in a context where the real "Ws" are:

Who owns the media?
What agenda dominates the information flow?
Where does the actual power of decision-making reside?
When are journalists able to report freely?
Why should people support mainstream media that doesn't support people?

A journalist is no longer a Quixote with a typewriter. He or she is now trapped in the spider-web of censorship and self-censorship. Every day, journalists face a difficult choice between personal ethics and corporate agendas.

The anti-government wave that facilitated the neo-liberal privatisation strategy has left national states powerless. Private commercial media avoid any regulation and get away with it, no longer concerned about the phantom of the New World Information and Communication Order that tried to limit its political influence and provide more power to the people. "The best media policy is no policy at all," say the powerful media owners.

A Communication System For The People

Building an alternative communication system to serve all of society, and not only the powerful, is the task ahead. There is much to learn from the rich experience of alternative media and community-based communication, because that has been the only outlet for true freedom of expression for decades.

Latin America has a wealth of experiences that started in the late 1940s with the first community radio stations in Colombia and Bolivia. During the 1980s the network of miners' radio stations had become so essential to the information and communication landscape that people would turn to these stations in times of political crisis, as they were more trusted than commercial or government media. It is no surprise that during military coups the miners' radio stations were considered an important tactic and were often attacked and destroyed. It is important to learn from these experiences that grew from the people, mostly without any external influence.

Any new communication system that really seeks to re-establish diversity and plurality in mass media should articulate important dichotomies, such as diffusion/reception, public/private, impersonal/interpersonal, content/infrastructure, access/ownership, local/national, urban/rural, collective social justice/individual freedom of expression; categories developed by Jos Luis Exeni.

There are some indicators that are leading the way towards the construction of a "fifth power." However, if the concept is to reproduce the same vertical structures, there is a great risk of creating another power that will end up associated with political and economic interests.

We need a new communication paradigm in the region, which will learn from the new growing social movements and will be followed closely by the emerging citizens' watch organisations. The Veeduria Ciudadana, in Peru, is one example on how organised people can keep an eye on mainstream media.

Universities should stop producing journalists and start producing communicators; professionals with a strategic view of communication, not students fixated only on mass media. We need communicators who can work in development programmes and not just as peons of private media conglomerates or image sellers in commercial or political outlets.

We have some 600 faculties or departments of "social communication" in Latin America, but 99 percent are just the old journalist schools with fancy new names. The content of the studies has not changed at all for the past 30 years, except for such additions as "marketing," "public and corporate relations" or "new technologies." There are no more than 10 academic programmes in Latin America that prepare their students to be true communicators.

However, social changes need an enabling environment if they are to happen. It is time once again to place at the top of our agenda the debate on public communication policies that private commercial media do not want to hear about.

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