MAZI Articles

Why Uruguay? Proving That Media Reform Is Possible
by Silvio Waisbord

Recent events in Uruguay prove that media reform is possible when civil society promotes strategic coalitions and it links up with sympathetic government allies.  In the past two years, the country passed laws on community broadcasting, access to public information and national information archiving.  This past June, Uruguay's Chamber of Deputies passed a bill to reform its penal code and press law.  Silvio Waisbord, assistant professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, originally wrote this piece for the World Bank's blog, "People, Spaces, Deliberation."

Again, Uruguay shows that when civil society intelligently promotes coalition-building and finds sympathetic allies in government, media reform is possible. On June 10, the Congress passed a bill to reform the Penal Code and the Press Law. The new law will abolish libel laws and subject national legislation on communication issues to criteria enforced by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. The bill is likely to be approved by the Executive.

This achievement is another landmark of recent efforts towards media democracy in Uruguay. During the past two years, legislation on community broadcasting, access to public information and national archiving of information was approved. The passing of community broadcasting law in December 2007 represented a major success. The law assigns one-third of radio frequencies to community, non-profit stations. It defines community stations in terms of the nature of their goals (“social mission”) and ownership (“collective properties”) rather in terms of reach or geographical location. It stipulates the existence of the Consejo Honorario Asesor de Radiodifusión Comunitaria, a multi-sectoral committee with significant representation from civil society that oversees the bidding process and monitors the performance of stations to ensure that they meet social goals. The passing of the “freedom of information” law in October 2008, and the elimination of libel and contempt laws are other positive advances. This is encouraging if we consider that, like in the rest of the region, the dominant media system historically conformed with the norm of media policies in Latin America: state patrimonialism and collusion between governments and large business.

How should we explain these changes?

First, media movements were formed behind different policies. Civic groups not only jump-started civic dialogue around the issue and have long mobilized against official persecution of community stations. They have also maintained a central role throughout the process of consultation and debate in government that culminated in policy reforms. Associations representing community media, journalists, human rights, universities, unions, women groups, church, consumers, and business participated in discussions and conducted advocacy. Each coalition was headed by organisations with specific expertise and interests in the issues at stake, whether community radio, information access, and press laws. Organisations such as the World Association of Community Radio and the Uruguayan Press Association have been active for some time. As leading actors in the process, they sought to build consensus about common goals among civic associations in order to consolidate a broad base of support. The merit of coalition-building politics was to bring together actors with different strengths: technical specialists, legislative experts with links to key government officials and a myriad of groups that bolstered the legitimacy and broad support for the initiatives. 

Second, successful coalitions used a mix of advocacy and legal strategies. On the one hand, they used a rights-based discourse to frame demands for the legalisation of community media, and citizens’ access to official information. By broadening the justification for policy reforms, they were able not only to draw wide support, but also present issues as inalienable democratic entitlements. Rather than attacking market and individualist principles, they stressed the importance of understanding media policies as intrinsic to a democratic order. On the other hand, they used legal actions. For example, the Uruguayan Press Association and the Uruguayan Institute of Legal Studies denounced the government for violating Article 13 of the American Convention of Human Rights (freedom of thought and expression) at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in March 2007 in a case involving a journalist accused of defamation.

Third, the coming to power of the Frente Amplio (FA) in 2005 offered appropriate political opportunities for media movements to push for legal reforms. The FA, a loose coalition of leftist forces that emerged during the transition from the last military dictatorship, offered an alternative to the traditional two-party system in Uruguay. It not only won the presidency, but also held the majority in both chambers in Congress. After intense mobilisation during previous administrations, media movements seized the opportunity with the FA victory by contacting sympathetic members in Congress and the Presidency. Although many members of the FA were favourable to civic-minded reforms, the party lacked a clear operational plan to raise the issues and build support towards media reforms. Media movements played a pivotal role by educating key party members about the issues, drafting technical proposals, and building support across the FA. The FA supported civic proposals through various means such as introducing the bills, and presenting civic demands for media democracy as human rights in international forums. Despite the opposition of traditional parties, the “community media” and “freedom of information” bills passed with unanimous support from the FA.

Other promising initiatives are in the works. One issue is the transparent management of official advertising. Discretionary allocation of public funds in the hands of the Executive remains one of the biggest obstacles for media democracy in Latin America. Another promising initiative is current efforts to strengthen the role of civic actors and incorporate the new realities ushered in by technological changes in the current Broadcasting law.

The lessons from the Uruguayan experience are clear: “Media movements” are effective when they build broad coalitions, combine advocacy and legal actions and find receptive and powerful allies in government.

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