OXFORD, Ohio — A recent Freedom House publication revealed that less than 2 percent of people living in Latin America have access to free media. This data begs the question, what kind of media are the other 98 percent watching, reading and hearing?
The importance of free Latin American media is clear. Democracy cannot thrive if a multitude of views cannot freely circulate throughout a nation. Constructive dialogue is a precursor to a more inclusive and just society.
Yet, according to the Freedom House survey, only four of Hispanic-speaking America’s 20 countries — Costa Rica, Belize, Uruguay and Guyana — can claim to have free media. Most of the region is considered “partly free,” while Cuba, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela received a “not free” rating. The current numbers reveal that Latin American media has slumped to a five-year low regarding freedom of the press.
The state of media in Brazil offers a view into the kinds of problems facing the region’s communications industry as a whole. According to one investigation, 90 percent of the Brazilian media market is owned by just 14 families. The Brazilian communications sector and the political sphere are intimately connected as well, with media bosses occupying one-third of the seats in Congress.
Many Latin American leaders are struggling to find a balance between government regulation of the media and private ownership of media outlets. Former President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, tried to push a bill through Congress in 2010 that would disperse media ownership and increase regulation within the sector. The bill died within a year, but it brought the debate over state regulation of media to the forefront of Brazilian politics.
In the same vein, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina recently succeeded in passing an anti-monopoly bill. The 2009 law, deemed legal by the Supreme Court in 2013, requires that the giant media conglomerate Clarín sell its various licenses. The firm, known for throwing heavy criticism at Kirchner’s economic policies, has been consistently called out by the government for restricting pluralism within the nation’s media sector.
Stakeholders in the media industry are finding it difficult to extricate free expression from free enterprise. Some parties hold that government regulation of privately-held media companies is in clear violation of the freedom of speech. Yet others fear that the pseudo-monopolies driving the course of media in Latin America pose an even greater threat to free speech and democracy.
The battle today is not so much about content, but about ownership. It is about allowing for greater pluralism in the communications sector. Yet for some political leaders it may also be about silencing anti-government voices.
In an analysis of press freedom, the journalists themselves are a key element — the reporters that venture into unstable regions, uncover buried stories and investigate gripping leads. Organized crime, especially in Brazil and Mexico, shows little mercy to journalists who are caught in the middle of violence. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa muzzles critical journalists with criminal libel laws. Cuba and Venezuela are the least welcoming of the oppositional voices, according to the Freedom House survey. Arrests, network blocking and website hacking are not uncommon for journalists operating in these areas.
If free media is defined as local and independent, it cannot be overwhelmingly controlled by immense conglomerates that are susceptible to publishing unverified, libelous reports. Nor can it be subject to laws that are selectively applied to silence oppositional voices.
Latin American media has a long way to go concerning freedom of the press. In order to progress it needs leaders in both government and business that will promote pluralism, honesty and integrity.