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Thu Feb 7, 2013, 09:27 PM

South America: A Panorama of Media Democratization

South America: A Panorama of Media Democratization

By ALEXANDRA HALL - NACLA, February 1st 2013

Media in Latin America have traditionally been consolidated into the hands of a few wealthy families and large media conglomerates. Over the last decade and a half, however, several governments in the region, including Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, and Uruguay, have moved to democratize media. These governments have redefined the concept of communication from a commodity to a people’s right. They have moved to redistribute the airwaves, prioritizing local community stations and passing laws to prevent the discrimination of marginalized groups in broadcasted content. These steps have not been without controversy.

Although grassroots movements and community activists applaud them, organizations such as the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch have labeled them a threat to press freedom in the hemisphere**. Below is a short panorama of the most groundbreaking or controversial media-democratization steps in Latin America over the past 15 years, and some of the responses from local actors.


In 2000, Venezuelan lawmakers reformed the country’s Organic Telecommunications Law in order to guarantee access to communication as a human right and establish three types of media: private, state and community.1 In 2002, manipulated television footage from mainstream Venezuelan channels was used to justify a short-lived coup d’etat against President Hugo Chávez. After Chávez returned to power, the government began providing support for community media produced in Venezuela’s poor barrios by authorizing the legal operation of 30 community TV and radio broadcasters.2

In 2004, the National Assembly passed Venezuela’s most controversial media regulation, the Social Responsibility in Television and Radio Law (Ley Resorte), which prohibits outlets from airing content that incites hatred, intolerance, racism, criminal activity; disturbs public order; discredits elected authorities; or incites disrespect for laws. Three years later, Venezuela’s National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) chose not to renew RCTV’s concession in response to the channel’s open support for the 2002 coup. The nonrenewal withdrew RCTV’s right to air content on public airwaves, but the station continues to operate on cable and satellite TV. A new public-access network, TVes, began to broadcast in RCTV’s place.3 In 2009, CONATEL announced the closure of 32 private radio and TV stations whose licenses had expired, which had violated regulations, or were reluctant to pay mandatory fees. The concessions were reassigned to community media. In late 2010, the National Assembly reformed the Ley Resorte to expand its scope to the Internet.4

The spectrum of Venezuela’s airwaves has changed dramatically as a result of these policies enacted over the past 14 years. While in 1998, the broadcast spectrum included 331 commercial and 11 public access FM stations, in addition to 36 private and eight public television broadcasters, by April 2012 there were 499 private, 83 public access, and 247 community radio stations, as well as 67 commercial, 13 public service, and 38 community television concessions.5

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and mainstream U.S. human rights organization, like Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, typically ally with Venezuela’s opposition commercial media, which have condemned the Chávez administration’s media policies.6 They criticize community media for being clients of the state that merely reproduce government ideology.7 Venezuelan grassroots media producers deny these claims and stress that dramatic improvements have taken place in media inclusion since the government began offering concessions and subsidizing telecommunications projects for community media.


In 2007, Uruguay’s General Assembly passed the Law for Community Broadcasting, formally recognizing community TV as a sector of the nation’s airwaves. Beforehand, community, alternative, and nonprofit media, including university TV and radio stations, were considered to be operating illegally. By the end of the first year of the law’s implementation, 38 community radio stations had been recognized by the Uruguayan government. Four years later, over 100 are in operation. With the recent digitization of TV, the government predicts that dozens more will be created over the next year.8

According to former National Telecommunications director Gustavo Gómez, economic interests have firmly resisted the changes in regulation and diversification of content, but by inviting media owners to participate in the elaboration of this law it has helped to avoid polarization.


In 2009, Argentina’s congress passed the Audiovisual Communications Services Law to change the unequal concentration of media ownership by redistributing broadcasting licenses among three sectors: 33% private, 33% public, and 33% nonprofit. The law limits the number of concessions any broadcaster may hold to 10 and establishes that concessions be renewed every 10 years instead of 20 so that licenses are recycled more frequently and smaller outlets have more opportunities to compete.

Shortly after its passage, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion praised the law as “a stride forward in Latin America against the increasing concentration of media.”9 However, according the director of Argentina’s Radio Production Center, Francisco Godinez Galay, media ownership has yet to be significantly adjusted. The law has garnered strong opposition, particularly from Grupo Clarín, Argentina’s largest media conglomerate. Grupo Clarín is particularly critical of article 161, which the company fears could force it to break its monopoly, decreasing the company’s concessions to just 10 in one year.10 Grupo Clarín supporters also argue that the law is a pretext to unfairly target media companies critical of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government. The Coalition for Democratic Broadcasting, a group composed of hundreds of grassroots organizations and independent media producers, prepared 21 points for the law, many of which were included in the final legislation. Nevertheless, independent-media groups like the National Alternative Media Network believe the classification of “nonprofit media” hinders the participation of some local and community broadcasters because they have to compete with powerful religious associations and unions for concessions.


In 2009, 61% of Bolivian voters approved the Bolivian Constitution, which states that “media are forbidden from directly or indirectly forming monopolies or oligopolies.”11 The following year, Congress passed the Law Against Racism and Any Form of Discrimination, which reformed the penal code to ban media from promoting racist or discriminatory ideas. Private media networks in Bolivia labeled it the “muzzle law,” warning that it could be used as a pretext to target those media that oppose the presidency. 12

In 2011, Bolivia’s National Congress passed the General Telecommunication, Information and Communication Technologies Law, which is modeled after legislation in Argentina and Ecuador, except that 17% of broadcasting licenses are reserved for indigenous, peasant, or rural organizations and 17% for urban civil society organizations. Private media criticize that proportional redistribution of concessions will decrease the number of licenses held by current media owners. Nevertheless, Eduardo Rojas, executive director of the Redes Foundation for Sustainable Development, an organization that helped to write the new telecommunications regulations, says that the digitization of TV and radio is expected to expand the number of broadcasting frequencies fourfold and that the expansion of public and community media in peripheral regions won’t affect private media concessions, which concentrate in the country’s metropolitan centers.


Ecuador’s Organic Communications Law has been in a congressional stalemate for two years. Like the laws in Argentina and Bolivia, it would redistribute the broadcasting frequencies into three equal sectors: 33% private, 33% public, and 34% community. According to José Ignacio López Vigil of the community radio organization Radialistas Apasionadas y Apasionados, while Ecuador’s 2008 constitution officially recognizes community media, they hold almost no concessions. If passed, the law would require regional and national broadcasters to air 40% nationally produced content and 10% independent programming. Fifty percent of on-air music would be required to be nationally produced. According to López Vigil, broadcast-license holders would be limited to one television station and one FM and one AM radio frequency. Advertising that targets children and adolescents as well as any discriminatory or hate-inciting homophobic, sexist, or racist content could be legally processed under the law. At present, 71% of radio and 85% of TV is private in Ecuador.13

Alexandra Hall is a graduate of Columbia University’s Institute of Latin American Studies. She is a Producer and Co-host of NACLA Radio.

1. Arturo Rosales and Les Blough, “Opposition Media Dogs Salivate Over Venezuela’s New Cable TV Law,” Axis of Logic, June 12, 2009, available at axisoflogic.com.

2. Gregory Wilpert, “Community Media in Venezuela,” Venezuelanalysis.com, November 14, 2003.

3. Gregory Wilpert, “Supreme Court Allows RCTV Case to Proceed, but Station Must Go off Air,” Venezuelanalysis.com, May 24, 2007.

4. Tamara Pearson, “Reformed Media Law to Increase Venezuelan Content in Television and Radio,” Venezuelanalysis.com, December 16, 2010.

5. Luis Britto Garcia, “En Venezuela los medios de comunicación crecen y se expresan sin cortapisas,” Correo del Orinoco, April 8, 2012.

6. Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2012: Venezuela”; see Media.

7. Naomi Schiller, “Catia Sees You: Community Television, Clientilism and the State in the Chávez Era,” in David Smilde and Daniel Hellinger, eds.,Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture Under Chávez (Duke University Press, 2011).

8. Gabriel Kaplún, “La nueva ley de Radiodifusión Comunitaria en Uruguay: el largo camino de la democratización de las comunicaciones,” Universidad de la República –Uruguay, available at UNESCO.org.

9. Marcela Valente, “ARGENTINA: Opposition, Media Giants to Fight New Law,” Inter Press Service, October 12, 2009.

10. Francisco Gondinez Galay, “Sobre el famoso artículo 161 de la ley de medios,” Centro de Producciones Radiofónicas, May 24, 2012.

11. Article 107, III, Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia.

12. Paulo Cuiza, “Gobierno denuncia ante la fiscalía a los medios ANF, Página Siete y el Diario,” La Razón Digital (La Paz), August 24, 2012.

13. EFE, “Suspenden votación de ley de comunicación en Ecuador,” July 19, 2012.

For more on this subject see Democratizing the Media: An Interview with Carlos Ciappina (LINK).

(my emphasis)
This work is licensed under a Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives Creative Commons license


**"...a threat to press freedom in the hemisphere." ???!

Frankly, my first reaction to these CIA (corporate) media propagandists, about the "threat" of wider participation in broadcasting, public use of the PUBLIC airwaves, community broadcasting and bans on media monopolies, and other "Fairness Doctrine" principles (that we once had here) was...

I've just seen too much bullshit from Inter American Press Association (IAPA), the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch. It makes me laugh.

It's a serious matter, of course, when the CIA and multi-billionaires acquire the power to define "press freedom." They really, really, really DON'T MEAN "press freedom." They mean CORPORATE freedom to shut all other voices out--and, as mentioned above, as to RCTV in Venezuela, they mean the 'right' of corporate media monopolists to violently overthrow the elected government and the rule of law. That's what they want. Corporations install the government, in their own interest, and inflict Corporate Propaganda on all stations, all the time. And when anyone dares to oppose this, they scream "free speech" and "freedom of the press." It is such total bullshit.

We DON'T have a "free press" here. It is one our biggest problems. And I'm damn glad that somebody in the western hemisphere is making a serious effort to restore it--as the above-mentioned Latin American countries are obviously doing.

I have concerns about some of the vague language in Venezuela's Social Responsibility law, such as trying to regulate broadcasters as to "disturbing the public order; discrediting elected authorities; or inciting disrespect for laws" (as described above). But, a) the government--if it is fairly elected (as Venezuela's government is)--DOES have the right to regulate use of the public airwaves as to content and other purposes (as our "Fairness Doctrine" once did here), and b) Venezuela was assaulted with a U.S.-backed, rightwing, military coup d'etat that was called "the first media coup" because it was run by the corporate media! --which instigated riots and murders, supported kidnapping the elected president, forbade members of his government from speaking on TV ("free speech," huh?) and supported suspending the Constitution, the courts, the national assembly and all civil rights, while a phony coup government installed itself in power on behalf of Exxon Mobil and the rich elite; hosted meetings of the coupsters; lied for the coupsters; denied information to the public; falsified information, and banned the elected government from the public airwaves.

I think Venezuela is going in the right direction as to REAL "free speech"--and was the pioneer in our current era on this progressive policy (and so many others). They have been expansive on civil and human rights and have greatly improved public participation in Venezuela, as well as diversifying use of the public airwaves. The Chavez government is VERY democratic (as Lula da Silva, former president of Brazil, and all facts, attest to) and they have certainly NOT restricted opposition protests, speech, organizing or electioneering. However, while they have recent history in Venezuela, and past eras in Latin America (wherein the CIA instigated public disorder as the preliminary to coups) to worry about, they should probably revise this language so that an in-coming, abusive government cannot misuse it to suppress legitimate opposition or free speech.

I think of Martin Luther King regarding a phrase like "inciting disrespect for laws." What if a broadcaster encouraged a group to break a racial segregation law? To commit peaceful civil disobedience? Bear in mind that the Chavez government has worked hard on issues of racial justice. They will never be in that position--supporting racist laws, with a corporate broadcaster on the other side, supporting civil disobedience for social justice. But what if the USAID eventually succeeds in getting a rightwing government elected in Venezuela? Then the government might well use "inciting disrespect for laws"--say, if a community radio station urged civil disobedience to correct an injustice.

Users of the PUBLIC airwaves are different, it should be noted, from newspapers, or protestors in the streets. Users of the PUBLIC airwaves are licensed by the government and are often subject to restrictions of content, requirements of public service and so forth, in virtually every country in the world. When we had a "Fairness Doctrine" here, commercial broadcasters were REQUIRED to present opposing arguments, if management dared to inject themselves into a political issue. This law definitely encouraged objectivity in the news reporting and a separation between the news department and the station's business department. But it did not pertain to print media, except that it did influence print media to be more objective and also to maintain a "wall" between the news and business departments. This was all to the good.

The "Fairness Doctrine" also did not affect individuals or organized groups or movements--it ONLY affected those with licenses to use the PUBLIC airwaves. We still have some broadcast restrictions (remember Janet Jackson's breast?) though they are weak and trivial. The framework is still there to reclaim our public airwaves for the common good.

The question of government regulating the public airwaves is a settled one. Corporations do NOT have 'free speech" rights on TV/radio. Period. They shouldn't have ANY civil or human rights, but this one in particular--"free speech"--has been so misused to confuse and propagandize us all, that it needs our focus. In short, the Chavez government--as a freely and fairly elected government, clearly mandated by the People--has all the rights in this situation, to grant or not grant a license to use the public airwaves. Rich business people, media moguls and corporate monopolists have no rights, as to this, nor does anyone else. They have to satisfy government requirements for a license--and the elected government, including the elected legislatures, establish those requirements.

Still, it behoves a government, in carrying out such responsibilities, to create a fair process for licensing and also to avoid vague requirements that might lead to arbitrary decisions or repression. Clearly, the Chavez government supports, and has greatly expanded, free speech, and also has responsibilities to maintain public order and prevent coup d'etats, but I think that the vague language in the Social Responsibility law should be looked at and re-thought. A word like "disrespect" (for the law) is just too slippery. Perhaps these rules should be more specific, or perhaps the quite reasonable fears of the Venezuelan people and its legitimate government, as to "media coups," should be handled in some other way.

One more word about our late, lamented "Fairness Doctrine": It was commonly recognized, in the pre-Reagan era, that broadcasts into every home or vehicle had too much potential power to do exactly what RCTV did in Venezuela: overthrow the legitimate government. That is WHY regulation of the airwaves was instigated and the "Fair Doctrine" written. It is very important to understand this--because it has been nearly erased from our public memory, quite deliberately. And it is quite arguable that we, too, have been assaulted by "media coups" (in 2000 and 2004, for instance), as a result. They have stripped away our protections against corporate propaganda. We the People have a RIGHT to those protections in the use of OUR PUBLIC AIRWAVES.

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Reply South America: A Panorama of Media Democratization (Original post)
Peace Patriot Feb 2013 OP
ocpagu Feb 2013 #1
Bacchus4.0 Feb 2013 #2
Judi Lynn Feb 2013 #3
Bacchus4.0 Feb 2013 #4

Response to Peace Patriot (Original post)

Mon Feb 11, 2013, 01:35 PM

1. Thanks a lot for this article and your comments were right on.


As Joseph Pulitzer once said "A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will in time produce a people as base as itself." He was certainly right.

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Response to Peace Patriot (Original post)

Mon Feb 11, 2013, 02:13 PM

2. Globovision was given a citation for showing articles of the constitution

in the most recent government abuse against media they don't like. p.s. USAID is not in Venezuela.

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Response to Bacchus4.0 (Reply #2)

Mon Feb 11, 2013, 02:30 PM

3. End to USAID Spying Looms in Latin America

End to USAID Spying Looms in Latin America
Nil NIKANDROV | 26.09.2012 |

The ejection of USAID from Russia was a long-awaited and welcome development. Moscow has repeatedly warned its US partners via an array of channels of communication that the tendency of USAID to interfere with Russia's domestic affairs was unacceptable and, particularly, that the radicalism of its pet NGOs in the Caucasus would not be tolerated. When, on October 1, the decision made by the Russian leadership takes effect, the Moscow-based USAID staff which has been stubbornly ignoring the signals will have to pack and relocate to other countries facing allegations of authoritarian rule…

In Latin America, USAID has long earned a reputation of an organization whose offices are, in fact, intelligence centers scheming to undermine legitimate governments in a number of the continent's countries. The truth that USAID hosts CIA and US Defense Intelligence Agency operatives is not deeply hidden, as those seem to have played a role in every Latin American coup, providing financial, technical, and ideological support to respective oppositions. USAID also typically seeks engagement with the local armed forces and law-enforcement agencies, recruiting within them agents ready to lend a hand to the opposition when the opportunity arises.

To varying extents, all of the Latin American populist leaders felt the USAID pressure. No doubt, Venezuela's H. Chavez is the number one target on the USAID enemies list. Support for the regime's opponents in the country shrank considerably since the massive 2002-2004 protests as the nation saw the government refocus on socioeconomic issues, health care, housing construction, and youth policies. The opposition had to start relying more on campaigns in the media, around 80% of which are run by the anti-Chavez camp. Panic-provoking rumors about imminent food supply disruptions, overstated reports about the crime level in Venezuela (where, actually, there is less crime than in most countries friendly to the US), and allegations of government incompetence in response to technological disasters which became suspiciously frequent as the elections drew closer are bestowed on the audiences as a part of the subversive scenario involving a network of Venezuelan NGOs. In some cases, the membership of the latter can be limited to 3-4 people, but, coupled to strong media support, the opposition can prove to be an ominous force. Pro-Chavez commentators are worried that USAID agents will contest the outcome of the vote and, synchronously, paramilitary groups will plunge Venezuelan cities into chaos to give the US a pretext for a military intervention.

USAID is known to have contributed to the recent failed coup in Ecuador, during which president R. Correa narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. Elite police forces heavily sponsored by the US and the media which made use of the liberal free speech legislation to smear Correa were the key actors in the outbreak. Subsequently, it took Correa serious efforts to get a revised media code approved in the parliament contrary to the USAID-lobbied resistance.


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Response to Judi Lynn (Reply #3)

Mon Feb 11, 2013, 02:38 PM

4. I repeat, USAID is not in Venezuela

"Panic-provoking rumors about imminent food supply disruptions, overstated reports about the crime level in Venezuela (where, actually, there is less crime than in most countries friendly to the US), and allegations of government incompetence in response to technological disasters which became suspiciously frequent as the elections drew closer are bestowed on the audiences as a part of the subversive scenario involving a network of Venezuelan NGOs."

If any organization is talking about food supply disruptions, they are correct. It is impossible to overstate the crime level in Venezuela. The ONLY country that is friendly to the US with more crime than Ven is Honduras. Reporting on government incompetence in managing infrastructure are more frequent because the government is inept and not maintaining infrastructure. What a crap article.

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