Colombia is the Wonderland of media, freedom of expression, and digital culture. We are told and we tell ourselves that we are free, that we are the most connected, the most digital. Is it true? In this article, we discuss three contexts: the elections and their collateral damage, the rhetoric of the ICTs, and the fighting among the owners of the media. We also review two agendas: that of the industry and that of the people.
Omar Rincón*/ Colombia, July 2014
The Communications Damages of the Presidential Campaign
President Santos will continue to govern until 2018. The campaign was scandalous: the winner, former President Álvaro Uribe, didn’t even run. Everything was handled through a Twitter channel through which he engaged in amplified political harassment (without context, assessment or data) through the mass media, turning tweets into facts and scandals. A famous example was the longstanding rumor of “the narcos supporting politics,” but with a new context of “hackers intercepting information.” The topic was the same as ever: war or peace with the FARC. The collateral damages for the media were varied: the poor quality of journalism that falls into sensationalism and provides little analysis, the role of the social media in dirty campaigns, and the limited presence of the media in Colombia, which goes against democratic debate.
The Falcao of the ICTs
After a 16-year absence, Colombia competed in the World Cup in 2014. However, it did so without the nationally recognized player Falcao, who is injured. President Santos calls his Minister of ICTs, Diego Molano, the “Falcao of ministers” because he describes the broadening of Internet coverage as “revolutionary.” Though the minister also has to handle television and radio, he has stated that they are unimportant and that the business of data is what counts. “When we came into office, we had 2.2 million Internet connections. We now have over 7 million,” Molano has stated. The government forecasts that Colombia will have over 8.5 million fixed (70%) and mobile (25.6%) connections by 2016 and that there will be 750 new municipalities (of the 1103 in the country) connected.
This is the discourse. The reality is different. Currently, the service has a penetration of 17% throughout the country and there is no service (penetration of less than 1%) in four of the country’s 32 regions. The fiction is that the Internet democratizes access to communications. Reality shows that 44% of Colombians do not have access to the Internet at home because they pay one of the highest rates in the region: US$35 per month compared to $25 in Chile, $20 in the U.S. and $17 in Brazil.
The TDT Faces Off Against Cable Companies
Colombia has had Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) for five years, but that is an act of faith: no one has seen it. The reports say that it is available in 60% of the country, though there is a complete lack of information on the use of this technology because “digital television” tends to be confused with “high definition” or HD. When the World Cup began, there was a dispute over rights between public and private channels (Caracol and RCN) and cable systems (Claro, Une, Movistar, Directv, ETB). Caracol and RCN have invested over US$65 million in making the transition so that they can broadcast in DTT. The National TV Authority (ANTV), which regulates television and manages public television in Colombia, has spent US$25 million. Private channels filed a complaint with the Office of the Superintendent of Industry and Commerce against cable operators because they offer high definition service without paying for the rights. The body sided with the plaintiff and ordered cable operators to disconnect the signal from those channels.
The channels offered their services for free for a period of time, arguing that the television law states that all TV operators must broadcast through local public and private open channels. Private channels know that if they do not go through cable services, they lose half of their audience, but they also know that their major competition is cable operators, and they are seeking protection from the government.
Today, eight out of every ten Colombians has access to pay TV, and 46% of that market uses the company Claro. In order to see DTT, they must: 1) be in one of the areas of coverage, which is less than 10% of the country in 2014 according to the official Website; 2) purchase a television that is adapted with the European DBV-T2 digital standard; and 3) purchase a decoder, which costs between US$80 and 100.
The Future Business Agenda
Santos has plans for Colombia to join the OECD, but that body has stated that the following priority issues must be addressed:
- Reorganization of the communications system. Santos eliminated the National Television Commission and its functions were distributed to five separate entities, one of them ANTV, while the OECD suggests that a stronger regulatory agency must be designed.
- Independence of the regulatory agency. The Communications Regulation Commission (CRC) is composed of five members, and two of them are members of the government. This affects the entity’s independence.
- Lower concentration in the sector. Claro holds 60% of the cellular telephony market and Claro and RCN are the only open television operators.
- Lower rates. Mobile telephony, Internet and cable rates are very high compared to Colombians’ buying power.
- Democratization of infrastructure. Blocks of the spectrum should be reserved for smaller operators in order to promote competition.
- Close the digital divide. The inequality in access to technologies between urban and rural areas is alarming.
The Citizen Agenda
The individuals and movements that work in favor of democratizing communications have identified several priorities. These include:
- The Media Law. There is a need to create a media system law in which all of the communications sectors are connected and systematized in a convergent manner.
- Respect for the citizen-consumer. The greatest complaint among those working for reform in this area in Colombia is the poor quality of cellular telephony and Internet service. The public wants to have an official agency that defends its interests in regard to both quality and price.
- Control over monopolies in the media sector. The country’s most powerful entrepreneurs own the TV stations, radio stations and newspapers. There should be a law that prohibits cross-ownership.
- Opening one or two private TV channels. Private channels have judicialized and boycotted any initiative to call for bids on new channels.
- Freedom of expression. Colombia needs to dejudicialize and stop violence against journalists. There is also a need to prepare journalists and the media for the post-conflict reality. The best way to do this is to democratize ownership of the media and expand the number of media outlets.
- Community and citizen media. The government must address the problem of funding community media outlets through a decree that states that public entities are to reserve a percentage of their space for community media.
- The public media system. There are eight regional public channels, two national channels, two public radio channels and one digital media system in Colombia. However, there is no law to organize the sector. There should a single authority on public media that works as a system.
- Internet Law. There is a need to create public policy on the right to the Internet that is in line with the Brazilian civil framework. There have been efforts to establish control of contents and commercials since the Uribe administration.
- Digital content. There is a delay in the production of digital content, applications and transmedia products. A significant effort must be made to make the ICT dream a reality.
- Production industry. There is an urgent need to increase the demand for labor in the media.
- Respect for labor rights. The creation of unions and professional associations for the professionals who work in this sector should be encouraged so that they can defend their right to decent employment.
Omar Rincón, Director of the Center for the Study of Journalism –CEPER- Universidad de los Andes, Colombia; Analyst for El Tiempo, mediosencolombia.com and razonpublica.com.