ICTs can foster innovation and open channels for expanding public dialogue, but this is not the case for the Central American region due to the scarcity of public policies designed to guarantee access to and the use and appropriation of ICTs.
Oscar A. Pérez and Andrea Cristancho*/El Salvador/December 2016
The reflections on and discussion of public policies on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Central America make it clear that there is a need for the region’s governments to promote an institutional and regulatory change that allows for the equitable and inclusive use of, access to and appropriation of ICTs by the public.
Some of these reflections and discussions are advanced by Fundación Comunicándonos of El Salvador through the research project “Central America: Democracy Unplugged“, which, among other topics, addresses “The Right to Communication in the Digital Environment: Implications for the Exercise of Citizenship.” The authors use the concept of the digital ecosystem, a model developed by the World Bank which shows how a partial approach to public policy on ICTs limits their impact and only allows them to benefit small groups within the population.
As the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations entity that helps states to regulate telecommunications, has noted in its journal, the gap in broadband among developed and developing nations continues to be significant, with 82% and 21% penetration, respectively. The ITU also has said that although there were 3 billion people around the world with access to the Internet in late 2014, at least 4.3 billion did not have access to online services, 90% of whom live in developing countries (aunque a finales de 2014 había en todo en el mundo 3.000 millones de personas que tenían acceso a servicios de internet en línea, al menos 4.300 millones de personas no disponían de acceso a servicios en línea, de los que el 90 % viven en países en desarrollo)”, such as those in Central America.
Let’s take a quick look at the positions of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua in 2014. We will use some of the Broadband Development Indexes analyzed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). These figures suggest that the number of mobile phones in these nations is equal to or greater than the number of people –but that does not prove that this Central American population is connected or has a balance or credits that would allow them to use all those smart phones. Having several phones is not the same as having a balance that allows you to access data or the Internet.
The IDB also has stated that the percentages of Central American households that had access to the Internet in 2014 were as follows: Guatemala, 9.3%; El Salvador, 12.7%; Honduras 16.4%; and Nicaragua, 9.4%. In regard to Internet access in schools, Guatemala had 3.26%; El Salvador, 3.67%; Honduras, 3.11%; and Nicaragua, 3.46%. The IDB stated in regard to public policies and regulation of ICT issues, Central American states had not yet designed a National Broadband Plan in 2014.
It has always been noted –and governments insist on this- that ICTs have configured an optimal scenario for the exercise of citizenship and the demand for fundamental rights because they allow members of the public to freely and directly express themselves. ICTs also offer conditions for innovation and open up channels for the expansion of public dialogue. But this is not the case in Central America, where large vulnerable sectors still cannot benefit from this opportunity due to a lack of public policies that guarantee their access to, use of and appropriation of them. In Central America, the discussion of ICT public policies has been timid and focused on technical aspects, ignoring their democratic implications and the opportunity to strengthen the right to communication and improvement of the quality of democracy in the region.
This explains that in the four countries examined (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador), ICTs do not play a key role in administrative organization because the various dimensions of the policy are handled by different institutions and focus on different issues. As such, the absence of comprehensive public policies and a normative framework that recognizes their importance in democratic development expands inequity and exclusion among the different sectors in Central America.
Some of the conclusions that this important regional analysis conducted by Fundación Comunicándonos presents is that the market benefits the most from the potential of ICTs because this sector has incorporated technology into its companies. In short, Central American states must face the urgent task of working on comprehensive public policies on ICTs. If they fail to do so, they will expand the exclusion of sectors that cannot access the benefits of the simple interaction of supply and demand.
There is no doubt that the development of ICTs represents an opportunity for the exercise of freedom of expression and the right to communication. ICTs allow the population to play a leading role in the development of communications processes and impact public policies in the defense and promotion of human rights. One must not leave aside the fact that public policies on ICTs also impact the media, particularly when we are talking about the transition from the analog system to digitalization of radio and TV. This digitalization process is directly related to the enjoyment of human rights and not only to market interests.
As such, it is urgent for Central American nations to formulate public policies on ICTs based on principles of equity, inclusion and respect for human rights, ensuring that they guarantee the plurality of voices and open up spaces for respect for the people’s right to communication.
*President-Director of Fundación Comunicándonos and AMARC Representative for Central America. Associate Researcher with Fundación Comunicándonos and Director of the Master’s degree program in Communications at Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), San Salvador