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Diversity, Pluralism, and Concentration in the Media in the Americas: Old and New Challenges

 “The organizations that requested and attended the IACHR hearing asked that this agency, as the body authorized to interpret the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), issue the standards necessary to guide the action of governments regarding freedom of expression and concentration.”

 Aleida Calleja*/ Regional, March 2015

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In what could be described as an unprecedented development, on March 16 in the context of the 154th period of hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, both the Inter-American Press Society (which includes the owners of newspapers and media channels from the region) and a group of civil society organizations led by the Observatory on Regulation, Media, and Convergence (OBSERVACOM) attended the hearing on Diversity, Pluralism, and Concentration in the Media in the Americas. Both groups presented their perspectives on the impact of concentration on freedom of expression before the IACHR Commissions and its Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. Though it was undoubtedly a respectful dialogue, it made clear the differences in the assessment of the situation and proposals for solutions supported by the agencies that participated.

 For at least a decade, the discussion of the effect of high media concentration on freedom of expression and the right to information has been intensifying in Latin America. This concentration coupled with scant access to information limits pluralism and the diversity of perspectives, information, and opinions, restricting democratic discussion of the public matters that are of concern to society.

 This phenomenon functions like an invisible muzzle that must be analyzed from a human rights perspective given that it limits economic competition and has consequences that go much further, including impeding the right to information by keeping some voices from being heard. The number of sources of information also is limited, generating the same effect as censorship: the silence of broad and diverse sectors of society that disappear from the public agenda.

 Concentration also can lead to self-censorship by journalists and communicators, as it tends to decrease the number of entities that produce content. The contents that audiences receive are controlled by a few groups which tend to integrate economic and political interests into their activities. Concentration of the media also weakens journalists’ labor rights. When communicators do not have diverse spaces in which to develop their work, they are forced to accept the conditions that companies impose upon them. In some cases, they even have to work without sufficient protection in high risk situations, as occurs in countries such as Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala.

 The situation is even worse when large media conglomerates acquire a level of influence that allows them to influence and shape government institutions. Latin America presents dramatic examples of this, such as Brazil’s “coronelismo electrónico” in which a broad group of legislators hold radio and TV concessions, and in Mexico, where the high-ranking members of the commercial television duopoly have placed so many legislators in Congress that they outnumber some smaller political parties. In both cases, these individuals legislate in the interests of companies and not necessarily for their societies.

 This trail can be followed from Guatemala, where a single person controls 100% of open TV coverage, to Colombia, where two TV networks have 94% of the audience, and on to Peru, where one group holds 80% of the press. It continues in Chile, where a duopoly controls nearly 100% of the print media, and Brazil, where the Globo network concentrates 90% of the commercial publicity market, and in Mexico, whose open TV duopoly has 96% of the national audience. Media concentration goes beyond monopolies and oligopolies that conspire against democracy, as Principle 12 of the Statement of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the IACHR states. There is also undue concentration in production, distribution, and transmission of content and information that impede pluralism and diversity. This is exacerbated by digital transition and technological convergence processes, as the multiplication of technological platforms has not introduced a multiplication of voices, but rather the same homogenizing discourse communicated through different types of media channels.

 Diversity of perspectives and information reinforces the essential character of freedom of expression as a requirement for a democratic regime. Diversity facilitates and is interdependent with the exercise of other civil, political, social, cultural, and economic rights. Freedom of expression is a condition for transparency, the effective existence of alternatives, responsibility, and informed participation of citizens in political systems. As such, it becomes a cornerstone of democracy.

 For the past several years, countries throughout Latin America have discussed problems derived from undue concentration of the media. In some nations, legislation has been passed to limit media concentration and reverse it in some markets. However, these processes have progressed unequally, sometimes presenting distortions that render anti-concentration measures ineffective. In some cases, there has been a pendulum effect, with the situation moving from private commercial concentration to government, but not public, concentration, which also has consequences for pluralism.

 The point is that there are no guiding standards that would allow governments to establish regulations and public policies that do not only limit concentration but also reverse it in sectors in which it exists without affecting freedom of expression and establishing effective measures for guaranteeing media pluralism and diversity that ensure the broadest possible democratic debate.

As a result, the organizations [1] that requested and attended this IACHR hearing asked that the entity, as the agency authorized to interpret the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), issue the standards necessary to guide government action on freedom of expression and concentration in light of Article 13 and Principle 12 of the Statement of Principles. In this way, the standards and legislation introduced in this area could have concrete elements of interpretation for reviewing laws for compliance in order to fully guarantee freedom of expression and pluralism. This will in turn impact the exercise of other rights and the quality of democracy in the countries of the region

 It is worth noting that the Commission itself should revisit Principle 12, as the challenges that we currently face with technological changes in the information age, international experience, and best practices show that it is no longer possible to regulate concentration and monopolies with general laws on competition. Given the level of technical complexity and the implications that these technological platforms have for the exercise of freedom of expression and other rights, special laws are needed. Regulating a beer monopoly is not the same as regulating a TV monopoly. They have different natures, origins, and implications. I know that this is an extreme example, but it helps understand why it is necessary to take up this challenge.

 We hope that the IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression can address this need in the region. The report submitted and information on the hearing including photographs are available online.

 *Aleida Calleja is OBSERVACOM’s Advocacy Coordinator.

 [1] We gratefully acknowledge the work and support of Article 19-Brazil, the Mexican Right to Information Association (AMEDI), the Center for Archives and Access to Public Information (CAINFO), the Journalists’ Association of Chile, the Central American Research Institute for Social Democracy (DEMOS), the Free Press Foundation (FLIP), and Intervozes – the Brazilian Social Communication Collective. These entities promote freedom of expression in Latin America and made possible the regional hearing on Diversity, Pluralism, and Concentration in the Media in the Americas.

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